This week, thousands of art collectors, museum trustees, artists, journalists and hipsters from around the globe will arrive for the phenomenon known as Art Basel Miami Beach. The centerpiece of the week: works shown at the convention center by more than 260 of the world’s top galleries.
Only two of those are from Miami.
While Art Basel has helped transform the city’s reputation from beach-and-party scene to arts destination in the years since its 2002 Miami Beach debut, the region’s gallery identity is still coming into its own.
“Certainly Miami as an art town registers mightily because of the foundations, the collectors who have done an extraordinary job,” said Linda Blumberg, executive director of the Art Dealers Association of America. “I think there’s a definite international awareness there. But the gallery scene probably has a bit of a ways to go. That doesn’t mean it’s not really fascinating and interesting.”
The gallery business, especially where newer artists are concerned, is a game of risk, faith and passion. Once a gallery takes on an artist who shows promise, they become an evangelist on their behalf, showing their work in-house and at fairs, presenting it to museums and curators and potential collectors and bearing the cost of that promotion.
For contemporary artists, most galleries take work on consignment, meaning they get a cut of as much as 50 percent when works sell. While local art galleries have been growing in number and popularity in the last several years — just try to find parking during the monthly art walk in Miami’s hot Wynwood neighborhood — even some of the area’s top art dealers say that while business overall is good, they struggle in the local marketplace.
“Our problem is that we have to do lots of art fairs in order to connect with the market that we need to connect with to sell the work that we have,” said Fredric Snitzer, a Miami-Dade gallery owner for 35 years. “The better the work is, the harder it is to sell in Miami. And that ain’t good.”
A handful of serious collectors call Miami home and store their own collections in Miami, including the Braman, Rubell, Margulies and de la Cruz families. But outside a relatively small local group, many gallerists say, their clients come from other parts of the country and world.
And some gallerists point out the troubling reality that even the powerhouse Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin could not stay open in Miami for more than a few years.
“The fact that big galleries have not been able to sustain their business models in South Florida tells you we’re obviously not at this high established point,” said gallery owner David Castillo. “It’s not like we’ve arrived, let’s sit back and watch Hauser & Wirth open down the street.”
Still, Miami’s gallery business has come a long way since the early 1970s, when a few dealers on Bay Harbor Island’s Kane Concourse were selling high-end pieces but the local scene was hardly embraced.
Virginia Miller, who owns ArtSpace/Virginia Miller Galleries in Coral Gables, first opened in 1974 to showcase Florida artists, though her focus soon added an international scope. She and other longtime observers credit several factors for Miami’s transformation, including the community’s diversity, the establishment of important museums, the Art Miami fair that started 23 years ago, the presence of major collections and, of course, Art Basel Miami Beach.