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.
“I always believed that Miami would grow up and become sophisticated,” Miller said. “But never did I envision what it has really become today, which is very exciting. Sometimes I don’t even recognize my own city.”
While local galleries — estimates of how many there are range from dozens to hundreds — clearly benefit from the exposure during the week of activities that surround Art Basel Miami Beach, they also must compete for an audience with the main art fair, multiple satellite events, private collections and museums.
“The thing that people forget about Art Basel is that Art Basel has shined a bright light on our community,” said Dennis Scholl, a major Miami collector. “And we have received the benefit of that bright light. But the fair is not about our community. The fair is about the collectors and the galleries and the artists and curators and the museum directors that have come from all over the world.”
Snitzer, a member of the Art Basel Miami Beach selection committee whose gallery has shown every year, said local dealers should not expect to be selected for the highly competitive fair just because they live here. A track record at other fairs and a thoughtfully built program are essential, he said.
“If you want to go to Harvard, then you’ve got to study and get great grades and aspire to go to Harvard,” he said. “You can’t just say, ‘I live in Boston, so I’m going to be there.’ ”
Art Basel director Marc Spiegler said setting a quota for local galleries isn’t a viable solution.
“We would love to see more galleries from Miami in the show,” Spiegler said in an interview last month. “On the other hand, I think past experience suggests that maybe the worst thing you can do is bring a gallery in too early, because they quite clearly demonstrate they’re not ready.”
The larger-than-life impact of the fair casts a long shadow on Miami’s art scene, said Patricia Maloney, director of the online publication Art Practical. Writers and editors for the San Francisco-based journal spent two months in Miami this fall examining the local visual arts scene in a residency at Cannonball, formerly LegalArt.
“There was so much self-consciousness in Miami among the artists and galleries, very cognizant of that fact that everyone in the art world descends on Miami every year,” Maloney said. “That’s what they have to measure themselves against. There was pressure there and there was a self-consciousness there.”
Other pressures on Miami, said Scholl, include the ease of accessing other art markets, both in person and online.
“The digital revolution has allowed us to shop in every corner of the earth for art,” he said. “If you’re interested in collecting art, the iPad is your window.”
Local galleries say their presence on the web has also helped their businesses reach a worldwide audience.
The growing number of collectors around the globe has buoyed the art world, said Blumberg, of the gallery association, especially when the U.S. economy took a nasty turn. During the recession, she said, galleries overall became more proactive about reaching out to potential collectors.
Gary Nader, an art dealer and Wynwood gallery owner who specializes in secondary work, said the market for valuable pieces by well-known artists still performed well during the downturn.
“When you sell blue-chip art, you always have something to sell,” said Nader, who this week will host an auction, gallery show and exhibition of pieces from Portugal’s Berardo Collection. “The major problem is to replace what you sell.”
Many gallery owners say some buyers still have an expectation for discounts, though amounts vary depending on who the collector is, how many pieces they want and what the benefit could be to the artist. Ten percent is fairly standard, according to experts, and typically split evenly between the artist and gallery.
Miller said she can see her art business reflecting what’s happening in the world, be it economic distress in parts of Europe or natural disasters in the Northeast. One of the latest current events-related changes is good news, she said: an increase in interest from buyers now that the uncertainty of the long election season is over.
“The day after, the phones started ringing and the emails starting coming in,” Miller said.
Here’s a look at the gallery business in Miami-Dade through the prism of five owners around the county:
Miller has seen her client base change again and again since she opened in Coconut Grove in 1974. While her gallery initially drew mostly locals, soon Latin Americans became a large part of her base. In the cocaine cowboys era of the late 1970s, she said, some clients showed up with Rottweilers and loads of cash.
“I just went with it,” she said. “I never knew whether they were associated; I never asked. They wanted to buy art, they loved art, they were nice people.”
She has worked with law firms and major corporations, as well as executives from those companies, on their collections. These days, her audience is global. Miller also works as a broker for secondary works, sometimes on behalf of clients who bought the pieces from her in the first place.
