Untitled by Saul Steinberg

Saul Steinberg, Untitled, 1949, ink on paper, 14-5/8" × 23-1/4" (37.1 cm × 59.1 cm) © The Saul Steinberg Foundation


I Had the Coronavirus.

It Made Me Think About How the Art World Recovers.

By Marc Glimcher

Published in (opens in a new window) ARTnews

Was it the trip to the Middle East? The Arlene Shechet opening in New York? It probably wasn’t Frieze L.A….

Everyone keeps asking me where I caught the coronavirus. The answer is: I don’t know.

What I do know is that on Wednesday, March 4, I started to feel sick. Nothing particularly alarming. Chills, a cough, body aches.

That was a month ago, but it feels like a different era.

The following night I called Julian Schnabel to tell him I couldn’t make it to his opening at my gallery, a show I had been working on for almost a year. He understood, of course, but when he said, “I think it’s crazy right now for you to come to the opening and infect everyone,” it sounded to me like he was overreacting.

I spent that day in bed with a fever of 102 that came and went along with chills and sweats. My sleep was punctuated by coughing fits, and a burning sensation and pressure in the center of my chest. The shocker, for me, was the body aches, muscle spasms in my upper back that caused a stabbing pain. Stuck in bed, I fielded calls from gallery department heads, who were starting to consider contingencies as my situation accelerated.

My wife, Fairfax, reacted faster than than I did. My version of self-quarantine was to lie in the closet, my feet sticking out of the door. Fairfax made me return to bed (a big mistake, as we would learn a few days later). On Friday afternoon, she had a doctor in full Personal Protective Equipment come to the apartment and administer a flu test, which came back negative. By Monday, our intrepid doctors—thank you, Dr. Hasan and Dr. Shlain—had located a few precious Covid-19 tests, and all of us—Fairfax, myself, and my 20-month-old son—got a very nasty swabbing.

By mid-week we were all starting to feel better. My son had had a 99-degree fever for one night, but otherwise no symptoms. With my older kids safely with their mother or ensconced in their apartments in Brooklyn, it looked like the spread was contained to Fairfax’s and my Manhattan apartment.

At that point, I started to refocus my attention on how the virus was already affecting matters at the gallery—our plans to mount a loan exhibition dedicated to the (opens in a new window) collection of the late Don Marron ahead of auction week in New York had become impossible, and other planned exhibitions, performances, and projects were looking uncertain. From my sick bed, I had difficult decisions to make for the team. Meanwhile, as the days ticked by and the country descended into a chaotic series of steps and missteps, we were locked up, waiting for test results that never seemed to come.

On Thursday, March 12, as the National Guard was rolling into Westchester, New York, I decided to close the gallery. Friday, March 13, was Pace’s first day of remote work. (Our team of 175 is still home all these weeks later, although our galleries in Hong Kong and Seoul have tentatively reopened.)

Six days after we were tested, my Covid result, as well as those of my wife and young son, came back negative. Reassured, if somewhat skeptical, we headed over to visit my parents, Arne and Milly, who are both in their 80s. When we got home, we received a message that our testing cadre had been flawed, the samples were beginning to be rerun, and my son had come back positive. Our doctor advised us that we were most likely positive as well and to proceed as though we were.

As we waited for our second test results, my symptoms started to return—the coronavirus’s now-famous second act. The coughing and shortness of breath were back with a vengeance. I became familiar with the mute button on my Zoom screen as meeting after meeting became a display for my pulmonary distress. That second wave, for me, was characterized by exhaustion; the slightest exertion landed me in bed for a couple hours.

Even as my own world was narrowing, the art world was changing in ways we’d never experienced. At my gallery, we did our best to engage technology and the internet to keep our artists’ voices out there as our systems of exhibitions, art fairs, auctions, and museum shows disappeared before our eyes. We pivoted quickly to launch exhibitions on our online viewing room platform, giving visibility to our exhibitions that were now shuttered as well as mounting a series of original shows that we hoped would resonate with a newly isolated art world. The very commerce that would keep us alive began to seem surreal in the world in which we now found ourselves: within a week, talking to collectors about buying work went from fruitless to tasteless.

It dawned on us at the gallery in those early days that the solitude we were now experiencing was not unlike the lives our artists have been living for generations, the isolation that often accompanies the creative act. Instinctively, we turned to them, and their voices have been vital as we navigate through our new daily routines.

My own bout with this disease has coincided with the radical change that has taken over all of our lives. At Day 32, I am feeling fine, aside from a lingering cough (and my parents, luckily, were unaffected), but I am faced with questions I never dreamed I would have to answer: How does my gallery cope with two to six months of little or no revenue? How will all this change the way we in the art world—and beyond—behave in the future?

As gallerists, we are in the business of the future: the studio visit that gets us thinking about a show, the client visit that gets us thinking about an art fair booth, the meeting with our curatorial team that gets us imagining some new book or performance. At the moment, we have no choice than to be in the business of the present—and to reconsider the viability of certain unsustainable practices: the pricing, the over-promotion, the travel, the relentless catering to the lowest instincts of speculators, the ballooning overheads, the mutually-destructive competition, the engineered auction records, and the desperate search for capital to burn, just to prove that you can burn it.

At 3 in the morning on my 19th day of being sick, my breathing was so bad that I woke up struggling for air. Lying in the dark, trying not to wake my wife, my fear escalated to panic. In that dark hour, as with most people having even a brush with mortality, all the calculations of rent, payroll, insurance, melted away and the core of my life was left exposed: what would I miss, who would I miss, what did I contribute?

A quick trip to the hospital the next morning confirmed that my lungs were clear, and I’ve been steadily on the mend since.

So many precious lives have been lost in this crisis, and countless more permanently scarred by grief. We must give our recovery meaning. I am blessed with a beautiful family and a gallery filled with artists, friends, and colleagues who strive and struggle to create. This recovery—our recovery—long and complex though it may be, will be lost or won depending on our ability to reject those things that spoil, degrade, and erode our creative world in favor of embracing and protecting what is real, enduring, and inspiring in our lives and in art.

  • Essays — I Had the Coronavirus. It Made Me Think About How the Art World Recovers., Apr 7, 2020