Deals! Deals! Deals!

Promotional materials for last week's Art Miami '96 conferred upon the event the dubious distinction of "America's Largest Mid-Winter International Art Fair." Since Art Miami's debut in 1991, organizers David and Lee Ann Lester have striven to position the annual showcase as the art world's working winter vacation -- akin to fashion designers' cruisewear collection shows -- scheduled between heavyweight art fairs in Cologne, Madrid, Chicago, and Basel, Switzerland. The husband-and-wife team, whose company, International Fine Art Expositions, is based up the coast in Stuart, Florida, has a keen business sense (dealers pay from $3000 to $30,000 to participate in the five-day fair), and their come-on-down spirit would make Carl Fisher proud.

"Blizzard conditions grip much of the northeastern United States," declared the Sunday, January 7, edition of the Art Miami '96 Newsletter, a flyer listing temperatures in American and European cities that was distributed daily to the gallery booths set up at the Miami Beach Convention Center, site of the art fair. "Coastal states report heavy snow, sleet, or freezing rain. Travel is difficult and all galleries in the Northeast will be closed for several days. We're glad you're in Florida with warm weather and lots of potential clients!"

Over the past five years, the presence of Art Miami has certainly stimulated the local art scene. The exhibition season, like most activity in South Florida, peaks in the winter anyway, but the art fair has given out-of-town dealers and collectors an excuse (other than the weather) to convene here simultaneously. Local galleries and museums have responded by scheduling their strongest shows for this time of year.

"A larger and larger group of clients and dealers is building up," says Mary-Ann Martin of Mary-Ann Martin Fine Art in New York City, whose large art fair stand featured realist paintings by contemporary Mexican artists. "These are major collectors from Latin America and Europe. I've met people here who I've wanted to meet and seen people who I've met before. We made some new contacts, we had a good time, and we sold."

For Martin, who deals in modern and contemporary works that appeal to traditional sensibilities, Art Miami is an annual commitment. She is a member of the fair's Dealers Advisory Committee, a group of gallery owners who help the organizers attract prominent galleries to the fair while discouraging other, less desirable ones from attending. "Our hope is to steadily improve the quality of the visitors to the fair, so that the level and variety will be better," Martin explains.

As in previous years, stands representing a handful of established galleries of interest to both collectors and the general public stood out among rows of visual debris. For example, New York's Pace Wildenstein gallery mounted a display of museum-quality works that included a Magritte, a Francis Bacon self-portrait, and works by Julian Schnabel, Donald Judd, and Antoni TÖpies. Pace Wildenstein director Susan Dunn said she sold several works, including a Jim Dine sculpture, but she declined to specify the selling prices.

This group, strategically located near the entrance to the convention center, also included Galeria Ramis Barquet, from Monterey, Mexico, which offered works by consecrated young Latin American painters Guillermo Kuitca and Julio Galan, plus pieces by local Cuban artist Jose Bedia. Miami Beach's Gutierrez Fine Arts showed works by various Latin American masters, but also showcased local Haitian artist Edouard Duval-Carrie, while the stand of Peter Fetterman, a Santa Monica dealer selling historical and contemporary fine art photography, was stocked with exquisite, moderately priced works ($2000-$4000). There were several other galleries of this caliber, but after these it was all downhill.

Many galleries hauled out stuff that presumably would interest the Miami market: a glut of photographs and drawings of Christo's "wrapping" projects; piles of Nam June Paik video hardware; works by Wifredo Lam and many others in the style of Lam; and tons of hyperrealist paintings by artists from around the globe. A nerve-racking stroll to the back of the hall revealed a horrific hodgepodge of overpriced works that included still lifes with kittens (no joke), as well as paintings of pieces of fruit, a surplus of Mir cents etchings, and glass sculptures. One local curator aptly described the scene as "a gold-framed Coconut Grove Arts Festival."

The wildly uneven quality of the art exhibited at the fairs has plagued Art Miami from its inception, even though its organizers have relied on more gimmicks than P.T. Barnum to get galleries to participate. First they billed the event as a Latin American art fair, which resulted in a good response from galleries located in Latin America and domestic galleries specializing in Latin American art. Then, as Lee Ann Lester explains, they decided to "de-emphasize Latin American art" and shoot for a broader market. Last March, International Fine Art Expositions initiated another Miami Beach Convention Center fair -- Art Americas-New Trends -- in an effort to reroute many of the Latin American galleries there.

The Lesters' attempts to make Art Miami more sophisticated and "international" also include the creation last year of MISE (Miami International Sculpture Garden), billed as "America's largest indoor sculpture garden" -- it was included again at Art Miami '96. The utter hideousness of this group of bright-colored polyurethane squiggles and bulky bronze statues set on a carpet of plastic grass had to be seen to be believed: It looked like a miniature golf course in Hell.

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