By John Thomason
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Parking is invariably scarce on Ponce de Leon Boulevard and the neighboring streets on the first Friday of the month. Perfume and cigar smoke cloud the air, and Coral Gables's finest are out in force. In terms of numbers, the Coral Gables Gallery Walk, now in its fifth year, is the most consistently successful local art event. Hardly a bohemian culture crawl, the gallery walk is a tony social occasion, fueled by complimentary cocktails supplied by each gallery. And it's not really a walk at all -- free, city-supported shuttle vans chauffeur visitors around.
Members of the Coral Gables Gallery Association tout it as an important source of civic pride and neighborhood revenue. "The restaurants have their biggest bookings of the month on those Fridays," reports Glenn Engman, chairman of the Coral Gables Gallery Association. He estimates that 500 people regularly attend the free event each month, checking out exhibitions, then dining in the neighborhood. "This is the most successful gallery walk in the country," Engman effuses. "You get them in from right across the board -- other dealers, artists, students, collectors. I think the gallery walk is for everybody."
But some art dealers are sick of that spiel. In fact, they're tired of the Gables. "The climate of galleries in Coral Gables has gotten more commercial and less interesting," declares Fredric Snitzer, whose storefront gallery has been located at 1810 Ponce de Leon for a decade. At the end of the month, Snitzer plans to move into a new 2000-square-foot space on SW 38th Court, in a warehouse area just off the intersection of Ponce and Bird Road. The street, which is hidden from the main thoroughfare, borders Coral Gables but falls within Miami city limits.
"I think there's an advantage to being somewhere where people are going to seek you out to see art, not to have a glass of vodka," the gallery owner asserts.
Snitzer will share a newly renovated building owned by Claude Auguste Douyon, a dealer from Haiti who is also relocating his gallery, formerly known as Art Collector's, from Coral Gables. The new space, called Galerie Douyon, is slated to open within the next two weeks. Douyon cites cheap real estate and lower taxes as his main motivation for the move. Low rent was a factor for Snitzer, but he says having more space in which to show a greater variety of work -- instead of more easily marketed paintings -- was the biggest reason.
"I don't want to have a little store any more," Snitzer explains. "I have too many opportunities with artists I represent to do installations or other work that maybe can't be sold but will lead to other things."
Genaro Ambrosino shed tears when he closed his gallery on Ponce de Leon last month. But he says it was time to move on. The building, with its minimalist glass facade and blond wood floors, now houses an accountant's office and a telecommunications firm. Ambrosino inaugurated his vast new exhibition space in a former warehouse on SW 39th Avenue on January 11, with a group show and a performance by Miami-based experimental musicians Gustavo Matamoros and Alfredo Triff.
When Ambrosino, a 35-year-old Caracas native, opened his gallery on Ponce five years ago, he was exhibiting work by Latin American painters who adhered mostly to the neo-expressionist, magic realist style frequently showcased in other Coral Gables galleries. But he became increasingly interested in more conceptual contemporary art executed in nontraditional media. Consequently, last year most of his shows took the form of installations conceived specifically for the gallery space by a wide range of young artists.
During the Friday night gallery walks, Ambrosino Gallery was a favorite haunt for curiosity seekers who headed for the bar, then gathered on the sidewalk to jeer at art like Conrad Hamather's burlap sculptures or Cesar Trasobares's architectural polished-stone works.
"I was sick and tired of being associated with all the garbage of the Gables," snorts Ambrosino, who had been chafing against his surroundings since 1994, when Gables then-mayor Raul Valdes-Fauli suggested he put black paper over the gallery windows to hide a show of erotic art.
"I thought the gallery walks were important in terms of educating the public in Miami about art," concedes Ambrosino, who dropped out of the Coral Gables Gallery Association last June and began holding his own openings on dates of his choosing. "But honestly, after four years, I felt I had done my share. I had tried to educate people, and the response wasn't what I had hoped it would be. I didn't feel like continuing to supply people with booze. Some people go to those gallery walks because they want to see art, but most go because they have nothing else to do on a Friday night and they can drink for free.
"The people who usually buy at other galleries in the Gables don't like what I do," he concludes. "And the people who are really interested in the work I show don't want to come to my openings because it's too crowded on gallery walk night. So what's the point of being there and being involved in all that?"