Pace Gallery’s Marc Glimcher on his family business, NFTs and vaccines
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Inheriting an art gallery — a complex business based on relationships — is never easy. Turning one from something well-regarded into an international mega-player is even rarer. For Marc Glimcher, president and chief executive of Pace, the ride has not been straightforward but, as he opens a landmark space in London this week, it has not been unsuccessful either.
His parents, Arne and Milly Glimcher, founded Pace in Boston in 1960, three years before Marc was born. By the time their younger son joined the gallery in 1985, Arne was a New York tastemaker who represented radical artists including Robert Irwin and Agnes Martin, as well as the estate of Mark Rothko.
Art had not been the first-choice career for Glimcher, who seemed set to become a scientist, studying biology, as well as art history and religion, at Harvard. When he did join the family business soon after, it was “despite my father’s objections”, he says over dinner in London. But the junior Glimcher impressed with his first show of Picasso’s private sketchbooks, Je suis le cahier, which then toured museums around the world.
The call of science was still strong and Glimcher decided to leave the art world to study molecular biology at Johns Hopkins University. Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and a friend of Glimcher’s since the early 1990s, says, “A fundamental part of [his] character has been questioning whether or not he should be in the art world. He has such a broad-ranging knowledge, the whole family is the same.”
Glimcher’s speciality at Johns Hopkins was immunology and vaccine design, the irony of which is not now lost on him. “It would have been great but, spoiler alert, I did not finish. In fact, I almost blew up the top floor of the research centre, though very little radiation actually escaped,” he says, with characteristic offbeat humour. So, he asked his father for his job back — “a recurring theme” — and helped to found a Pace space in Los Angeles and bring in younger artists such George Condo (now represented elsewhere).
He departed the gallery again in 1999, this time to go with his first wife (of three) and two young children to be a science teacher in New Mexico and to deliver vaccines during the Aids crisis in Malawi. “At the time, my father and I found a way to disagree about everything,” Glimcher says. But the complex father-son relationship has done much to drive Pace’s success: “As the child, you are always pushing.” Two years later, he was back at Pace. “This was when I decided what I wanted to do when I grew up,” he says.
The opening shows in its new 11,000 sq ft space in London’s Hanover Square, beautifully renovated by Jamie Fobert Architects, sum up the generational transition. On the ground floor are more than 20 ethereal late works on paper by Rothko, who had been a friend of Arne Glimcher. The downstairs gallery updates the vibe, with a collaborative performance and multimedia installation by the Chicago-born artist Torkwase Dyson, for which the gallery is also releasing its own limited-edition dubplate recording (both exhibitions open October 8).
Glimcher’s “always pushing” mindset has perhaps spurred Pace’s openness to new thinking. “We had computers, email, even a digital inventory system in the 1990s, when dealers were still carrying index cards and transparencies in their valises,” he says. More recently, Pace has launched its own NFT platform, believed to have helped lure Jeff Koons from rival mega-galleries Gagosian and David Zwirner earlier this year. Glimcher plays down the significance: “It’s not that expensive to set up an NFT platform. But artists are interested in it, so let’s see what it is.”
Pace has also taken risks with its locations. In 2008, the gallery’s first overseas expansion was in Beijing, a rare move for a western gallery. This ran for 11 years and helped promote artists including Zhang Xiaogang and Qiu Xiaofei. While business proved too difficult to conduct in mainland China, the gallery still has a large space in Hong Kong and was an early entrant into Seoul, a city that is now a magnet for the art market and where Frieze launches a fair next year. Japan seems a natural next destination for a gallery that represents market-darling Yoshitomo Nara, but when I float the idea of a new gallery in Tokyo, Glimcher is deftly evasive.
Perhaps Pace’s most dramatic innovation is Superblue, which Glimcher began as an experiential experiment in its Palo Alto gallery in 2016. For this, the gallery charged a $20 entry fee to see ambitious, immersive art by the Japanese collective TeamLab — a very different approach from selling one object to one wealthy buyer. “I thought it was a crazy idea to sell tickets. But 250,000 people later, I was pretty convinced,” Glimcher says. The venture has since spun off into its own entity, in which Glimcher is the largest shareholder, and Superblue opens its first London centre this week with the artist duo AA Murakami — in Pace’s old space behind the Royal Academy in Burlington Gardens (from October 12).
Riding the art-market boom, Pace now has a staff of 280 worldwide versus about 30 when Glimcher started out. Its communications team is bigger than its sales force, he notes, a sign of the times. The gallery is in eight cities around the world and its branded business areas include Pace Live, Pace Publishing and even Pace African & Oceanic Art, though the latter is no longer owned by the gallery. Pace’s flagship 75,000 sq ft New York space includes a theatre, library and a dining room — visitors could easily spend half a day there.
But Glimcher resists the notion that Pace is spreading itself too thin. “An art gallery can’t be everything to everyone. How boring would that be?” Nor does he have much to say about his own succession. “It would be so exciting if any of [his five children] wanted to be a part of [the gallery], but I don’t see Pace as a cult of one personality, it is about a broad group of people.”
The delivery systems may have changed, but the traditional role of a gallery protecting its artists persists, he says. “Helping an artist grow is arguably a more major responsibility in the 21st century. They are subject to rapidly escalating demands that no artist has ever had to manage before.” He is grateful for the opportunity. “Someone told me, you have to kill your father before you love him. If you are lucky, then you realise that what he created is not something to get rid of, it is something to build on.”