Wynwood's Second Saturday circus

"Art walk has become dreadful," says Bernice Steinbaum, whose pioneering gallery helped shape today's Wynwood.
Colby Katz

Things can get rowdy during Second Saturday in Wynwood, but the folks at Ascaso Gallery weren't prepared for the bond some art crawlers recently forged with the works on display.

One visitor to the space on NW Second Avenue stepped into an installation of a nude woman seductively reclining on a hammock, not realizing the sand he trod on was a carefully placed part of the $380,000 work by Cornelis Zitman. Another tipsy patron mounted artist Alirio Palacios's bronze sculpture of a horse worth $50,000, and a third spectator stuck his noggin inside a $250,000 op art cube by Jesús Rafael Soto.

"We had to extract the guy's head from the cube and escort him out," says Elias Sultan, operating director of the gallery, which showcases top Latin American works that sometimes fetch several million dollars. "They asked, 'How good is the art if you can't touch it?'"

In preparation for this weekend's art walk, Wynwood gallery owners have been asking a different question: How valuable is the wildly popular art crawl if the crowds are coming not to buy — or even view — the art, but to drink the free booze?

"Art walk has become dreadful," says Bernice Steinbaum, whose pioneering gallery helped shape today's Wynwood. She no longer serves liquor and has long shut down early during art walk. "People forget we are businesses, not saloons. We are not watering holes for young people to come and drink before leaving for a party on South Beach.

"These kids never look at the art. Never. The collectors are put out. It's a little-kid function," she sighs before describing how an art walk visitor recently damaged a $12,000 Theresa Diehl installation.

This Saturday, crawlers will find that at least 17 of the four dozen participating galleries will open earlier than usual, at 2 p.m., and shut down at 9 instead of 11 p.m. Some of the galleries will also stop serving free liquor. They hope the new hours will lure back collectors turned off by the difficulty of finding a parking space and navigating the large crowds that flood the streets.

Not everyone is enthusiastic. Sergio Garcia, a 51-year-old artist who lives in Wynwood and attends every gallery walk, says, "I'm an old punk rocker and street artist, and I love all the shenanigans going on during art walk. Closing early isn't going to solve anything."

Started by area artists, curators, and dealers in 2003, when the neighborhood was still undeveloped and the spaces numbered about two dozen, Second Saturday has always attracted outlaw antics. Rocket Projects, a gallery that cofounded the event, hosted a show called "Urban Recipes" in January 2004. It featured a huge chicken coop. Patrons were encouraged to select their favorite fowl, which was then butchered and barbecued for public consumption in Rocket's courtyard.

That same night at the World Arts Building a few blocks away, artist Jasmine Kastel poked fun at the art walk's party vibe by consuming a bottle of Jack Daniel's straight from a paper bag and offering shots to art patrons before passing out in another artist's installation and getting booted from the gallery.

As Art Basel Miami Beach gained an international reputation and New World School of the Arts, along with other local institutions, graduated top artists, Wynwood transformed into a gallery mecca. Saturday art walks became everyman's view of the city's burgeoning visual arts scene. Then in September 2008, cracks began to show in the event. In a confidential email, one gallery owner complained it was attracting crowds "dedicated to finding free booze."

At least two spaces — Dorsch and Gallery Diet — changed openings to other nights and stopped serving alcohol.

But that didn't deter the crowds. "Things started escalating here last October," says Janda Wetherington, director of Pan American Art Projects on NW Second Avenue. "Now you have stilt walkers and flame throwers and food trucks where people buy racks of barbecue they bring to eat in the gallery. It's turned into a total circus. It's chaos. The day after Second Saturday, the streets here look like a war zone because of all the litter."

During the January art walk, a group of revelers filled containers with beer in front of the Curator's Voice space. They fed it to stray dogs, which the partiers then urged to cross the street, betting on which mutt would be mowed down by a passing car.

In response to the growing circus atmosphere, 30 dealers and gallerists, many representing Wynwood's top art spaces, formed the Miami Art Dealers Association (MADA). Its members hope to make Second Saturday friendlier for art lovers, families, and collectors. At a meeting February 10, members voted to change their Second Saturday hours to 2 to 9 p.m., beginning with this Saturday's walk.

"This is not about elitism in any way," says Paco De La Torre, director of Butter Gallery, which is not a member of MADA but has recently been opening at 2 p.m. during art walks. "We have had problems with food trucks fuming us in the space with their faulty exhaust systems. When it comes to closing, we play it by ear and usually wrap things up after the first few douchebags show up."

Read more at "March 12 Wynwood art walk packs a visual punch."

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