Robert Fontaine has a lot to celebrate. The gallerist has just moved into a new, multifaceted art space in Wynwood, an upgrade from the boxy shop he used to call home. His latest exhibit, "Decadent City," combines the works of artists he represents and those who've appeared on his walls in the past. But the biggest reason to celebrate? Five years of survival in Miami's trendiest neighborhood.
This week, Fontaine is throwing his gallery a fifth-anniversary bash that doubles as a housewarming party for its new location on NW Second Avenue and an opening reception for "Decadent City." After waiting months for construction to finish and moving a trove of artwork down the street to the new spot, Fontaine says he looks forward to some merriment. And after nearly six years in Wynwood, he knows he's been fortunate to sustain his success in a neighborhood where even the murals rotate every few months.
"It'll just be a big celebration," he says on a scorching late-September afternoon, his first day of unpacking at the mercifully cool Robert Fontaine Gallery at 2121 NW Second Ave. "I mean, five or six years is not exactly a long time, but for me, I guess... it feels like it's been long enough to celebrate.
"A lot of galleries have come and gone too, so it's kind of nice to know that I'm still able to do what I want to do in this area."
Fontaine represents a dying breed in Wynwood: the stable, long-term gallerist. Most of the big-name galleries who once dominated the neighborhood have fled the increased rents and growing crowds — side effects of the popularity they helped create. They've moved to Little Haiti, Coconut Grove, or even South Beach. Fontaine, on the other hand, opted to relocate within Wynwood, taking a gamble that the place that fostered the once-nascent business of art in Miami will continue to afford him success.
Fontaine signed his first Wynwood lease in December 2010 after a couple of years of trying out Naples and South Beach. At the time, he says, Wynwood was a dicier place to do business.
"I had to lock my door," he says. "This was a really nasty neighborhood at one time... People had to knock at the door for me to let them in because I needed to know who was coming in the door." His rent then was about $1,600 a month.
But he and his neighborhood were poised to take big roles in a city growing into an art mecca. Art Basel had come to Miami Beach in 2002, building global interest in local works. The Knight Foundation's Arts Challenge arrived in 2008, offering funding for locals' bright art ideas. And in 2013, a couple of years after Fontaine set up in Wynwood, Pérez Art Museum Miami would establish itself as a contemporary colossus by the bay. The museum has "really put us on the map artistically," Fontaine says.
Wynwood itself had hosted galleries for years before Fontaine started there, including the early-adopter Bernice Steinbaum and Dorsch galleries since 2000. But as Fontaine grew out of his first little space and into a larger one at 2349 NW Second Ave., he saw a boom around him. More Northeasterners began moving down, fueling demand for "less craft and more substantial, investment-worthy art," Fontaine says. Galleries branched out from nearby Wynwood Walls, which Fontaine describes as "kind of like the center of Wynwood — [but] it won't be for long." More people began walking along NW Second Avenue.
Now, years after his days of screening visitors at the door, "we have glass windows and glass doors," he says. "It's a completely different thing."
The next step in Fontaine's professional evolution is experimenting with his new space. He's moved only two blocks, but the warehouse-style building is brand-new and gives him more ways to show off (and sell) art.
His old location was one story high — "more of a retail space," Fontaine says. He felt the limitations of a venue that was "kind of predictable — you know, where you can only have a certain amount of area that you can work with."
In the new spot, he has movable walls and 23 feet of vertical space. The warehouse is more "posh," "ethereal," and flexible: "I can actually really involve myself with things that are kind of not so mainstream — more conceptual shows."
Fontaine has an ample stock of art to fill the space. His interest is in the postwar to the present, and his wares — both his own acquisitions and those lent to him for sale — reflect that broad sweep of time.
The variety is impressive as Fontaine shows off one wonder after another from among the rows of wrapped-up works. There's a Warhol paper dress that's been exhibited at the Guggenheim in New York and Bilbao. There's a dizzying ink cityscape by Ben Sack, with infinitesimal skyscrapers jutting upward and districts jammed together. There's a mountainscape that reminds Fontaine of a salon painting, except it's a watercolor creation by New Zealand's Henrietta Harris. And there's an intricate Persian carpet design painted, not woven, by Miami-based Jason Seife. "Not everybody thinks of carpets being interesting, but when somebody's painting them, it's absolutely brilliant," Fontaine says.
Fresh approaches to established genres are a common thread in Fontaine's collection. Keeping the art interesting is crucial in today's Wynwood, where the rising costs that accompany gentrification in the area have driven out many galleries. Fontaine was paying around $5,000 a month, "about as much as I'm willing to pay," when he left 2349 NW Second Ave. for the warehouse.
"There's not too much affordability here for galleries... Retail and restaurants and bars are cash businesses, so they do quite well, but galleries are a little bit different." The gallerist describes his business as "more on the retail side" than other art spaces that have been priced out. But even though collectors are still looking to buy, art is a bigger investment than food and more seasonally popular.
Fontaine concedes he got lucky with his latest move. His landlord sold the building up the street but invited him to move into the new one. Fontaine said no at first but then visited the warehouse and loved it. "You know when you go to walk in somewhere and it's like, 'This place is going to need a little bit of sage'?... It wasn't the case with this."
He also appreciates the mural-covered building and handpicked gallery tenants, including Tresart next door — "I'm not next to a Subway or something."
Now he imagines what he'll be able to do here.
"Everything before was kind of salon-hung from floor to ceiling, and everything meshed together," he says, "but it was just... a function of space." He pictures more breathing room on the walls and a neon piece hanging in the huge front window.
"Everything is like in flux, or transition, which is really fantastic," he says. "I love change."
And though there are fewer art spaces in the area, the variety of galleries around Fontaine has him optimistic about his prospects as he reopens.
"There's such a diversity amongst galleries. There are retail galleries; there are galleries that are more kind of project space, conceptual-minded; there are galleries that are vanity projects," he says. The neighborhood is "kind of a mixed bag here, which is good... If it were one thing, then all of the galleries would have left by now."
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He says he hopes to call the warehouse home for the next ten years. First, though, he's taking a look back. "Decadent City" features artists he has worked with "since the beginning" and the ten he represents now — "a little touch of everybody, without making it look like a consignment shop."
He says it's important to reflect on where he's been as well as where he and his community might be headed.
"A lot of people like to go forward and not look back," he says. "But I think the forward motion didn't exist without the history."
Saturday, October 8, through Saturday, December 10, at Robert Fontaine Gallery, 2121 NW Second Ave., Miami; 305-397-8530; robertfontainegallery.com. A fifth-anniversary soiree and opening reception will be held Saturday, October 8, from 7 to 10 p.m.; RSVP to email@example.com is required. Regular gallery hours are Monday through Saturday from noon to 6 p.m. or by appointment. Admission is free.