Deals! Deals! Deals!

Promotional materials for last week's Art Miami '96 conferred upon the event the dubious distinction of "America's Largest Mid-Winter International Art Fair." Since Art Miami's debut in 1991, organizers David and Lee Ann Lester have striven to position the annual showcase as the art world's working winter vacation -- akin to fashion designers' cruisewear collection shows -- scheduled between heavyweight art fairs in Cologne, Madrid, Chicago, and Basel, Switzerland. The husband-and-wife team, whose company, International Fine Art Expositions, is based up the coast in Stuart, Florida, has a keen business sense (dealers pay from $3000 to $30,000 to participate in the five-day fair), and their come-on-down spirit would make Carl Fisher proud.

"Blizzard conditions grip much of the northeastern United States," declared the Sunday, January 7, edition of the Art Miami '96 Newsletter, a flyer listing temperatures in American and European cities that was distributed daily to the gallery booths set up at the Miami Beach Convention Center, site of the art fair. "Coastal states report heavy snow, sleet, or freezing rain. Travel is difficult and all galleries in the Northeast will be closed for several days. We're glad you're in Florida with warm weather and lots of potential clients!"

Over the past five years, the presence of Art Miami has certainly stimulated the local art scene. The exhibition season, like most activity in South Florida, peaks in the winter anyway, but the art fair has given out-of-town dealers and collectors an excuse (other than the weather) to convene here simultaneously. Local galleries and museums have responded by scheduling their strongest shows for this time of year.

"A larger and larger group of clients and dealers is building up," says Mary-Ann Martin of Mary-Ann Martin Fine Art in New York City, whose large art fair stand featured realist paintings by contemporary Mexican artists. "These are major collectors from Latin America and Europe. I've met people here who I've wanted to meet and seen people who I've met before. We made some new contacts, we had a good time, and we sold."

For Martin, who deals in modern and contemporary works that appeal to traditional sensibilities, Art Miami is an annual commitment. She is a member of the fair's Dealers Advisory Committee, a group of gallery owners who help the organizers attract prominent galleries to the fair while discouraging other, less desirable ones from attending. "Our hope is to steadily improve the quality of the visitors to the fair, so that the level and variety will be better," Martin explains.

As in previous years, stands representing a handful of established galleries of interest to both collectors and the general public stood out among rows of visual debris. For example, New York's Pace Wildenstein gallery mounted a display of museum-quality works that included a Magritte, a Francis Bacon self-portrait, and works by Julian Schnabel, Donald Judd, and Antoni T…pies. Pace Wildenstein director Susan Dunn said she sold several works, including a Jim Dine sculpture, but she declined to specify the selling prices.

This group, strategically located near the entrance to the convention center, also included Galeria Ramis Barquet, from Monterey, Mexico, which offered works by consecrated young Latin American painters Guillermo Kuitca and Julio Galan, plus pieces by local Cuban artist Jose Bedia. Miami Beach's Gutierrez Fine Arts showed works by various Latin American masters, but also showcased local Haitian artist Edouard Duval-Carrie, while the stand of Peter Fetterman, a Santa Monica dealer selling historical and contemporary fine art photography, was stocked with exquisite, moderately priced works ($2000-$4000). There were several other galleries of this caliber, but after these it was all downhill.

Many galleries hauled out stuff that presumably would interest the Miami market: a glut of photographs and drawings of Christo's "wrapping" projects; piles of Nam June Paik video hardware; works by Wifredo Lam and many others in the style of Lam; and tons of hyperrealist paintings by artists from around the globe. A nerve-racking stroll to the back of the hall revealed a horrific hodgepodge of overpriced works that included still lifes with kittens (no joke), as well as paintings of pieces of fruit, a surplus of Mir cents etchings, and glass sculptures. One local curator aptly described the scene as "a gold-framed Coconut Grove Arts Festival."

The wildly uneven quality of the art exhibited at the fairs has plagued Art Miami from its inception, even though its organizers have relied on more gimmicks than P.T. Barnum to get galleries to participate. First they billed the event as a Latin American art fair, which resulted in a good response from galleries located in Latin America and domestic galleries specializing in Latin American art. Then, as Lee Ann Lester explains, they decided to "de-emphasize Latin American art" and shoot for a broader market. Last March, International Fine Art Expositions initiated another Miami Beach Convention Center fair -- Art Americas-New Trends -- in an effort to reroute many of the Latin American galleries there.

The Lesters' attempts to make Art Miami more sophisticated and "international" also include the creation last year of MISE (Miami International Sculpture Garden), billed as "America's largest indoor sculpture garden" -- it was included again at Art Miami '96. The utter hideousness of this group of bright-colored polyurethane squiggles and bulky bronze statues set on a carpet of plastic grass had to be seen to be believed: It looked like a miniature golf course in Hell.

