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On a recent weekday morning, Bernice Steinbaum welcomes a delegation of University of Virginia graduates for a tour of her eponymous Wynwood gallery. Outside flutters a giant banner with her picture. The caption: "Know BS."
Dressed in a lavish red, green, and gold skirt and jacket created from a wedding kimono and smiling widely behind enormous eyeglasses, Steinbaum walks the group through her current exhibit, "The Three Dimensional Gods and Goddesses Meet Their Cousins the Trees," which features mixed-media-on-aluminum works by local Haitian artist Edouard Duval-Carrié.
As she passionately describes the paintings' vodou inspiration, Steinbaum, who earned a doctorate in arts education from Columbia University, holds her audience rapt.
Since opening her two-story space on the corner of 36th Street and North Miami Avenue a decade ago, she has hosted hundreds of such tours. "For me," she says, "it's always been more about educating the public about art than about sales."
Next month, the 68-year-old Steinbaum will close her gallery permanently after 38 years in the business. Her departure comes at a time when local artists such as FriendsWithYou, Jen Stark, and Alvaro Ilizarbe (AKA Freegums) have announced they are relocating to Los Angeles. Unchecked gentrification in Wynwood and the Design District has raised fears that creative types and smaller galleries might soon be priced out of the area.
"She is one of the serious galleries in town and will leave a void when she's gone," observes Leyden Rodriguez-Casanova, a local artist and one of the founders of the Design District space Dimensions Variable. "Not only was she a pioneer here and represented pretty good talent, but early on she embraced local artists and showed their work."
Prior to her career as a dealer, Steinbaum worked in the Iowa public school system and was an associate professor at Drake University. While living in Iowa, she had her own TV program, Art Time With Mrs. Steinbaum. Later she was a professor at New York's Hofstra University before opening a gallery in NYC.
Early in her career, while still in New York, Steinbaum chose to represent artists outside the mainstream and built her stable to include about "50 percent women and 35 percent artists of color," she says.
"As I visited the galleries and museums in New York several times a week, it occurred to me that many of the women and artists of color —Asians, Latinos, African-Americans, and Native Americans — who were graduating with MFAs were not being shown at these places. And if dealers weren't exhibiting their works, and critics weren't writing about them, the museum curators were not going to discover them," Steinbaum says.
"As a feminist, I realized that the art world would benefit from this plethora of voices, and it became my calling... [Of course] I showed the work of white guys too," she adds with a chuckle.
Since opening her gallery in Wynwood in 2000, Steinbaum has been a catalyst for the development of the arts scene. She bought her building in 1998 after selling her 23-year-old gallery in New York and moving here to be closer to her children — Carrie, Sarah, and Jeremy — who had been living in the Miami area for 15 years.
"Carrie is 40 years old and a landscape architect who went to Harvard," Steinbaum beams. "Sarah is 42 and Jeremy 47. They both graduated from the University of Miami. Sarah is an attorney and teaches at UM during evenings. Jeremy is a surgeon and lives in Orlando," she says. Steinbaum's husband Harold was also a physician. He passed away two years ago.
After relocating to Wynwood, the dealer dreamed of converting the blighted area into the base of a thriving arts scene. "When I purchased the building, my daughters were furious," Steinbaum recalls. "The neighborhood was unsavory, and the lot across the street was dotted with rusting shipping containers. My building was being used as a crack house, and people were sleeping behind the walls.
"But they forgot that I'm from New York and had a New Yorker's savvy. I felt that this could really grow to become a great arts community. Today there are about 70 galleries in the district. Some will remain open and others won't."
Steinbaum won't reveal the amount she paid for the property. "That's relative. But I can tell you I invested a small fortune repairing cracked windows and clearing the cokeheads and drug paraphernalia and needles that littered the space to turn it into a respectable cultural institution," she says.
It took Steinbaum two years to convert the space into one of Wynwood's premier showcases. Today her gallery represents three MacArthur "genius grant" recipients — Pepon Osorio, Amalia Mesa-Bains, and Deborah Willis — five Guggenheim fellows, multiple National Endowment for the Arts award winners, two Annenberg fellows, and other lauded artists.
"They include Ken Aptekar, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Hung Liu, Miriam Schapiro, Faith Ringgold. There are so many I can't honestly remember all their names now," she says.
Back in the summer of 2000, Miami artist Karen Rifas caught Steinbaum's eye. Rifas's installation consisting of 24 mirrors arranged on the gallery's walls and floor was on display as part of "Levity and Gravity," a group show curated by Amy Cappellazzo and Tiffany Huot at Steinbaum's gallery.
There's praise from many quarters, but we shouldn't call it a tribute, as those who know her best believe that she may take a break, but she's too passionate about art and artists to ever disengage.
From our first meeting, Bernice Steinbaum has been the most generous, intelligent and (sometimes brutally) honest supporters of my work in promoting contemporary mosaic art. She lent credibility to mosaics by agreeing to jury an international competition, she told me what was dreck, and she always, always took my phone calls. I am enormously grateful for every second and brain cell she has thrown my way. PS Bernice never has been nor will be "old guard." I'm looking forward to Bernice Steinbaum: The Next Generation.
Though Bernice Steinbaum always looks the part of a diva, she never seems to take herself too seriously. She DOES take her art and artists seriously. I'm sure you could fill many pages with salutes from others whom she has represented. Edouard Duval-Carrie, one of her stalwarts and a most recent exhibitor praises her deep humanity, keen eye, love of surprise and her commitment to clear intellectual discourse in a brief audio interview. http://bitly.com/In7NNZ. This spring, Bernice also rose up to passionately defend the noble motivations of her artist Enrique Gomez de Molina, convicted of using protected animal parts in his sculptures. http://bitly.com/NrIJKo Thanks for this tribute, BUT, as she suggests, her activities in Miami's arts community are far from finished.