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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Richard Solomon

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-02-24

A mile from where Richard Solomon was having lunch yesterday, the annual "Art Show" organized by the Art Dealers Association of America was in full swing.

It would have been understandable had Mr. Solomon, president of the 44-year-old association been a tad tired, or just a bit jittery, as he savored a cheeseburger and salad. This was, after all, the most important event for him in a year that typically has the New York-born president of Pace Prints jetting to major art fairs in Basle, Miami, Los Angeles, London, and Chicago.

It would have been understandable had Mr. Solomon been still recovering from the previous night's that had drawn 1,900 guests who contributed $1.1 million to benefit the Henry Street Settlement, one of New York's most prominent art and social-services agencies. By the time the art show wraps up its 18th annual edition next Monday, some 12,000 visitors - among them America's wealthiest art collectors - would have coursed through the Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue and 67th Street.

But Mr. Solomon was bursting with good cheer.

"Actually," Mr. Solomon said with a wry smile, "I'm relieved. I have just about another four months left in this job. A three-year term is enough."

During his term, he has represented the interests of 160 art dealers, the best known and most connected of art purveyors, who pay $1,500 annually for the privilege of being members of an association that promotes scholarship and connoisseurship, and sets ethical standards. The membership dues, along with proceeds from the art show, account for the not-for-profit organization's annual budget that Mr. Solomon mischievously puts as "Have a good day!"

His sense of humor, often projected with a perfectly straight face, comes handy when the annual art show is held.

That's because not all the association's 160 members get a shot at exhibiting the paintings, prints, sculpture and photographs that they offer from names such as Picasso, Alex Katz, Dubuffet, Claes Oldenberg, Norman Bluhm, James Rosenquist, Helen Frankenthaler, Louise Nevelson, David Hockney, Gerhard Richter, Alec Soth, Marcel Duchamp, Jean Arp, and Odd Nerdrum.

"We're like the Oscars ceremony- everybody wants in," Mr. Solomon said, discreetly adding that only 100 members apply each year to compete for the 24-foot-by-12-foot booths at the armory.

So how does he handle the competition? And the opprobrium that inevitably gets directed at him once the final 70 exhibitors are selected?

"I duck!" Mr. Solomon said. 'What can I tell you? Life is unfair."

While some of the association's dealers may rue the fact that life is indeed unfair - at least when it comes to accommodation at the Armory- they're scarcely discouraged enough to depart the art scene altogether.

"Why? Well, the art world is becoming expansive by the day," Mr. Solomon said. "Hedge-fund managers, brokers, traders, bankers - more and more wealth is being created. And everybody wants the best art that money can buy. Every person of means wants to develop a collection. So we welcome everybody. What a show like ours offers is openness. Auction houses can be intimidating. But our event is like a convention. Dealers networking with other dealers - even with those whom they envy. Collectors rub shoulders with other collectors."

After lunch, Mr. Solomon showed the reporter just how much shoulder running was occurring at the Armory.

The chairman and CEO of Morgan Stanley, John Mack, was rubbing shoulders with his wife. The actress Glenn Close was there. So was the comedian Jerry Stiller. Other boldface names quietly moved through the booths, picking up catalogues and chatting with exhibitors. Blair Underwood, Peter Brant and Stephanie Seymour, Morley Safer, Donald Marron - it would have been quite possible for a celebrity autograph seeker to obtain enough treasures to fill a notebook or two.

But the glitterati weren't flouncing around for attention. There was seriousness in the air.

That seriousness, said Mr. Solomon, would translate into substantial sales.

Any figures?

Mr. Solomon smiled broadly.

"Have a good day!" he said.

Not far from him was Marc Glimcher, president of PaceWildenstein. He, too, was smiling.

"We always do well at the show each year," Mr. Glimcher said. "Dealers and collectors find this a stimulating experience. Every year I meet new collectors. And collectors meet new collectors."

This year Mr. Glimcher's booth featured landscapes of Maine by Alex Katz. Unlike other exhibitors, Mr. Glimcher - son of the legendary art dealer Arne Glimcher - usually selects to display the work of just one artist at the show.

His earlier selections included Alexander Calder, Noguchi and Steinberg.
At another booth, Roland Augustine, chairman of the show's committee for 2006, was expansively discussing Gregory Crewdson's gelatin silver prints.
And not far away was Mr. Solomon's own booth for Pace Prints, where he's president.

The art he displayed was created by Picasso when he lives in the South of France between 1959 and 1962. It consisted of linoleum cuts, each vibrant and striking, each juxtaposing conventional iconographic objects with the electric light bulb.

There was one work, in particular, at which Mr. Solomon focused his gaze.
It was titled "Nature morte au verre sous la lampe," or "Still Life with a Lamp."

Its price?

"Have a good day!" Mr. Solomon said. "Collectors come here to buy treasures."

Then he whispered that elsewhere at the show a Barnett Newman painting was being offered for $14 million, and prints that fetched $40,000 two years ago were now going for $250,000.

"Have a good day!" Mr. Solomon said again.

While his humor is ubiquitous, Mr. Solomon also displays gravitas when it comes to discussing how the art world had evolved over the last decade, and how collecting had become a multi-billion-dollar business. (Business talk comes easily to Mr. Solomon - he has an MBA from Harvard; his father Sidney was head of Abraham & Straus.)

This evolution, he said, was essential to understanding why it is that the annual Armory art show is successful.

"It used to be that people collected art in a more restrictive way - the art went into museums, into people's second homes for private enjoyment," Mr. Solomon said. "How many photographic collections were there? And video art?"

Then he paused.

"The field has changed dramatically," Mr. Solomon said. "Now we know no gallery that doesn't feature photography exhibits, video art, and all sorts of displays that would have been unthinkable a decade ago."

Precisely because of this explosion in popular interest in art, he said, it was important that the Art Dealers Association of America paid greater attention to the authenticity of what came on the market.

"That's why we conduct appraisals," Mr. Solomon said. "Auction houses used to get all the publicity because of their vast resources in appraising art. Art dealers felt left behind. Now dealers feel they can hold their own - and our association helps strengthen their position through the vigorous peer-driven appraisals that we conduct."

Beyond tending to the technology of art, Mr. Solomon's association works with policy-makers and federal agencies on public issues. These include lobbying for better breaks for estates of artists, and for tax amelioration for those who inherit valuable art.

"We are a trade organization - and every trade organization has a responsibility to represent its constituency when it comes to public policy," Mr. Solomon said. "All that dealers and collectors are asking is for a better deal for everybody."

But can art ultimately be truly measured by dollars and cents, the reporter asked?

"Good question," Mr. Solomon said. "Ultimately, art has to generate excitement in dealer and buyer alike. It has to be visually and intellectually stimulating. It doesn't matter what it costs."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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