The Agony and the Ecstasy

Flatlining fare mixes trash with treasure

Scrapping for a share of the market in the lingering shadow of Art Basel, Art Miami's sixteenth installment left some exhibitors complaining the fair is against a wall and ready for a blindfold and a cigarette.

Opening January 6 through 9, barely a month after the Swiss Godzilla Basel swallowed the crme de la crme of the international art scene and generated a reported $500 million in sales, Art Miami 2006 boasted a revamped image. Approximately 50 new spaces participated, and organizers waived the customary $12 admission Friday to bolster attendance.

The four-day fair — billed as more aesthetically accessible and offering more affordable investments for the consumer, which is perhaps a dig at Basel — attracted almost twenty local galleries hoping to capitalize on a community-oriented vibe. However, most of the top-ranked Wynwood spaces didn't open for Art Miami's scheduled gallery crawl of the district, anticipating a lukewarm response.

Action Half Life
Action Half Life

There were some stellar additions to the fair, many of whom found themselves nestled inside the Miami Beach Convention Center between exhibitors peddling commercial dross.

"I think Basel would have been better for us," groused first-time exhibitor Christina Grasso of Monaco's Galerie GAM, who won't be returning. "I think it was better for the fair to have us here than for us to come. We have not had a single sale, and much of the work I've seen here is terrible," she rued while sitting under Marc Chagall's Fleurs, an extraordinary 1927 still life depicting a bouquet of white and red flowers in a blue vase — valued at $1,780,000.

Many local dealers who believe Art Miami suffers from being scheduled in the wake of Art Basel opted to enter the PalmBeach3 fair that ran from January 13 through 16 — citing it appeals to a different market that attracts more discerning collectors.

"Art Miami coming on the cusp of Art Basel is problematic, and they are fighting an uphill battle," observes Bernice Steinbaum, who, along with several top-tier Miami galleries, participated in the Palm Beach event, and who also had a booth at Art Miami in 2001.

"What's happening to Art Miami is that the art-collecting public has become more sophisticated, studying auction results, reading magazines, and is generally better informed. When Art Miami finds itself scrambling to fill spaces at the last moment, it lets anyone who wants a booth in, and the public will not respond to what they recognize as strictly commercial galleries. We were at the Palm Beach fair last year as well, and sales were extraordinary."

New York's Gallery of Surrealism, in its sophomore year at Art Miami, thought this year's edition was amped-up and was one of the fair's crowd pullers. It featured exquisite works by Leonor Fini, Leonora Carrington, Max Ernst, Man Ray, and René Magritte.

"Sales were better last year, but we feel very positive about the fair's sense of direction and will definitely be back," mentioned Steve Lucas, the gallery's director, after moving a rare color lithograph from Dorothea Tanning's The Seven Spectral Perils series.

One of the members of Art Miami's selection committee, Eduardo Sant'Anna of London's StART Gallery, agrees with Lucas's notion that the quality of exhibitors may be improving, but expressed disappointment with attendance and sales prospects.

"I think if you can't get more people to come when you are providing free admission, and sales remain slow, it's a sign the public here might be burnt out," he lamented. "But there is still a chance things may pick up though."

His space featured works that rarely topped the $3000 mark yet drew no buyers, even though Sarah Hall's Red Rose Cupcake Bra — fashioned from confectionary papers, sugar flower, and wire — was a steal at $500. "It seems this year the interest is lower."

Some dealers suggest Art Miami is battling an identity crisis marked by several years of reinvention in the glutted post-Basel market.

"Ever since Basel arrived, Art Miami has been struggling to redefine itself," cites Genaro Ambrosino, a Basel staple and a former Art Miami exhibitor. "If you change things once, people become excited and come to see if you have improved. You do it again, they might give you another look, but if you are constantly changing and the quality is still not there, it begins to get confusing and serious collectors won't bother again," he explains.

Three days of scouring Art Miami from bow to stern in search of compelling contemporary work did turn up several gems, but I was disheartened to learn most of these exhibitors were abandoning ship.

Nina Menocal, whose eponymous Mexico City gallery has long been a regular at Art Miami, informed she would not return next year. "It has been very slow, and I was frankly surprised by the low quality of some of the galleries."

Her booth, among the most elegantly configured spaces at the fair, featured striking large-scale mixed-media works on canvas and paper by Cuban artist Agustín Bejarano, and included a video of the artist at work in his Havana studio. His scheduled appearance was nixed by U.S. Immigration.

The owners of Galerie Lausberg out of Dusseldorf and Toronto have participated in Art Miami for the past three years, hoping to bank on the "Miami Miracle" touted by the Basel publicity machine. Although they were pimping some of the Convention Center's juiciest work, they also found the fishing hole empty.

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