Good Golly, Missed Trolley!

Pity the poor gallery owner. Face it, most people see art as a luxury, not something that's required in order to make it through the day. When the economy turns sour, sales shrivel. But that hasn't dissuaded Gables art dealers from hustling, forging ahead, looking for ways to keep business brisk. As part of that push, last year they formed the thirteen-member Coral Gables Galleries Association and dreamed up Gables Gallery Night, a one-night-per-month coordinated open house.

The event, by all accounts, has been a success. Within months of the first gallery night on January 11, 1991, thousands of art lovers were turning the City Beautiful into the City Bountiful. Crowds packed the galleries to see everything from nineteenth- and twentieth-century masterworks at Virginia Miller Galleries to investment-quality Latin American pieces at Elite Fine Art to English, French, and Italian furniture and art objects at Isidora Wilke Inc.

Restaurants and other establishments noted the surge of business from the night's spillover. So popular was the evening, in fact, that two months later the city agreed to pay for a trolley to shuttle visitors from place to place so they would only have to park once. That increased the visibility of yet more businesses as the trolley led art patrons on a mini-tour of the heart of the Gables. By fall the galleries had added two more trolleys, with Old Town Trolley Tours of Miami pitching in by providing a 50 percent discount on its usual $550-per-trolley rate.

Suddenly, though, there came a dark threat on the horizon, a specter so vile and noxious, the very thought of it sent the gallery group scrambling to protect its realm. Invaders. Interlopers. Carpetbaggers trying to muscle in on the treasure the Gables keepers-of-the-culture had toiled long and hard to create.

Just who do they think they are?
"We are gallery owners, too," says Sibylle Desbois, owner of Galerie de France, who wants the trolley to stop at her door. "We're just not part of their little group, so they want to boycott us. I've been trying to get into the group since September, but every time I tried, they wanted something new. It was always something."

First "they" wanted to look at herresume, recalls Desbois, whose gallery at 299 Miracle Mile has exhibited primarily contemporary European paintings and sculpture since opening last July. Then they wanted a schedule of exhibitions. Then they stopped in for a visit, to look at the gallery. Desbois and co-interloper Dora Valdes-Fauli, owner of the Americas Collection at 126 Aragon Avenue, complained to Coral Gables Development Director Cathy Swanson, who in turn urged the group to set up criteria whereby new members could join their ranks.

Members gathered with knitted brows. They discussed. They debated. They disagreed. No way, they finally decided, was anyone going to just waltz in on the party without paying their fair share. Between costs for ads, printing brochures, and leasing of trolleys, Gallery Night has cost association members an average of $2800 per month. "It isn't cheap," says Richard Arregui, president of the Galleries Association. "All we are saying is anyone who wants to join in on this thing has to expect to pay their way."

The association resolved in December that new members could join if they paid a $1000 initiation fee. And membership would be limited to galleries that had been in operation for more than two years, although that last requirement would be waived for Galerie de France and the Americas Collection. (Association members say they didn't want to go to the hassle of printing brochures only to have to make expensive revisions if unestablished businesses were to go under.)

The conditions for membership failed to impress the newcomers, who immediately complained again to the city's development director. "They purchased certain services with those thousands of dollars, and they received those services," argues Valdes-Fauli of the Americas Collection, which opened last November. "I'm willing to pay the same as everybody else, but not as a punishment for opening six months later than someone else. That's what this is, nothing more than a punishment. It has nothing to do with any administrative costs."

The city agreed with Valdes-Fauli, and last month Cathy Swanson informed association president Arregui, who has closed his Arregui Hsia Fine Art but plans to open another gallery, that beginning with the March 6 tour, the city would no longer provide its $275 funding because of "exclusionary practices" of the group. "When the galleries first came up with this idea and asked us to sponsor a trolley," says Swanson, "the idea was that this would be a good way to bring new people and new galleries into the city and promote nightlife. The idea was to support all businesses and legitimate galleries, as opposed to frame shops, that could be included in the tour. Obviously they are no longer meeting those conditions."

Although some association members express less hard-line attitudes toward admission of new members, the group has presented a united front in response to the city's action. The membership requirements still stand. Arregui says they will now hire only two trolleys (which he says is sufficient), and that they have contracted with a different company. Gallery night will go on, he vows, although the group's relationship with the city is, at least for the time being, less than warm. "Gallery night has been a wonderful thing for the city," he says. "The people at the city should be doing everything they can to support us and make this thing grow and succeed, but instead they go on the offensive and come bitching at us about how we didn't let these other people in, and they try to impose guidelines on us. And for what? For one trolley? Well, the group's attitude is, `Hey, what's it going to cost us? Twenty dollars each a month? We'll just pay it.'"

"We don't want to hurt the gallery program," Cathy Swanson insists. "But what's fair is fair, and they're not playing fair. Now, if at some point they decide they want to come back to what was originally presented, we certainly will consider bringing the money back. Quite frankly, I don't think it was broke, so I don't know why they are trying to fix it.


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