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Steinbaum has represented Rifas ever since. The artist will be left without a gallery for the first time in a decade when the dealer shuts her doors. "Bernice was a real mover," Rifas says. "My gosh, I know she helped people in the community in many ways — from serving on committees judging student shows for the University of Miami arts program to organizing a salon of artists who were left out of Art Basel during its first year.
"Her gallery is probably the nicest place to show in all of Miami. You could always have work exhibited upstairs regardless of what was exhibited on the first floor. That was especially important for an installation artist such as myself."
Before she closes her space in July, Steinbaum is trying to help some artists find gallery representation. Others might seek representation outside of Miami. "Some of my artists I've helped put in other programs, some are still in the process of finding a new place, but not all will remain in Miami," she says, adding that "some of them feel they are not receiving appropriate feedback for their work here."
Miami, she says, has matured into a thriving arts town with the presence of Art Basel. But our city still needs a downtown museum with a blue-chip collection. "Every serious art city has a museum downtown. It doesn't have to be a monument to the architect or about who gets the naming rights on the toilet paper dispenser," she quips.
The new Pérez Art Museum will cost $220 million to build and is scheduled to open in 2013.
"When plans were announced to build a new museum downtown here, it was like a riot that raised a huge cry that would make one think one was asking to build a brothel. Museums are great for the public and important learning institutions," she says. "We need a full-time art critic at the Miami Herald too!"
As the New Times art critic, I have some indelible memories of Steinbaum over the years. After her space became one of a handful of local galleries represented in the first three editions of Art Basel, she wasn't invited back in 2005. So she gave a legion of supporters her trademark white bedroom slippers, stamped with her gallery logo, to wear at the Miami Beach Convention Center that year.
By April 2006, construction of the Shops at Midtown Miami was in full swing across the street from Steinbaum's gallery. She opened an exhibit called "Chandelier Mistaken for God," featuring life-size figurative sculptures created by New York artist James Croak. His haunting figures of destitute men were cast in a dirt-and-glue binder that looked not unlike the lava ash covering victims after Mount Vesuvius blew its stack. Ironically, the cars parked outside her gallery during the opening ended up covered in soot blowing in from all the construction during the opening of her show, as if an ecological disaster had been underway.
Nina Johnson-Milewski, who worked as Steinbaum's assistant then, recalls the dealer's enduring influence on a rising generation now making its own impact on the scene. "Bernice Steinbaum was my mentor for many years. I started working with her when I was 15, and she helped shape who I am, not only as a professional but also a person," says Johnson-Milewski, who went on to open her own successful space, Gallery Diet. "Bernice is an educator at heart and always treated her gallery as an educational hub — mentoring artists, interns, and anyone who came through the door."
For her part, the always affable Steinbaum, who is easily recognizable for her trademark eyeglasses and exquisite wardrobe (exclusive of those silly slippers) is quick to point out that although she is retiring and selling her building, she's not planning on abandoning the Miami arts community. "I would like to spend some time getting a manicure, a pedicure, and a massage. I also want to enjoy reading about swelling loins and pulsating thighs and not feel guilty that I'm not reading about art history and contemporary art," she cracks. "Don't write my epitaph yet, because I'm not going to disappear."
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.