Miller, whose gallery specializes in international contemporary art with an emphasis on Cuban, Latin American and Chinese work, has never applied to Art Basel Miami Beach, but she said many of her clients are in town during the event — and new ones find her. The downside of the fair’s presence, she said, is that clients often hold off on buying from her until they take in all the other works available from galleries in town for the show.
“Gallery owners in Miami have to decide whether to gamble $15,000 to $50,000 plus on a few days’ exposure in an art fair, or to create events in their own gallery and do dealer-to-dealer business going to the various fairs,” she said.
While she has done some satellite fairs in the past, this year she will host a public reception at the gallery for the show that’s running now, COLOR, FORM, SPACE: Abstractions by Bassmi, Michelle Concepción, and Florian Depenthal. And, she said, she’ll go to as many of the fairs, venues and parties as she can to see clients and meet new ones.
A lifelong resident of Miami-Dade from a pioneering family, Miller opened her nearly 4,000-square-foot gallery in Coral Gables in 1981 that she now hopes to expand. She started the monthly Gables gallery night back in 1980, and then resurrected it in 1990 after a five-year hiatus. The event is still running now.
Miller said she is deeply rooted in the community, recalling the year she spent after Hurricane Andrew helping clients with their art and insurance claims when the storm devastated parts of the county. Miller said she is even working with second and third generations of buyers now.
“We’re not a store, we’re a full-service gallery that works with our clients,” she said.
Snitzer was first attracted to Wynwood, now the hub of Miami’s gallery scene, by its proximity to Art Basel and the major collections and its inexpensive warehouse spaces. He moved into a 7,000-square-foot warehouse about eight years ago — and watched the masses follow over time.
“I didn’t imagine the food trucks and drunken kids and circus-like atmosphere selling art out of the back of station wagons,” he said. “It’s just not conducive to the business that I’m in. If we have an opening on gallery night, our collectors can’t park. If they get to the gallery, there are hordes of people.”
So Snitzer is leaving; he’ll be out by March. He doesn’t yet know where he’ll end up, but he said it will still be in Miami. The Design District is too expensive, he said, and the new prices in Wynwood are beyond what he wants to pay, too: $20-$30 per square foot, compared to $4-$8 when he first arrived.
“There are all sorts of creative options: warehouse space, potentially an old house, a complex idea, maybe other kinds of art venues,” he said. “I’m very excited about what’s happening with YoungArts,” which moved into the Bacardi complex at 2100 Biscayne Blvd.
While his client base used to be completely local, only about 10-20 of his business comes from Miami now. He has picked up international clients by doing fairs in New York, Hong Kong, Berlin and elsewhere.
Art Basel Miami Beach has been good to Snitzer, who has participated in the fair every year. He said the gallery sold “astronomically better” than expected in the first few years, though business did drop off as the economy weakened.
During the recession, he said, demand for work by hot artists grew while potential buyers were reluctant to speculate on younger artists.
He believes the scene in Miami could be improved by greater academic rigor in gallery programming and a more culturally educated community.
“It’s a big long-term job and I think lots of different other parts of the community need to address it and be aware of it,” he said. “It will change. I may be dead, but it will. It’s moving in the right direction, but it’s got a long way to go.”
Castillo has been an art dealer since he was in his early 20s, but first he had to realize that pre-med wasn’t his calling at Yale University. After studying history and art history for undergrad, he spent a year at the Vatican studying Latin with a Carmelite monk.
That year of Latin, he said, helped with the other languages he speaks (Spanish, Italian, French and some German), which has come in handy for socializing with clients around the world.
“It’s a whole social personality-driven business; it’s not like selling a million T-shirts,” he said. “It’s very different from that because people have to not only like the artwork, they have to like the gallery and the person they’re buying it from.”
Valedictorian of the class of 1992 at Hialeah High, Castillo grew up going to photo exhibits and the Center for the Fine Arts, the precursor to the Miami Art Museum. His gallery represents several South Florida artists; everything Castillo shows deals with the theme of identity. About 30 percent of his clientele is local, and the rest are mostly from Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and Texas.
Castillo has been selected to participate in the main Art Basel Miami Beach fair twice so far, including last year, when he sold out.
