Arne Glimcher, the Art World’s Original Pacemaker, Is Starting Over at 84

In the middle of 2021, Arne Glimcher, the 84-year-old founder of Pace Gallery, the oldest of the global mega-galleries, was standing in front of an abandoned storefront on Broadway below Canal Street. It was a block from the famous semi-legal street markets selling counterfeit Gucci bags, a stretch of Broadway where the last edges of Chinatown meld into Tribeca. After stepping up to the abandoned space, the octogenarian art dealer asked his son Mark, who now runs the shop his father started at the age of 21 in 1960, what he thought of the place.

As Marc looked inside, he noticed that there were architects milling around and that the raw square footage was being primed for a very specific thing: a gallery.

“I saw him start to pale—he realized it was real,” Glimcher told me in September of this year. “So he said, ‘Dad, this is not the most elegant neighborhood. The streets are dirty. It’s this corner of Broadway. There are all kinds of people.’ He said, ‘You’re a very elegant man.’ He said, ‘Do you belong here?’”

Then Glimcher, grinning, sat up in his chair.

“And then, flattering me, he said, ‘Does the most famous art dealer in the world belong down here? I think you’re much better off uptown.’ I said, ‘Marc, I’ve rented the place.’ So he was shocked, but it just happened spontaneously. But my whole life happened spontaneously.”

We were chatting not in Tribeca but in Glimcher’s office at the Pace headquarters in Chelsea, a corner spot on the fourth floor of a five-story behemoth, his desk scattered with framed snapshots of Arne Glimcher with his family, or Arne Glimcher with David Hockney. There was a giant Chuck Close painting behind his desk—Glimcher told me if I squinted at the pixelated Close, I’d see that it was a portrait of him; but really, you didn’t have to squint, as it was pretty clear. The face in the portrait betrayed the same sense of earned bemusement as the face of the old-world art dealer who sat in front of me, the same tip-top-shape elder statesman who showed his age dele only when he stopped mid-convo to pop a cough drop.

Next week the storefront will open as Gallery 125 Newbury, a space technically under the Pace umbrella but operated separately by Papa Glimcher and his small team. The inaugural group show has works from artists long loyal to his gallery by him —Kiki Smith, Lucas Samaras, Zhang Huan—as well as works from those who have never shown with Pace, artists Glimcher has admired but never worked with: Alex Da Corte, Robert Gober, Max Hooper Schneider. The doors swing open next Friday, followed by a dinner at—where else?—Mr. Chow.

“Michael and I go back a very long way,” he said, referring to Michael Chow, Peking-duck-slinger to the art stars. “I was at the opening of his first restaurant in London.”

Arne Glimcher goes back with everyone, having spent the last six decades ruling over his perch at the old Pace headquarters on 57th Street, along with a yearslong stint making movies in Hollywood, a pretty much unheard-of swerve at the time for an art gallery owner—even if the movie moguls he worked with became Pace Gallery clients. He spent nearly a decade devoted to developing the Pace business in China, an effort that ended when the Beijing gallery closed in 2019 amid political turmoil. And along the way he gradually gave up the gallery to his son, basically content to maintain a full dance card out east, hosting friends at his East Hampton estate with a sprawling sculpture garden.

That seemingly content, laid-back retirement is over as of this month—and in no half measure. Glimcher’s corner space is in the hippest art nabe in the town, a new gallery competing with the dozen or so upstart galleries showing in-demand young artists, all within spitting distance. And, I kid you not, the founder of Pace Gallery will be taking turns working the front desk. Why on earth would he do that?

“Well, it’s my gallery,” he said.

In 1960, Arne Glimcher was a 21-year-old student at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, about to enroll in an MFA program at Boston University alongside, among other students, a 20-something fellow Brice Marden. Glimcher was a good artist. “Today mediocrity is all over the board and heralded. I go from gallery to gallery and I see all the things I made in art school, and I was better than most of these shows,” he told me—but, he added, “I was not Leonardo, I was not Picasso.”

One day, while walking down Newbury Street, the famous shopping corridor in Back Bay, he saw an abandoned storefront. He thought it would be a nice spot for a gallery, and his brother urged him to take the plunge. He borrowed money from his brother and named the gallery after his father, Pace, an immigrant cattle rancher who moved his family from Minnesota to Boston at the urging of Glimcher’s culture-hungry mother. His father had just died. As it happened, the Glimcher family was strolling down Newbury Street the day after the funeral.

Things were slow at first—he sold some prints and shipped up a few small works consigned by galleries in New York. “We were playing to a tiny audience, and anytime we sold something, it was a miracle,” he said. After a few years in business, he moved to New York, the center of the universe, and scored a coup when he convinced Louise Nevelson to join the gallery, buying her out of her from megadealer Sidney Janis.

At that time, Leo Castelli had cornered the market on American masters like Rauschenberg and Johns, and then conquered the Pop masters: Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rosenquist. Glimcher instead went west, bringing to the New York scene the radical conceptual sculptures of Robert Irwin and James Turrell. Across the pond, he befriended the Swiss megadealer Ernst Beyeler, one of the founders of the Art Basel fair, who fixed up a meeting with Jean Dubuffet—the art brut master was a big fan of Louise Nevelson and wanted to meet her fresh-faced dealer.

As Glimcher recalled, they had lunch in Paris, and Nevelson’s faith in Glimcher pushed him over the edge. “Une dame extraordinaire, j’adore Nevelson,” Dubuffet said, stunning Glimcher by coming aboard Pace Gallery.

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