Another innovative plan to attract new and better blood was this year's MICAF (the Miami International Contemporary Fine Art Fair), described in a press release as "a highly selective, juried exhibition, expected to draw its own audience of avant-garde, cutting-edge galleries and international collectors. . . . (MICAF) will include . . . conceptual art, installations, and performance art." In reality this "separate section of the fair" comprised a row of eight stands, for which, Lee Ann Lester points out, galleries paid the comparatively low price of $3000 (not including lights, electricity, catalogue listing, a wastebasket, and other "extras"). The largest MICAF booth belonged to Vienna's Galerie Krinzinger, a popular and prurient staple of the fair, which, like last year, brought sexy works by Paul McCarthy and photos of Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch's performances with raw meat and blood. Nearby, Coral Gables-based Ambrosino Gallery's stand featured a well-curated selection of mixed-media works by Jaime Palacios, Ana Albertina Delgado, Conrad Hamather, Israeli artists Hilla Lulu Lin and Zadok Ben David, and others.

Coral Gables's Meza Fine Art featured two installations, one each by Pablo Soria and Karina Chechik, both Argentine artists who live in Miami. Chechik's work, an homage to writer Jorge Luis Borges, combined photographic projections with paintings of Buenos Aires street maps and Borges texts. Soria's work, a chilling meditation on conquest and colonialism, incorporated plaster casts of mutilated hands and a dressmaker's dummy hung from a makeshift gallows. Both works deserve to be seen in a better venue than Art Miami. Curiously, the rest of the galleries in the MICAF area were from Austria. Most of the paintings, drawings, and jewelry(!) they featured could not exactly be called "cutting edge."

"The Lesters told Ursula Krinzinger that they needed some people to fill that area," comments Ludwig Gerstacker, an artist sitting in at the Galerie Krinzinger stand (gallery director Ursula Krinzinger remained in Europe). "They told her to get some of the other Austrian galleries to come."

Genaro Ambrosino explains that he received a letter from the fair organizers dated November 10, stating that the MICAF area would include "40 to 50 younger, more avant-garde galleries" as well as a "theater for video and performance artists."

Lee Ann Lester, who acknowledges that Krinzinger "curated" the "cutting-edge" area, blames the resultant lack of interest on plans for a rival art fair in the Raleigh Hotel. That alternative fair, scheduled to consist of dealers mounting installations in hotel rooms, was to be held last week by the organizers of the Gramercy Art Fair in New York City, which takes place in the Gramercy Park Hotel. "Some people were confused," Lester contends. "They thought that was the MICAF." But according to Raleigh Hotel sales manager Martin Larsson, the Gramercy Art Fair organizers in New York canceled their project because of perceived competition from Art Miami's contemporary section. (Gramercy organizers could not be reached for comment.)

Whatever the reason, Art Miami's quest for better quality galleries cannot be seen as successful. Although promotional materials sent out by the fair claimed that 125 galleries from 25 countries would participate in this year's event, there were actually 93 galleries from 18 countries (Lester points out that many dropped out at the last minute). That compares to 108 galleries that participated last year and 160 in 1994.

One participant who came for three years, including last year, was Carla Stellweg, a well-known SoHo dealer who represents up-and-coming Latin American and American artists. "We had really built up a presence there," notes Stellweg, speaking from New York. "But we felt that unless we were to keep having a strong presence, which meant being next to other strong presences, we shouldn't return. There's no use going if you're surrounded by a lot of confusion and work that isn't in the same category."

In early December, Stellweg says she received a call from an International Fine Art Expositions salesperson who tried to convince her to buy a booth in the MICAF section. "If we weren't going to have a strong presence, it doesn't matter if we're paying $3000 or $15,000," Stellweg stresses now. "We saw all of these Viennese galleries were going to be there A not that there's anything wrong with them -- but what was that about? It seems a little exclusive."

Another former Art Miami participant who gave up on the fair is respected Coral Gables dealer Fred Snitzer, who hasn't had a stand there for two years. "I'm not in the fair because I'm tired of spending money to elevate very commercial galleries," he says. "I work very hard all year to show noncommercial contemporary art, and if I go there it makes very commercial galleries look more serious because I'm next to them."

Not only did fewer galleries participate this year, but the public appeared to stay away, although the Lesters claim that 38,500 people attended. Gone was the festive, shop-and-schlock air of past Art Miami events. The Lesters did manage to pack this year's January 4 opening-night party by sending out scores of free passes. However, on the down side, the fair was moved from its previous location in the front, A and B main halls of the convention center to the smaller C and D halls in the rear. And still the place looked empty on late Sunday afternoon. By Monday evening one dealer gazed up and down the deserted aisles, shrugging, "You could play soccer in here."

"People in Miami are becoming more aware of what's going on and they're not willing to take the crap," offers Ambrosino, whose gallery's opening for its current group show, "Body of Work," was jammed the same weekend as the art fair. "They're more selective."

Maybe a swimsuit fashion show would have helped. In any case, the fair seems to have lost its cachet as a place for culturally curious locals to see and be seen. But despite Art Miami's ups, downs, and errors, collectors and curators continue to visit here at the time of the fair. "People put this on their calendar as a place to be in January, despite the mixed quality of the fair," says Snitzer. "So we're either going to have to fix that fair or make something better. It's got to be all or nothing.


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