Bernice Steinbaum squints through the massive black-rimmed glasses that frame her eyes like fishbowls and sighs. "Do you have any other questions besides what I think about the scene in Miami?" she asks.
Her weariness is understandable. Since she left Manhattan in 2000 and put her savings into a dilapidated crack house in the middle of a rough patch of Wynwood, Steinbaum has been a driver behind Miami's stuttering progress toward that elusive tag of "real art city."
For everything she has brought to the burgeoning scene — a prime showcase for emerging artists (particularly women and minorities), a prominent voice in the national conversation, a foundation piece for Wynwood's revival — she also never lets the Magic City forget how far it still has to go. In an arts community she once likened to the Wild West, she is the uncowed voice of reason.
Steinbaum, a small-framed figure with a wide, knowing smile, sits behind a metal desk in a back corner of her pioneering two-story gallery at 36th Street and North Miami Avenue. A constant buzz interrupts her thoughts: a hustler trying to book Steinbaum's parking lots for Art Basel, a curator worrying over a glossy Tatiana Parcero print of two clasped hands painted over with a historic map, a beep at the front gate.
But the New York native doesn't miss a beat. Whether you want to hear it or not, this is what she thinks of our art scene: As far as it has come in ten years, it needs a downtown art museum with a world-class collection, and its daily newspaper needs a full-time art critic.
"We still lack that very basic structure," she says. "You can't be an art town just during Art Basel or one weekend a month for the art walk."
The Columbia University grad knows better than anyone just how far Miami has come. Since selling her 23-year-old gallery in New York and moving to Miami to be closer to her three children, Wynwood has become home to more than 70 dealers, Basel has put Miami on the map, and the blocks around her gallery have become the hottest district outside South Beach.
Steinbaum has never shied from a good fight. When she wasn't invited to Art Basel in 2005, she handed out dozens of her trademark white slippers, stamped with her gallery name, to supporters to wear at the fair. Recently, she has taken an unpopular stand against the free alcohol most galleries use to lure the massive crowds that choke Wynwood during Second Saturday art walks.
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"The little kids come just to get their six bottles of beer, and some adults never look at any art," she says. Steinbaum, for her part, has stopped serving booze.
No matter her frustrations with Miami, Steinbaum is here to stay. She'll keep advocating for the new Miami Art Museum, slated to open in 2012, and she'll keep giving young artists a place to grow. She'll never stop reminding Miami's artists, gallery owners, and art lovers how they can be better. "I'm ensconced here now," she says, smiling that knowing smile.
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