A Brush With Billions

The flash downpour that whipped through Manhattan Thursday night did not dampen the mood in Chelsea, where hundreds of revelers toasted the 50th anniversary of the Pace Gallery.

Chuck Close, Arne Glimcher, and Milly Glimcher
Photo: Billy Farrell Agency
Chuck Close, Arne Glimcher, and Milly Glimcher

Against a backdrop of works by Warhol and Mondrian, legendary artists such as Chuck Close, Jim Dine, and Claes Oldenberg (all of whom are represented by the gallery) greeted longtime collectors, including billionaires Eli Broad and Estee Lauder Chairman Emeritus Leonard Lauder. A quick calculus of the room (both the artwork and the net worth of those in it) yielded a tally well over $10 billion.

Pace Founder Arne Glimcher merrily surveyed the scene, and remarked how the art world has changed.

"When I got into this, there was no art business," he said. "We were amazed if we made a sale." He recounted how, years ago, he had trouble generating interest in a sculpture by Alberto Giacometti. "I bought it in 1964 for a few thousand dollars, and had to hold onto it for three years."

He sold the piece, L'homme Qui Marche, to the Art Institute of Chicago for $53,000. Recently, a similar cast fetched a record $104 million at auction.

Glimcher often demurs when asked about the business of art — his view is that the best art is actually priceless. But despite that — or perhaps because of it — Glimcher has had a Midas touch: he and the Pace Gallery have been connected to many record-breaking sales. In 1980, Glimcher was the first dealer to sell a painting by a living artist for over $1 million. Today, that artwork (Jasper Johns' "Three Flags") is valued at over $100 million.

A recent study in Art & Auction underscores the power of art as an investment: if you had spent $100,000 in a Picasso in 1960, the year Pace launched, you'd have handily beaten similar outlays in both gold and the S&P.

But as Leonard Lauder, who also chairs the Whitney Museum, insists, it has to be the right art. "If it's quality, it goes up. Low quality is having a hard time. That's true now, and it was true 50 years ago."

While there was much shoulder-clapping going on, Chuck Close was in a more reflective mood. "I'm sad to see what's happened to the art world. When I started, when artists got together at Max's Kansas City, they didn't talk about sales or real estate or their summer houses. It was about the art itself."

He added that the economic downturn was pressuring young artists both financially and creatively, to the point where some have resorted to "appropriation". To succeed, he said, emerging artists must spend time in the studio, not try to be businessmen. "It's always been serendipity when the art world wants what you make."

Close and his peers are proof of that serendipity. "We never thought we'd make a nickel," he confided. For his part, Glimcher had similar expectations of his own career. "I never expected to make a living. I got into this world because I love art and artists."

Fifty years later, Glimcher, and the artists he championed, are the very picture of success.

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