Bernice Steinbaum — sporting giant, playfully baroque Prada eyeglasses and Chinese-inspired couture — is not her usual wisecracking self this afternoon. In a few days, she’ll shut down her two-story gallery, wedged between Wynwood and its chugging art scene and the increasingly tonyDesign District, now with Louis Vuitton, Fendi, Bulgari and Hermés on the way.
“I’m old, baby. I’m 70. I’ve been having lots of second thoughts about closing. But it’s time to recreate myself. And you only live once. And I suspect if I don’t do it now, I’ll never do it,’’ she says about her decision to retire from full-time art dealing.
The still young gallery scene in Wynwood has had its casualties. For all of the buzz about the neighborhood’s rebirth as an art hub, there is no denying Miami still has a way to go before it catches up with deeper, more established art markets. The 10-year-old Art Basel Miami Beach, the most important contemporary art fair in the country, has done plenty to bolster the city’s cultural evolution. But sustaining year-round enthusiasm for art buying has been a struggle for both serious galleries and the upstarts. And recently, a few local artists, among them rising star Jen Stark, and the internationally-successful Samuel Borkson and Arturo Sandoval III of the collaborative FriendsWithYou, decided to bail for the more mature, lucrative art capital of Los Angeles.
But Steinbaum says her gallery has remained prosperous and that her decision to sell the property, which she bought in 1998 for $290,000 according to property records (assessed value in 2011 was nearly $1 million,) had nothing to do with the ups and downs of Miami’s art scene.
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Two years ago, she lost her husband Harold, a retired physician. And for Steinbaum, that changed everything.
“Our marriage was 49 years in duration. I’m still reaching out to his pillow,” she says. “I had a wonderful life with him. In my naiveté, I thought this would go on forever. How silly. When someone so close to you dies, you are reminded of your own mortality. I want to spend more time with my grandchildren. I want to go to the mall. I want to watch Days of Our Lives – is that what that soap opera is called?”
In 2000, when Steinbaum opened her gallery on the corner of 36th Street and North Miami Avenue after a successful 23-year run in Manhattan, there wasn’t much but dust flying off a neighboring 56-acre rail yard that no one imagined would one day sprout into the happening Midtown Miami. The Design District was a desolate if historic collection of low-slung buildings, some housing furniture and fixture showrooms, others waiting out the tumbleweeds. Wynwood, now home to more than 60 galleries and private collection spaces plus an ever-expanding compilation of murals by some of the world’s most important graffiti artists, was nothing but a rough patch of the city known for its early 1990s race riots.
But the New York-born Steinbaum, who moved to Miami to live near her three children who had landed careers here, saw only possibility.
“When I bought the building it was crack-infested,’’ she says. “There were no other galleries here yet. And while I understood that a gallery has to be in an area where other galleries exist, you have to be able to do more than sell. You have to have exchanges with artists. And there were already artists who had studios nearby. I was guaranteed they would come. Artists have an insatiable curiosity. ‘’
The gallery is slated to close July 15, but a couple weeks before it was already robbed of the spark that danced there for a dozen years, that bounced wall to wall with the inspirations of all of Steinbaum’s artists. She leads you to the threshold of her office to show how the furniture is already gone, how the works she loved most are down. One of her artists, Karen Rifas, kneels in the center of the empty space, painstakingly packing one of her fragile sculptural works: endless strings of stitched together oak leaves that she’s folding up, one brown leaf against the next.
“We’re delivering the last of the purchased works to clients, returning other works to artists. Then I’m out of here,” Steinbaum says and tears up. She kicks off her shoes and settles into an office chair she has rolled into the middle of the main gallery. Behind her, glowing with a force all the more electric now that it’s offset by so much nothing, is an eight-foot mixed media piece titled Purple Lace Tree by acclaimed Haitain-American artist Edouard Duval-Carrié. He was the first Miami artist Steinbaum signed, and his works happen to be the last to be carted off.
“Edouard is safe. He’ll have to think very carefully about what gallery he chooses next to represent him. But he’s safe,” says Steinbaum, who is concerned about some of her other artists now that she’s closing shop. “Carol Prusa, she’s ready now. She has enough internal power that she can go to a museum and say, ‘This is my resume.’ With some, I know I can cut the umbilical cord. With others, I do worry.’’
