On the eve of his gallery’s 50th anniversary, Arne Glimcher, one of the most powerful figures in the art world, is reminiscing about his humble beginnings.

 

“No matter what happens in your career, for me, it’s where you start,” said Glimcher, whose own story involves a restless graduate student, $2,499 in borrowed cash and an empty storefront on Newbury Street in Boston. The gallery unveiled there in 1960 was named after Glimcher’s cattle rancher father, Pace, who died that year.

 

“When I opened my gallery in Boston, there was no hope of selling anything,” he said. “We wanted a life in art. We wanted to live with the artists.”

 

Glimcher, who was friendly with Andy Warhol, got some works from the artist to sell in Boston. The show of Pop Art was a success. “We were selling [Warhol’s] Marilyn Monroe paintings for $250 and Claes Oldenburg sculptures for $150,” he said. “We thought it was a miracle.”

 

Three years later, Glimcher moved Pace to Manhattan. It settled at 32 East 57th Street, expanding to new gallery space in 1990 in SoHo and Chelsea in 2001.

 

In college, Glimcher wanted to be a painter or museum director. “For me, I wasn’t good enough,” he said of painting. “I seemed to be good enough for everyone else. To be an artist, you can’t be too intellectually questioning of the work.”

 

Yet Glimcher’s thematic exhibitions have never stinted on scholarship. At Pace in 2007, he curated “Picasso, Braque and Early Film in Cubism.” A documentary directed by Glimcher, “Picasso and Braque Go to the Movies,” revisited the artists and the influence of aviation and technology in their work.

 

For the last two years, Glimcher has been assembling his favorite works for the 50th anniversary blockbuster exhibition. The preview is today. It’s a massive undertaking that requires patience, diplomacy and charm to convince private collectors and museums to lend their most important works, and Glimcher has had a high success rate. “We have Louise Nevelson, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and one of the greatest Dubuffets that came from the Pompidou Center in Paris,” he said. “We have paintings that show the end of Cubist influence in de Kooning’s work and we have 11 Picassos in the show.”

 

The one painting Glimcher knew he had to have was Jasper Johns’ “Three Flags.” It was one of the most difficult to get. Glimcher has a unique relationship with “Three Flags,” having sold it in 1980 for $1 million — at the time, the highest price ever paid for the work of a living artist.  Glimcher said there was a very interested buyer in Germany, but he felt strongly that it belonged in the U.S., specifically at the Whitney Museum of Art. “I got together with [then chairman of the museum] Leonard Lauder and we put together $1 million. That painting has become emblematic of the Whitney itself. To take it off display took a lot of convincing and the help of some of the trustees.”

 

Such is Glimcher’s sphere of power and influence.

 

He isn’t afraid to flout convention, either. Pace was the first gallery to mount a show of Picasso’s later works in 1981, when “no one would look at the work,” he said. “It was considered the ramblings of an old man. Even [art critic] John Richardson” was unimpressed.

 

Glimcher is less than impressed by some of today’s artists. “The Western narrative is over,” he said. “Take Damien Hirst — the narrative is money. China is the most exciting thing for me since Abstract Expressionism.”

 

Pace was the first major Manhattan gallery to enter China when it opened a space in Beijing in 2008.

 

He continues to pursue his career in film. Having produced “Legal Eagles” and “Gorillas in the Mist,” Glimcher moved on to direct “Just Cause” and “Mambo Kings.” “I would love to make a narrative love story in China set in the art world,” he said. “I’m even toying with the idea of doing it Mandarin.”

 

Glimcher is drawn to China for “the optimism and energy there. It’s like the U.S. in the Sixties,” he said. And the Sixties is that golden era to which Glimcher always comes back. “Some people think it’s an empire,” he said of Pace. “To me, it’s still 125 Newbury Street.”

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