Nicola Vassell was locking up at the Pace Gallery in Chelsea for only the second time ever last Friday afternoon when she bumped into New York Times art critic Roberta Smith and her husband, Jerry Saltz, of New York magazine. The pair were on their way to see some gallery shows. Though plainly well acquainted with Ms. Vassell, they had only a vague sense of what the 31-year-old former model, who until very recently served as a director at Jeffrey Deitch’s gallery in Soho, was doing in Chelsea. Ms. Vassell, understandably a little nervous to suddenly find herself in the presence of these two very powerful art critics, started telling them how great her new job as director at Pace was, excitedly showing them a pamphlet from the gallery that featured head shots of her colleagues.
One of the critics asked Ms. Vassell which Deitch artists she was bringing over to Pace. Kehinde Wiley, perhaps? What about Tauba Auerbach? Ms. Vassell demurred. She had just started less than a month ago! Nothing was settled yet.
Earlier, Ms. Vassell had been sitting in her as-yet-undecorated office discussing her decision to join Pace, a top gallery that, for all its history (over the years it has represented Chuck Close, Louise Nevelson, Jean Dubuffet, Claes Oldenburg, and many others), does not currently enjoy a reputation for showing the most cutting-edge contemporary art in New York. Why not instead go to work for an A-lister at the top of his game, like Larry Gagosian, The Observer wondered, or just start a shop of her own from scratch, like her punky former colleague at Deitch Projects, Kathy Grayson, is trying to do now that Mr. Deitch is heading to California to become director of L.A. MoCA?
“It’s a challenge. Some other galleries, they’re exactly where they need to be,” Ms. Vassell explained. “At Pace, they’re looking at the next 50 years, and they’re looking at doing what they did before, again-to really be at the edge, at the forefront.”
The desire to change Pace-to revitalize the blue chip gallery’s program by bringing in young artists who are written about in cool magazines, championed by cool curators and supported by cool collectors-is coming from founder Arne Glimcher’s 46-year-old son, Marc, who serves as Pace’s president. Mr. Glimcher is on the record saying he wants to take the gallery in a new direction, and hiring Ms. Vassell, in addition to four other new directors who were brought aboard in the past year and a half, was a key component of that effort. Another was splitting Pace from old master, Impressionist, and Post-Impressionist gallery Wildenstein & Company, its partner of 17 years, in a move that was announced earlier this year.
“Pace is like a giant-it has an extraordinary history and one of the most impeccable reputations in the business,” said Ms. Vassell on Friday, flipping admiringly through a handsomely illustrated book covering the gallery’s first forty years in business. “Obviously, they’re now looking at how to re-create that kind of magic in 21st-century terms. I think they’ve been going about it in a very elegant way.”
Going about it in an elegant way is crucial to getting it done at all. Acting too deliberately and systematically in pursuit of relevance can make a storied gallery’s evolution appear inorganic and calculated, the way a man in middle age might when he is seen cruising around in a red Thunderbird. Reinvention must be carried out with a light touch, in other words, and attention must be paid to appearances as young personnel is brought on and emerging artists are recruited. It is a maneuver that has been attempted by other veteran gallery owners-see Tony Shafrazi’s 2008 Who’s Afraid of Jasper Johns, the dealer’s surprising collaboration with Urs Fischer and Gavin Brown-keen on reestablishing themselves at the forefront of contemporary art rather than falling back on their laurels. It can be difficult even, if not especially, for the most towering of art-world icons.
“When I first started, people would always ask me if I thought being a woman made it more difficult, and I’d look at people like Ileana Sonnabend and think, no, being a woman, you can still be a great dealer,” said Mary Boone, who opened her Soho gallery in the late 1970s and dominated the ’80s scene with artists like Julian Schnabel and David Salle. “But I did say, and I felt at that time, that being young made it very difficult to be taken seriously as any kind of a connoisseur, because connoisseurship is very linked to age. Now it’s turned, and people think that only if you’re really young can you identify great artists. But that’s kind of absurd!”
During most of the ’90s, Ms. Boone said, she took herself “out of the game,” in part because she felt like all the most interesting art was happening in London, not New York. Toward the end of the decade, however, she began once again to actively pursue new talent. One the first steps she took in that direction was to bring in young, up-and-coming curators like Neville Wakefield and Amy Smith-Stewart to organize group shows at her gallery.