She worries, for example, about Enrique Gomez De Molina, an artist who works with taxidermy. His career was gaining momentum when he was caught smuggling parts of protected and endangered wildlife, which he incorporated in the creation of mythical hybrid creatures. In May, he checked into federal prison in Pensacola to serve a 20-month sentence.
“Enrique is one of those artists I will take with me no matter where I go,” says Steinbaum, who plans to continue representing just a handful of the 25 artists on her roster. “I send him a postcard every day. The worst part is how his partner is doing [Troy Abbott, also an artist]. He cannot work. He is just listless. Someone who has known Enrique’s work for two years came in the other day and bought two pieces. And I feel like a child telling you this, but it’s such a pleasure knowing that your artists and their mates are safe, and that you had something to do with helping make them safe.’’
From the start, Steinbaum has faithfully followed a mission to be more than just a dealer. She has long believed in building careers, in betting on an artist for the long haul, in being an artist’s No. One fan.
“Please don’t use the word ‘stable’ when you talk about my artists,’’ she tells you one afternoon over lunch at Sugarcane, one of her favorite spots in Midtown Miami. “ I hate when dealers talk about their ‘stable of artists.’ It’s very important to me that they not be regarded as horses and cows. They are thinkers. That’s the most exciting part for me of being an art dealer, that I get to be around all of these people who think.’’
And her artists tend to be just as committed to her in return.
“Bernice really engages in your life,” says Cuban artist Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, who lives in Boston and has shown at MoMa, the Smithsonian, the Venice Biennale . “She’s someone who really gets to know you, your family, your work, where you’re coming from. I think she’s an artist in her own way. She’s so creative. So capable of envisioning possibilities for you that maybe you haven’t considered yourself. I don’t know if Miami really understands what a jewel she is. Her gallery is as a good as any of the big New York galleries. But more than that, she has been a mother figure, a role model. I worship her. When I grow up, I want to be as fearless as she is.’’
“She’s very Old School, ‘’ says Prusa, for whom Steinbaum lined up five museum shows this year. Her intricate drawings in silverpaint, a Renaissance-era technique, reference the scientific, astronomical and metaphysical. “She is wonderful for an artist. My work developed tremendously knowing that Bernice believed in me and had my back. She promoted me even when my work wasn’t selling.”
When Steinbaum opened her first gallery in New York in 1977, she decided to go against the grain and showcase women artists and artists of color. In the mid 1980s, when the Guerrilla Girls, a group of feminists who banded together to fight sexism and racism in the art world, began pasting stickers on SoHo galleries to point out the inequality in their representation, they left only Steinbaum’s gallery alone. Until one day.
“Those stickers were a pain in the ass to get off,’’ Steinbaum says. “They would go out in the middle of the night when no one was around. One morning I get to my gallery and I see one of their manifestos stuck to my building. I thought, ‘Oh, no.’ But it said, ‘Bernice Steinbaum’s is the only gallery to show 50 percent women and people of color.’ ’’
“She tapped into something very neglected when she opened her gallery,’’ says part-time Miami resident and art historian Norma Broude, who with her partner Mary Garrard has edited several books on art and feminism. “She really brought to the fore some very important women whose names are virtually household names now, like Faith Ringgold and Miriam Schapiro.
Ringgold is famed for her painted story quilts, which are in the permanent collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, MoMa. Miriam Schapiro, renown for her feminist collages using found materials relevant to traditional women’s work, appears in collections at the Met, MoMa, Whitney, Smithsonian, The Israel Museum and others.
Duval-Carrié says Steinbaum has been just as invested in promoting artists in Miami.
“She leaves an indelible mark on the art scene here because of the quality of her gallery and because of her proposal, a very human proposal first of all,” he says. “The level of the art discourse in Miami can sometimes be wanting. What attracted me to Bernice was the discourse she established with an artist. It wasn’t simply, ‘‘This will sell.’ Or, ‘That won’t sell.’ She always put artists on the spot. She pushed us to be more conscious of our own proposal and to go further with our research. She will be sorely missed.’’
Steinbaum does have plans to keep a part-time presence in Miami’s art scene. She who won’t let on who she’s selling her building to, except to say it’s going to real estate developers and that she doesn’t expect another gallery to open in the space.
“It could be a furniture store. I don’t know,” she says. “But I’m going to still be working two days a week, for another gallery, helping them brand themselves. Everybody says I’m kidding myself if I think I’ll only work two days a week. But I have a bunch of books to read about swelling loins and pulsating thighs.’’