Deals! Deals! Deals!

Another innovative plan to attract new and better blood was this year's MICAF (the Miami International Contemporary Fine Art Fair), described in a press release as "a highly selective, juried exhibition, expected to draw its own audience of avant-garde, cutting-edge galleries and international collectors. . . . (MICAF) will include . . . conceptual art, installations, and performance art." In reality this "separate section of the fair" comprised a row of eight stands, for which, Lee Ann Lester points out, galleries paid the comparatively low price of $3000 (not including lights, electricity, catalogue listing, a wastebasket, and other "extras"). The largest MICAF booth belonged to Vienna's Galerie Krinzinger, a popular and prurient staple of the fair, which, like last year, brought sexy works by Paul McCarthy and photos of Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch's performances with raw meat and blood. Nearby, Coral Gables-based Ambrosino Gallery's stand featured a well-curated selection of mixed-media works by Jaime Palacios, Ana Albertina Delgado, Conrad Hamather, Israeli artists Hilla Lulu Lin and Zadok Ben David, and others.

Coral Gables's Meza Fine Art featured two installations, one each by Pablo Soria and Karina Chechik, both Argentine artists who live in Miami. Chechik's work, an homage to writer Jorge Luis Borges, combined photographic projections with paintings of Buenos Aires street maps and Borges texts. Soria's work, a chilling meditation on conquest and colonialism, incorporated plaster casts of mutilated hands and a dressmaker's dummy hung from a makeshift gallows. Both works deserve to be seen in a better venue than Art Miami. Curiously, the rest of the galleries in the MICAF area were from Austria. Most of the paintings, drawings, and jewelry(!) they featured could not exactly be called "cutting edge."

"The Lesters told Ursula Krinzinger that they needed some people to fill that area," comments Ludwig Gerstacker, an artist sitting in at the Galerie Krinzinger stand (gallery director Ursula Krinzinger remained in Europe). "They told her to get some of the other Austrian galleries to come."

Genaro Ambrosino explains that he received a letter from the fair organizers dated November 10, stating that the MICAF area would include "40 to 50 younger, more avant-garde galleries" as well as a "theater for video and performance artists."

Lee Ann Lester, who acknowledges that Krinzinger "curated" the "cutting-edge" area, blames the resultant lack of interest on plans for a rival art fair in the Raleigh Hotel. That alternative fair, scheduled to consist of dealers mounting installations in hotel rooms, was to be held last week by the organizers of the Gramercy Art Fair in New York City, which takes place in the Gramercy Park Hotel. "Some people were confused," Lester contends. "They thought that was the MICAF." But according to Raleigh Hotel sales manager Martin Larsson, the Gramercy Art Fair organizers in New York canceled their project because of perceived competition from Art Miami's contemporary section. (Gramercy organizers could not be reached for comment.)

Whatever the reason, Art Miami's quest for better quality galleries cannot be seen as successful. Although promotional materials sent out by the fair claimed that 125 galleries from 25 countries would participate in this year's event, there were actually 93 galleries from 18 countries (Lester points out that many dropped out at the last minute). That compares to 108 galleries that participated last year and 160 in 1994.

One participant who came for three years, including last year, was Carla Stellweg, a well-known SoHo dealer who represents up-and-coming Latin American and American artists. "We had really built up a presence there," notes Stellweg, speaking from New York. "But we felt that unless we were to keep having a strong presence, which meant being next to other strong presences, we shouldn't return. There's no use going if you're surrounded by a lot of confusion and work that isn't in the same category."

In early December, Stellweg says she received a call from an International Fine Art Expositions salesperson who tried to convince her to buy a booth in the MICAF section. "If we weren't going to have a strong presence, it doesn't matter if we're paying $3000 or $15,000," Stellweg stresses now. "We saw all of these Viennese galleries were going to be there A not that there's anything wrong with them -- but what was that about? It seems a little exclusive."

Another former Art Miami participant who gave up on the fair is respected Coral Gables dealer Fred Snitzer, who hasn't had a stand there for two years. "I'm not in the fair because I'm tired of spending money to elevate very commercial galleries," he says. "I work very hard all year to show noncommercial contemporary art, and if I go there it makes very commercial galleries look more serious because I'm next to them."

Not only did fewer galleries participate this year, but the public appeared to stay away, although the Lesters claim that 38,500 people attended. Gone was the festive, shop-and-schlock air of past Art Miami events. The Lesters did manage to pack this year's January 4 opening-night party by sending out scores of free passes. However, on the down side, the fair was moved from its previous location in the front, A and B main halls of the convention center to the smaller C and D halls in the rear. And still the place looked empty on late Sunday afternoon. By Monday evening one dealer gazed up and down the deserted aisles, shrugging, "You could play soccer in here."

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