“By the end, you’re exhausted, but it feels good because you have this really wide, wide audience that is looking at what you’re doing and deciding not only to have faith in you and the artists, but to put money behind it,” he said.
He’s not part of the fair this year, but Castillo said he understands how competitive it is. He doesn’t do satellite fairs, but he will hold a reception Saturday for the large group show that runs through the end of the year.
“Not every gallery gets in every year to every fair, but when you’re operating at a certain level you understand that this year I didn’t get in, but so didn’t 40 other great galleries in other cities,” he said. “It’s nothing personal as people sometimes want to make it seem.”
The show he opened in late November is already half sold, and he knows there are more opportunities waiting. He has sold at fairs in Berlin and New York and will be at the LA Art Show in January.
“You accumulate new audiences and that is the reality of a gallery today,” he said. “It’s not like you just sit waiting for people to show up.”
Every year since he established his own gallery in 2005, Anthony Spinello has applied to be part of Art Basel Miami Beach.
This year, he finally made it. The gallery will present New Landscapes, an exhibition from Miami artists Agustina Woodgate, in the fair’s Art Positions sector.
“It’s really exciting; it’s a bit surreal,” said Spinello, who just turned 30. “I understand with these things it takes time and respect and you have to really work to be able to be featured in such a prestigious show.”
He moved to Miami from Brooklyn in 2003 because, he said, “I needed a little light in my life.” After first working for another gallery, he opened his own out of his apartment in 2005. The following years brought several moves, first to a storefront in Wynwood, then to the Design District and finally to the 3,000-square-foot space he occupies now, described on his website as “West of Wynwood.”
“I think it’s Allapattah,” he said of the location just west of Interstate 95.
While he didn’t make the Art Basel fair in recent years, “I’ve done all sorts of crazy s---,” during the week surrounding the fair, Spinello said.
Last year, he said, he found an abandoned preschool center in the Design District and did a site-specific three-show project there. Other years, he put on a miniature version of Art Basel that he called “Littlest Sister,” actually an art show that invited artists (not galleries) to exhibit in scaled-down booths.
“The idea originally was when Basel first came to town, all these people were coming to Miami and they weren’t necessarily coming to the galleries,” Spinello said. “The solution was to create an art fair in my gallery.”
He has also participated in satellite fairs including Pulse and Scope, and in other fairs around the country and elsewhere in the world. That’s where Spinello has created most of his collector base, he said, estimating that maybe 10 percent of his business is local.
“Miami has an incredible thriving arts community and is very supportive in that we’re trying to get something going, but the truth is, Miami is till an emerging city, it’s a young city,” he said. “With art comes culture. It’s just about educating.”
After decades working as an executive for media companies and as a wealth management advisor, Williams realized a longtime dream and opened her latest venture, Williams McCall Gallery, earlier this year.
Though she traveled frequently for business, she has owned a home in the South of Fifth neighborhood of Miami Beach for more than 12 years. When a space on Washington Avenue became available to buy, she knew the stars had aligned.
“I just thought an art gallery would make a wonderful addition to the community from a business perspective,” she said. “I witnessed the transformation of this area. It’s been explosive.”
Although Wynwood is the center of the gallery universe for now, Williams said she wanted to break new ground.
“Instead of being one of many, we’re pioneers,” she said. “People are finding us. And I enjoy being part of the community. I see our clients in the park, on the street walking my dog, in the restaurants.”
Since opening, Williams said, business at the 1,000-square-foot gallery has been better than she anticipated. About 40 percent of her clients are local; others come from the Eastern seaboard as well as the West Coast and Brazil.
Events and openings are key to driving business; the next is Friday, a reception for the installation, Post-Millenial Jonah, timed to coincide with Art Basel. The focus of the installation is on the rare North Atlantic right whale, which like the gallery has a connection to Cape Cod.
Several of the gallery’s artists have connections to Provincetown, Mass., where Williams also owns a home and serves on the board of directors of the Provincetown Art Association and Museum.
“We try to be different and our art is not $250,000 and million-dollar pieces,” she said. “We’re really trying to provide an amazing opportunity for art lovers and collectors to collect artists that are creating high-quality art that are at really reasonable prices.”