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Since the first U.S. solo exhibit of his floppy-disk paintings at the Robert Fontaine Gallery in August 2011, British artist Nick Gentry has become wildly popular with Miami collectors. Locals such as Sydney Server, a real estate agent, and Eyal Lalo, CEO of the Invicta Watch Group in Broward, have purchased several of Gentry's attention-grabbing canvases, which command up to $15,000 each.
Sir Ian McKellen, who plays Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings movies, commissioned the 32-year-old to do a portrait. And his paintings were recently featured on LeBron James's website.
What does Gentry credit as a major reason his career is soaring?
Wynwood's Second Saturday Art Walk, which might be the nation's most popular monthly art event.
"It's like nothing else I have seen in the art world," mentions Gentry, who has attended four or five of the monthly events and plans to live here during March and April. "Over the past few years, Miami art collectors have been really getting into my work, and when you couple that with the growing art scene in the city, it makes sense for me to spend more time here."
But not everyone is so enthusiastic about Art Walk. Though Robert Fontaine, who represents Gentry exclusively in the States, sells anywhere from two to 15 works during Second Saturday, others grumble that there is a battle underway for Wynwood's soul and that Art Walk's unruly crowds are hindering their business.
Interviews with more than a dozen gallery owners and collectors show that, contrary to some people's expectations, some dealers sell expensive artwork at the event. But other gallerists complain it hurts their business.
Alex Cesaria, who owns Unix Fine Art on NW 22nd Street at Second Avenue, says serious collectors won't mingle with the unwashed masses during Second Saturday. He suggests that an "etiquette guide" be created to inform revelers about how to comport themselves while visiting galleries. "Honestly, it would be useful if New Times helped educate people how to behave properly and be respectful of the artworks," says the 33-year-old Italian dealer, who also owns a space in London.
At his space, Cesaria features works by top international names such as Marcello Lo Giudice, who has exhibited at the Venice Biennale and who has several $65,000 sculptures on view at Unix. Cesaria's space offers mostly high-ticket items in the $15,000 to $300,000 range.
"This is not a club; it is a serious gallery," he observes. "But I have found myself having to tell people during Second Saturdays not to touch or hug the artworks. Also, we need more serious collectors to support the arts and the galleries to improve the qualities of their programs here."
Cesaria, who opened his Wynwood space in January 2012, says he sells mostly to international collectors visiting from abroad rather than to locals. Like other international dealers such as France's Emmanuel Perrotin and Spain's Luis Adelantado, who have since left Wynwood, Cesaria was seduced by the neighborhood's promise.
"Many Second Saturday visitors don't know how a gallery environment functions," he adds. "What good is it if 2,000 people come to Art Walk if they don't respect or buy works? I am enjoying tremendous business outside this city but not experiencing the same results here. Rents in Wynwood are expensive, and it costs thousands of dollars to maintain a space here. If the collectors don't support the arts community, I might have to move to New York or close and just keep my London space."
Gregg Shienbaum, whose eponymous gallery is located on the same block as Unix and also inaugurated his space in early 2012, is more optimistic. He has sold two or three artworks every Second Saturday for the past six months. He also points to the recent arrival of restaurants such as Bloom and Pride & Joy as a maturation of the neighborhood.
"Things here are changing. You have more restaurants, boutiques, and bars coming in," Shienbaum says. "I had a gallery in downtown Miami for a decade and another in Broward for nine years. By far this has been my most profitable location yet. People who come during Second Saturday purchase a piece and then become regular visitors and buyers."
Renee Delaplaine, a winemaker who has a warehouse in Wynwood, says she enjoys buying works during art walk and recently purchased a painting of a chimpanzee in a phone booth by British urban artist Matti, "the Monkey Man," for $4,000 at Shienbaum. "I don't think you'll ever eliminate the party atmosphere," the 58-year-old collector says. "But why should you want to? It's more fun to have people surging through the streets, even if they're only excited about getting a beer on the corner. These partiers create energy, and lots of it."
Eyal Lalo, one of Fontaine's steadiest buyers, agrees. He says he and his wife try to attend the monthly culture crawl whenever they are in town and often take visitors and clients to the galleries during Second Saturday. Most of them love the event's festive nature.
"Almost all our pieces purchased locally have been during Art Walk," the 38-year-old says. "Among our favorites are works by Nick Gentry as well as established artists like Roy Lichtenstein, Banksy, and Warhol. We try to get to Art Walk as early as possible. We don't mind the crowds since it adds a nice element to the overall experience."
Server, the real estate agent, has spent $27,000 buying works of art by Gentry, Tina La Porta, Simon Thompson, and others at Fontaine's gallery. But unlike Lalo, the 40-year-old Server, who sits on the board of the Bakehouse Art Complex, says she is not a fan of the huge crowds. "The last time I went was in October 2012. I noticed some policemen on horses to help control foot traffic."
Server also takes out-of-town guests to Second Saturday whenever she has the opportunity. "Their opinion is much like mine. They have never seen such a huge turnout for an art event." She also mentions that some of her guests say it reminds them of Mardi Gras. "Some say it's not as much about the art as it is about drinking and having a good time. I think it is a bit of both. But either way, it brings a lot of exposure to Wynwood."
Others, such as Beatriz Salvatierra Giardinella, who along with her husband Claudio have been collecting art for the past 35 years, are not as positive about Wynwood's recent developments. A retired prosthodontist who moved here from Venezuela in 2003, Salvatierra Giardinella, who says she's in her 50s, was an early Second Saturday fixture. She regularly bought works from the Bernice Steinbaum Gallery, David Castillo Gallery, Black Square Gallery, and Dot Fiftyone Gallery, where she spent $2,000 to $15,000 apiece on her expansive purchases.
But lately she likens her visits here to a surreal experience not unlike a trip to the steaming bowels of Mordor in J.R.R. Tolkien's classic. "Going to Wynwood during Second Saturday used to be a pleasure," she says. But not anymore. The galleries and authorities have not done enough to prevent the event from devolving into what she calls a nightmare. "It's a pity. It has become a public market in the middle of the street with annoying music, smells, and lack of parking and security for people like me."
"Miami is a salad bowl of all kinds of people, almost like a pu-pu platter if you think of it," Fontaine muses in response. "We have all kinds of different galleries and collectors here. People need to remember that a town like this allows dealers like me to do good. Sure, there are a lot of posers, but people also need to remember that Wynwood is a place where you can still open a gallery and enjoy huge crowds interested in art, unlike New York City, for example, where the scene is established and almost impossible to enter."