Parking is invariably scarce on Ponce de Leon Boulevard and the neighboring streets on the first Friday of the month. Perfume and cigar smoke cloud the air, and Coral Gables's finest are out in force. In terms of numbers, the Coral Gables Gallery Walk, now in its fifth year, is the most consistently successful local art event. Hardly a bohemian culture crawl, the gallery walk is a tony social occasion, fueled by complimentary cocktails supplied by each gallery. And it's not really a walk at all -- free, city-supported shuttle vans chauffeur visitors around.
Members of the Coral Gables Gallery Association tout it as an important source of civic pride and neighborhood revenue. "The restaurants have their biggest bookings of the month on those Fridays," reports Glenn Engman, chairman of the Coral Gables Gallery Association. He estimates that 500 people regularly attend the free event each month, checking out exhibitions, then dining in the neighborhood. "This is the most successful gallery walk in the country," Engman effuses. "You get them in from right across the board -- other dealers, artists, students, collectors. I think the gallery walk is for everybody."
But some art dealers are sick of that spiel. In fact, they're tired of the Gables. "The climate of galleries in Coral Gables has gotten more commercial and less interesting," declares Fredric Snitzer, whose storefront gallery has been located at 1810 Ponce de Leon for a decade. At the end of the month, Snitzer plans to move into a new 2000-square-foot space on SW 38th Court, in a warehouse area just off the intersection of Ponce and Bird Road. The street, which is hidden from the main thoroughfare, borders Coral Gables but falls within Miami city limits.
"I think there's an advantage to being somewhere where people are going to seek you out to see art, not to have a glass of vodka," the gallery owner asserts.
Snitzer will share a newly renovated building owned by Claude Auguste Douyon, a dealer from Haiti who is also relocating his gallery, formerly known as Art Collector's, from Coral Gables. The new space, called Galerie Douyon, is slated to open within the next two weeks. Douyon cites cheap real estate and lower taxes as his main motivation for the move. Low rent was a factor for Snitzer, but he says having more space in which to show a greater variety of work -- instead of more easily marketed paintings -- was the biggest reason.
"I don't want to have a little store any more," Snitzer explains. "I have too many opportunities with artists I represent to do installations or other work that maybe can't be sold but will lead to other things."
Genaro Ambrosino shed tears when he closed his gallery on Ponce de Leon last month. But he says it was time to move on. The building, with its minimalist glass facade and blond wood floors, now houses an accountant's office and a telecommunications firm. Ambrosino inaugurated his vast new exhibition space in a former warehouse on SW 39th Avenue on January 11, with a group show and a performance by Miami-based experimental musicians Gustavo Matamoros and Alfredo Triff.
When Ambrosino, a 35-year-old Caracas native, opened his gallery on Ponce five years ago, he was exhibiting work by Latin American painters who adhered mostly to the neo-expressionist, magic realist style frequently showcased in other Coral Gables galleries. But he became increasingly interested in more conceptual contemporary art executed in nontraditional media. Consequently, last year most of his shows took the form of installations conceived specifically for the gallery space by a wide range of young artists.
During the Friday night gallery walks, Ambrosino Gallery was a favorite haunt for curiosity seekers who headed for the bar, then gathered on the sidewalk to jeer at art like Conrad Hamather's burlap sculptures or Cesar Trasobares's architectural polished-stone works.
"I was sick and tired of being associated with all the garbage of the Gables," snorts Ambrosino, who had been chafing against his surroundings since 1994, when Gables then-mayor Raul Valdes-Fauli suggested he put black paper over the gallery windows to hide a show of erotic art.
"I thought the gallery walks were important in terms of educating the public in Miami about art," concedes Ambrosino, who dropped out of the Coral Gables Gallery Association last June and began holding his own openings on dates of his choosing. "But honestly, after four years, I felt I had done my share. I had tried to educate people, and the response wasn't what I had hoped it would be. I didn't feel like continuing to supply people with booze. Some people go to those gallery walks because they want to see art, but most go because they have nothing else to do on a Friday night and they can drink for free.
"The people who usually buy at other galleries in the Gables don't like what I do," he concludes. "And the people who are really interested in the work I show don't want to come to my openings because it's too crowded on gallery walk night. So what's the point of being there and being involved in all that?"
Ambrosino's 10,000-square-foot raw warehouse is just around the corner from Snitzer and Douyon's new location, across the street from a car rental agency and behind the Alley Cat strip club. The building has 24-foot ceilings and a loading dock. "The gallery has taken a more contemporary turn and I needed a more contemporary space," Ambrosino relates while giving an impromptu tour. "I needed a space that was more flexible." The dealer points out the concrete floors, which artists will be able to paint or even drill holes in as they wish. He plans to build a small exhibition room within the space for guest curators to hang shows, in addition to the main gallery. He also wants to include an area where functional objects made by artists will be sold (Ambrosino himself designs jewelry). Even with those divisions, the building is so large that Ambrosino is going to rent half of it to another gallery; he's negotiating with a local dealer to that end.
"If I put another contemporary art gallery here," he predicts confidently, "people who like contemporary art will start coming to this area."
Snitzer and Ambrosino envision their galleries as alternative spaces that will show a broad range of contemporary work that could include performance. This new Miami warehouse district could fulfill some of the broken promise of Lincoln Road, where the outstanding contemporary galleries of a few years ago have been pushed out by high rents.
"The neighborhood is a little iffy," Snitzer says appreciatively. "It feels really good. It feels a little like Chelsea in New York City, like a place that has that kind of potential.
"From a national standpoint, I love the idea of having an address that says Miami," he adds. "Everybody knows where Miami is. Miami's the place that's hot."
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Last weekend's Gramercy International Contemporary Art Fair provided a broader view of contemporary art then we're likely to see in a whole year in the local galleries. A sad comment on the state of art in Miami, but reason enough to hope this event at the Raleigh Hotel is repeated next year. Thirty-eight galleries set up shop in rooms on two floors of the hotel, displaying works on the walls, spread out on the beds, even in bathroom sinks. The dealers (most were from New York but several had flown in from Europe) brought works to fit the intimate setting: drawings, prints, photographs, objects, and small paintings. Prices ranged from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand. In spite of its alternative venue, the Gramercy Fair was a classy contrast to Art Miami, the crass commercial circus held simultaneously at the neighboring Miami Beach Convention Center. The hotel proved an apt environment for looking at, and talking about art. And the public responded: Dealers at the Raleigh reported a lot of interest, a lot of sales, and big crowds of enthusiastic local residents who, as one gallery employee commented, seemed "culture starved."
A Life Cycle, a group show, is on display through February 1 at Ambrosino Gallery, 3095 SW 39th Ave; 445-2211. For information about Fredric Snitzer Gallery, call 448-8976. For information about Galerie Douyon, call 445-6624.