The Art Of The Dealer

PaceWildenstein gallery. The main exhibition gallery with its blinding white walls is a formidable backdrop for the oversize canvases and sculpture that make up the core collection. Old masters, contemporary prints, photographs, and African art fill six other floors. "It's a one-stop aesthetic experience," says Richard Solomon, who runs the print gallery. It's "the General Motors of the industry," says B. William Fine, executive vice-president of Brant Publications, publisher of Art in America. There's something for everyone.

PaceWildenstein is a well-staged production that goes into action the minute a prospective client walks in. One of the chic young staffers, heels clattering on the blond wood floor, pauses beside a bronze reclining nude while she sizes me up. Unfortunately for her, I'm just a reporter, not a potential buyer.

From a simple color print to a Picasso, works sell for $500 to $5 million and bring in some $40 million to $100 million a year. That puts PaceWildenstein in the forefront of an elite group of New York dealers that includes Marlborough and Andre Emmerich. Arnold Glimcher, Pace's founder and president, brushes aside questions about commerce as slightly distasteful. "Money embarrasses me," he says.

Success does not. Through Glimcher's adroit management, Pace came through the early 1990s unscathed. After the go-go '80s wound down and recession set in, speculators and members of the luxury class dropped out of the market. Some 15% of the city's galleries closed, including Coe-Kerr, Perry Rubenstein, and Brooke Alexander. Others, such as Terry Dintenfass, a prominent dealer in contemporary painting, merged.

Today, PaceWildenstein is the Establishment. But just a decade ago, when I worked across the street at Pierre Matisse Gallery, owned by the son of painter Henri Matisse, my boss thought Glimcher was a bit of an upstart. At 83, Mr. Matisse--I would not have dared call him anything else--was a Proust-like figure, guarded from the public by an officious, mustachioed director who spoke brisk French to the gallery's tiny white dog, Song Song. Speculators, as well as buyers who wandered in off the streets, were gently discouraged. Mr. Matisse sold to a handful of clients, explaining that art should go to caretakers who could be trusted to loan it to museums and preserve it for future generations.

SECOND CAREER. The gregarious Glimcher--he insists I call him Arne--has never had such reservations. But he hasn't let himself go overboard, either, which is why he has survived. While he is known for aggressiveness--poaching artists from other dealers and taking on financial partners to back expansion into new markets--Glimcher also avoids the speculative excesses that helped kill off some rivals. He tries to build gradually a sustainable market for an artist's work. By selling pieces to museums, for instance, he promotes the artist's reputation and lessens exposure to market gyrations as speculators drop in and out.

Unlike Mr. Matisse, who discovered new talent--he befriended surrealist Joan Mir when he was an unknown--Glimcher is known for grooming established artists. "I've been told I'm a good midcareer manager," he says.

Ask Chuck Close, who says that when he signed with Glimcher in 1977, "Arne spent the first 30 minutes telling me what was wrong with my career and the next 45 minutes telling me what he was going to do about it." Since then, Close paintings have doubled in price, to as much as $400,000. Glimcher also sustained the market when illness left Close temporarily unable to work.

Another key to Glimcher's success is courting and educating a wealthy clientele, including many celebrities he meets in his second career--the movies. He directed The Mambo Kings and produced Gorillas in the Mist. Among his clients is Michael Ovitz, the Creative Artists Agency Inc. superagent who just signed on as president of Walt Disney Co. Ovitz' eclectic collection includes both a Rembrandt and a De Kooning. Glimcher himself is a CAA client.

Others use the same techniques, of course. One of Glimcher's toughest rivals is Larry Gagosian, a scrappy New York dealer of contemporary painters, known for his voracious appetite for making deals. "Larry is primarily interested in a deal, and Arne doesn't confuse a deal with a long-term relationship," says New York art dealer Mary Boone.

"INSTANT CACHET." Two years ago, Glimcher cemented his lead when he merged Pace, founded in 1960, with Wildenstein Gallery, a 118-year-old dealer of traditional European art. That gave Glimcher access to Wildenstein's worldwide markets. The next step is the opening of a West Coast branch, PaceWildenstein Los Angeles, on Sept. 28--just weeks ahead of the scheduled debut of the Larry Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills.

"There's a tremendous base of enormously powerful people out there," says literary agent Morton L. Janklow. "For them, art can mean instant cachet, and they don't hesitate to spend very big money." PaceWildenstein will offer pricey paintings by Close, known for his portraits of celebrities and friends, done in large dots of color. Gagosian artists include Frank Stella, maker of huge metal sculptures. The dueling dealers have rivals for clients, too. David Geffen, an Ovitz competitor, buys from Gagosian.

Back in New York, Glimcher is launching another expansion--this one demographic. He's putting his son Marc, 32, in charge of recruiting a new generation of collectors. "The new wave here at the gallery is all in their thirties, my son's age. I'm getting to be an old man," says Arne, 56. Marc Glimcher uses his unassuming personal style to build a following of young clients, many of whom are novices. "The new generation of collectors wants to be educated," says Marc, who encourages them to start with inexpensive prints and drawings, then move up to the high-priced stuff.

While the elder Glimcher concentrates on established clients, Marc cultivates their children and even their employees. Jay Moloney, a Creative Artists agent, was an Ovitz assistant when Marc began working with him. Marc recently sold him a Close painting, jumping him over others on a waiting list. "It was important to have the work in the home of a young collector" instead of a speculator, Marc explains.

These young collectors can be a tough sell, but in the end, like their parents and bosses, they buy. "What happened there?" Arne asks, pointing to an empty space on the toast-colored wall of his office. "It's sold," replies Marc. The elder Glimcher nods approvingly.

Like his father, Marc understands that sales are what the business is all about. Still, having known Mr. Matisse, who died in 1989, I hope that Marc is instilling in his new collectors the sense that they are only temporary guardians of art for generations to come.