For eight years, Nina Johnson-Milewski’s Gallery Diet was a Wynwood landmark, a reliable showcase for art enthusiasts seeking challenging, cutting-edge work. For many, the news that she was moving out of her successful Wynwood location in favor of Little Haiti came as a surprise.
But for Johnson-Milewski, the creative and financial control that comes from owning versus renting was worth the risk.
“Whenever you own a property, there’s long-term stability in knowing what tone you can set for a building and knowing what your expenses are going to be, and where you do and don’t want to make investments,” said Johnson-Milewski, who purchased her new space this summer. “Really, at the heart of it, is wanting to be able to execute the vision that the artist has in a controlled environment.”
The public will get its first look at the new 1,500-square-foot compound at 6315 NW Second Ave. on Friday, when Gallery Diet launches its inaugural design show, “Trees in Oolite,” in its courtyard. Also opening that day is an exhibition by Miami artist Nicolas Lobo, whose work also is currently on display at Pérez Art Museum Miami. It is his second show with Gallery Diet; last year’s “Bad Soda / Soft Drunk” featured sculptures formed from napalm and play dough colored with the electric-blue liquid from 69,000 bottles of Nexcite, a Swedish sexual energy drink.
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The four-building compound includes a 1940s-era storefront, which used to be a Haitian church; a two-story residential house, a separate cottage-like studio structure and a storage unit. The structures will serve as a gallery and design space and artists’ residences, where creation of works on-site and exhibitions will go hand-in-hand. The outdoor green space will be used for design shows and as a communal gathering space.
Gallery Diet’s move follows the exit from Wynwood of two other early, influential Wynwood galleries of namesakes Fredric Snitzer and David Castillo. Snitzer opted for downtown Miami, saying Wynwood had become too commercial for his tastes, while Castillo moved his business to Lincoln Road.
Meanwhile, other galleries have drifted north to the evolving areas of Little Haiti and Little River. Yeelen opened in Little Haiti two years ago. In recent months, Michael Jon, Mindy Solomon and Bill Brady have joined forerunners Gucci Vuitton and Fountainhead Studios in the Little River area; Anthony Spinello will open in the Little River creative district in December during Art Basel.
I felt for us to have a longtime future here, I’d really want to be able to own our space.
Nina Johnson-Milewski, Gallery Diet owner
Johnson-Milewski, who rented her Wynwood space from Goldman Properties, was able to get out of her lease early and amicably.
“In the beginning, with any business, it’s challenging to buy a property because so much of your investment is just going into making the business work. That was certainly the case with us,” she said of herself and her husband and partner, Dan Milewski, who previously owned a coffee shop in Wynwood. “We’ve grown to a point that I felt for us to have a longtime future here, I’d really want to be able to own our space.”
A Miami native, Johnson-Milewski, 30, interned at the Bernice Steinbaum Gallery after school as a teen, learning the ins and outs of gallery operations and about various types of outside-the-box art. After earning her BFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where she met her husband, she moved to New York City and worked in a variety of galleries before returning to Miami a decade ago. She is also the founder and publisher of the 3-year-old quarterly art magazine Miami Rail, an editorially independent expansion of the 15-year-old nonprofit art and culture magazine the Brooklyn Rail.
Johnson-Milewski opened Gallery Diet on Northwest 23rd Street to showcase work by talented, underexposed artists. While the gallery was a financial success, her definition of positive returns goes beyond sales and numbers.
“I really deem being a successful dealer as being able to help support the artists in their careers both financially and creatively,” she said, “and I feel like we’ve been able to do that for such a vast network of people, not only locally, but people from all over the world.”
Other galleries are watching — and contemplating similar moves and other ways to make their businesses work as Wynwood rents rise. Among them is Robert Fontaine, whose namesake gallery is located near the old Gallery Diet space.
“I find it a little discouraging that we went from the Wynwood Arts District to the Wynwood Improvement District — I didn’t get that memo,” he said. “One day the signs changed and everything you believed an art area is about is now something else that’s catered to not just art but other things. Then it becomes a replacement of art.
“It’s very typical of any big city though. This is not unusual.”
Fontaine said his rent has tripled in the past four years, with the price rising from $17 to $50 per square foot. He plans to remain in his current space, which will be cut to nearly half of its current 2,000 square feet to accommodate the rise in rent. It’s better, he said, than looking for a new “walking district,” which he considers essential to survive and thrive for someone who runs an art gallery in Miami.
“There’s something to be said about clients, artists, collectors remembering your location, remembering where you are, especially the ones that are seasonal, which they don’t want to have to find out where I am,” he said. “So that’s the compromise.”
After building a following over the past eight years, Johnson-Milewski is confident that customers will travel the 40 blocks north to her new space.
“I think of us as a destination-based space. People that are looking for us generally find a way to seek us out. I don’t anticipate that being an issue,” she said.
“I feel like people are going to respond well to this new location because the choice to go there is really a result of what I felt not only the artists but also our clients and colleagues were wanting from us at this time.”
The new space lends itself to artists being able to make the work for their exhibitions on-site. The opening design show, “Trees in Oolite,” will feature outdoor furniture, lighting and other objects from eight designers and artists to complement the landscapes’ “subtropical flora with a pared, decisive brutalism” in the artists’ response “to both the history of modern design and the primeval Floridian environment seeping through the architecture.” A transparent sauna, made by designer June14, will put the “steamy heat and humidity of the Miami atmosphere on display.” During the exhibition’s run, guests can schedule appointments to use the sauna during gallery hours.
Also, Johnson-Milewski added, “this new space will lend itself to more of the types of convivial gatherings that we’ve always tried to host in Wynwood but will be a little easier to pull off having outdoor space and the flexibility with the architecture.
“There are old mango trees and old oak trees, and it has the great combination of feeling sort of derelict and a little bit unearthed or forgotten, but also just being private. There’s a warmth to it that reminds me a lot of the types of gallery spaces in Mexico City, which are [more] about gathering and using the preexisting architecture to come up with interesting spaces to show than they are about the traditional Chelsea sort of redoing a warehouse space.”
Johnson-Milewski plans to host at least nine exhibitions a year at the new space and affirms that Gallery Diet will still hold true to its personality, though it will have a new face.
“It’ll continue being the next evolution of what our program has been — temporary, commercial exhibitions that include local and international artists and designers.”
If you go
What: Gallery Diet’s opening night at its new location.
Where: 6315 NW Second Ave., Miami.
When: 7 to 10 p.m. Friday; exhibition runs through Jan. 9.
Information: 305-571-2288 or www.gallerydiet.com.