From the time she first planted her flag in Wynwood, when Bernice Steinbaum spoke people listened.
Shortly after opening her two-story space on the corner of 36th Street and North Miami Avenue a decade ago, she hosted an open house for the local arts community attracting about 100 curious visitors. They were eager to take a measure of the dealer who had arrived here after selling her 23-year-old gallery in New York and relocated to a blighted urban area notable only for its lack of culture.
At the time, Steinbaum spoke of Wynwood having the potential to become a world-class arts destination. Some in the audience scoffed at the notion. But many more others were inspired by her vision.
Since then Steinbaum has seen upwards of 70 dealers claim a stake
in Wynwood and help transform the once gritty neighborhood into a
thriving arts district. She was also a staple at early incarnations of
Art Basel and witnessed Miami slowly elbowing its way onto the
international arts stage.
Next month, Steinbaum is closing her doors, saying that it's time to pass on the baton to younger colleagues.
"You know, I just won a Lifetime Achievement Award from the College Arts
Association. Basically, it's an award that is given
to someone after they die or retire, so I have chosen the latter," quips
the popular dealer. "It's time to pass the gauntlet to younger dealers
who are making a name for themselves in the community and retire while
I'm on top. That's the goal."
Steinbaum says she's looking forward to some personal time after the
rigors of running a major gallery the past 35 years. But, she says, "I will still be
involved in the arts community somehow. That's what I'm trained to do."
Local artists say she will be sorely missed as a generous friend and advocate and a voice of reason.
"It was always an adventure walking into Bernice's office," says Karen
Rifas, a local artist Steinbaum has represented since her arrival in Miami.
"One felt they were entering a grand art salon and Bernice would be
dressed up in one of her many exquisite outfits and holding court with
the who's who in the art world or anyone interested in art or willing to
Steinbaum, whose gallery has been a showcase for female and minority
artists and boasts a couple of MacArthur Genius Grant winners, reached
out early to local talent she wanted to cultivate as a dealer.
"Bernice will be sorely missed," says Haitian artist Edouard
Duval Carrie, whose work is currently on view at the gallery, and who's been represented by
Steinbaum for the past decade. "Bernice has been quite a
voice in our community from the beginning. After she got here, she sent
me a box of chocolates, and that's how we started. It has been a sweet
affair working with her, and I am sure she will continue advocating for
artists here long after she retires," he says.
Rifas agrees. "Bernice was always willing to look at artist's portfolios
and literally saw hundreds of them, and would speak to anyone who walked
through her doors over the years," Rifas recollects. "She has always
been an educator for the arts, and for that matter has been an advocate
for anything that raised the bar on a more just and humanitarian
society," Rifas says.
Courtney Johnson, an assistant professor of photography at the
University of North Carolina, worked as Steinbaum's gallery assistant
from 2006 to 2009 before she began representing her. She says the dealer's
mentoring influence on emerging talent made a marked impact.
"Bernice has been very generous. She is very giving, very involved in
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the community, and I feel extremely lucky to have learned so much from