ArtBasel: Where Did It Come From? What Does It Want?

Fred Snitzer, of Fredric Snitzer Gallery in Wynwood, does have a booth at ABMB and moreover is the sole Miami representative on the art fair's international selection committee. As such he has become something of a lightning rod for criticism from those who feel shut out. But the selection committee, Snitzer asserts, is simply an earnest group of knowledgeable professionals with very high standards. "Believe me, the committee is not influenced in any way by collectors or outside interests," he says. "I'm the little fish in that pond -- and it's not a mafia. The only criterion is the quality of work." Of the 250 applicants who were turned down, Snitzer thinks 100 of them could have come together for a "great fair" -- though no local dealers would be among them. "The best Miami galleries are already accepted," he says. "Maybe those bitching deserve another ten years of Art Miami," Snitzer adds caustically, referring to the far less prestigious art fair that takes place next month in the same venue. (Four Miami galleries were accepted for the main fair -- Ambrosino Gallery, Diana Lowenstein Fine Art, Fredric Snitzer Gallery, and Bernice Steinbaum Gallery -- and one -- Placemaker Gallery -- was chosen for Art Positions, a collection of twenty cargo containers transformed into avant-garde galleries at 21st Street and Collins Avenue.)

Many people believe Snitzer, 28 years in the business, wrote the book on contemporary art-dealing in Miami. Veteran local observers remember him barely scraping by in his original space, selling furniture and experimental work that starchy collectors derided. But he shrewdly adapted to changing currents in contemporary art and was an early champion of Miami's young artists. Today he presides over a stable of the hottest stars in the city's art firmament. He offers this seasoned advice for those new to the game: "I can tell you that if you show something really good and the buzz gets out, collectors in town for Basel will respond voraciously. The reality is that if someone is showing something remarkable in a little hole in the wall, people will flock to see it. But with these [collectors], everyone gets one look and that's it --they won't respond to crap."

Nick Cindric, director of Rocket Projects in Wynwood, dismisses Snitzer's contention that Miami's best galleries are represented at ABMB, since not all of the best applied. But he and Snitzer agree that if good work is shown outside official Basel at the convention center, visitors will make the effort to find it. "Last year Cristina Lei Rodriguez's installation Enchanting Intruder drew dozens of taxi cabs from the Beach and really allowed people to experience her voice in a significant way."

Art from Vienna
Art from Vienna
Art from Vienna
Art from Vienna

Leonard Tachmes, a plastic surgeon turned gallerist and a genuinely nice guy, can only dream of cabs lined up outside his North Miami space during ABMB. In fact he finds himself frustrated in his efforts to siphon off a few of the Baselites who come north to visit the Museum of Contemporary Art. Tachmes, who has a growing stack of rejection letters from Basel, complains that as soon as MoCA's annual big party is over, the crowds are bused out and neighborhood galleries are left empty. This year he's pulling out all the stops with a Cuban buffet, a DJ, and mojitos to lure people to Leyden Rodriguez Casanova's solo show in his gallery. Hedging his investment, Tachmes plans to send a crew over to the Basel buses with flyers and butterfly nets to capture an audience. "Do I see any benefits from the fair?" he muses. "Ask me next year. So far Basel has been a big zero."

Not all local dealers share Tachmes's disappointment. Virginia Miller, owner of ArtSpace/Virginia Miller Galleries in Coral Gables with 31 years in the business, believes ABMB plays an important role in educating people about contemporary and cutting edge art, a traditionally hard sell for her clients. "Before Art Basel, many collectors didn't know what they were looking at," she says. "The fair has opened their minds and made it easier for us. Also most of my clients from out of town who have a second or third home in Miami come to Art Basel and see me, and I manage a lot of dealer-to-dealer business at the fair."

Another ABMB booster is Bernice Steinbaum, a twenty-year veteran of the New York gallery scene. She relocated to Miami and four years ago opened a gallery in Wynwood. Paraphrasing the New York Times, she calls Art Basel the "Olympics of art fairs," and contends that it has prompted collectors living here to consider local galleries instead of instinctively looking to New York.

Steinbaum's gallery was accepted for Basel and has a booth at the convention center. "Those of us in the fair feel good about ourselves," she says, "our clients feel good about us, sales are wonderful, and last year's contacts brought three museum shows for my artists. Dealers from all over the world come to Art Basel and then schedule our artists in their galleries. There's a sense of sharing the wealth. And the Basel host committee has it down to a science: waiters give better service, cabbies are nicer, you get a sense that if there is a piece of paper on the street, someone will pick it up."

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