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.
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.
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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."