Bernice Steinbaum is back.
The legendary gallerist, who opened her eponymous gallery on a semiquiet corner of NW 36th Street in the quasi-industrial and working-class community of Wynwood 15 years ago, helped turn the former warehouse district into a bustling arts haven. Ten years later, she closed her space, saying it was "time to pass the gauntlet."
Since then, Wynwood has become the poster child for gentrification and skyrocketing real-estate prices in South Florida. High-profile events such as Art Basel and Miami Art Week accelerated this boom, which ultimately pushed Steinbaum out, along with many of the artists, gallerists, and working-class families who fostered Wynwood’s first wave of transformation into the busy arts district and tourist magnet it is today.
“Times change and neighborhoods change,” Steinbaum says. “My gallery in Wynwood was a former commercial space of Roche Bobois. Midtown did not exist and was a container graveyard for the big ships. None of the residential buildings or businesses were there when I opened in 2000. When I left in 2012, there were some 86 galleries in Wynwood. The neighborhood became very gentrified, and the rents for galleries and for artists became astronomical. The dealers who did not own their own spaces had to move to more affordable spaces, as did some of the artists.“
When Steinbaum closed in 2012, she promised she wouldn’t disappear. And she kept her promise by remaining a fixture at events such as Art Miami. But now Steinbaum has stepped back into her role as a gallerist, opening an intimate and startlingly beautiful space in her home in Coconut Grove. The space elegantly reflects Steinbaum’s fierce commitment to featuring a diverse cross section of artists. She might even sneak you in for a private tour of her home and into the luxurious bathroom she designed herself.
“I was a pioneer in New York because I chose to show 50 percent women and 35 percent artists of color — some of those of course were women — and some white guys," Steinbaum says. "I am proud to have been the first commercial gallery in Wynwood."
Now Steinbaum is charting a new path with her newly minted and very private (but extraordinarily welcoming) by-appointment-only gallery in the Grove. It opened this month with “Threads of Connection,” an invitational group exhibition curated by Steinbaum that features local and international artists (and an equal number of men and women) working in threads and fibers, including Carrie Sieh (United States), Aurora Molina (Cuba), Hung Liu (China), El Anatsui (Ghana), Katika-Penzina Ekaterina (Hungary), and many others.
“Threads of Connection” exquisitely reflects Steinbaum’s fascination, even obsession, with fiber and thread and how it has contributed to modernity. It also does something even more significant: It figuratively and literally threads together our seemingly disparate and irreconcilable global cultures into one. For Steinbaum, fiber is a fundamental particle of culture.
Opulent and contemporary, the gallery space, which she designed, is a trident of contiguous spaces. Carrie Sieh’s The Great American Romance of Production — a massive installation of six painted and hand-embroidered canvasses, graphite on wall, and wall embroidery — draws in the viewer. Steinbaum commissioned Sieh to embroider directly on the gallery wall, which creates a uniquely organic shape out of a very rigid and cumbersome process that mimics the hardships endured by workers during the Industrial Age.
The gallery space flows into a second room, shaped like two mirror images of a right triangle, and features several large-scale works, including a series of embroidered drawings on handmade cotton paper and robotic sculptures titled Pineros, by Aurora Molina. The eerie sculptures, made of fabric and nylon stockings, look like creepy schoolkids with adult faces drawn with childlike imprecision. The robots jerk to life every so often in what looks like a choreographed salute.
The final room is an equilateral triangle that leads the viewer into the arms of El Anatsui’s They Saw Us Through Puffs of Smoke. The found aluminum-and-copper-wire-embroidered tapestry hangs miraculously fluid-like in the corner despite its constituent parts.
Asked why she chose Coconut Grove, Steinbaum says that it has always been an "arty" neighborhood and that she hopes it will have a renaissance similar to that of South Beach in the late '90s and Wynwood in the early '00s.
“The Grove afforded me a house six years ago that had no windows, but rather it had French doors that led me to the courtyard and allowed for lots of wall space for my personal collection,” Steinbaum says. “Although every real-estate agent will use the words 'location, location, location,' I prefer perseverance, passion, vision, and education. Education is vital in order to build a collector base.”
Education is one of Steinbaum’s most enduring and important legacies. Her aesthetic, vision, knowledge and understanding of the arts and its connection culture is an invaluable resource that threads our community together with global culture.
Above the entrance to the gallery space hangs a neon sign that reads "Know BS," a slogan Steinbaum has used in the past that cheekily references her initials. But in this space, the command takes on a solemn meaning: To "know BS" here is to understand culture. Inside Steinbaum's home, the past, present, and future are transformed into a seamless tapestry composed of countless threads and seams. Steinbaum slips us inside that rarified world, allowing us to see ourselves, our hands, and those of our ancestors, weaving the threads that bind us all together.
That’s what makes Steinbaum so vital to our community. Her new space will serve as a repository for global culture — a reminder that culture, even when under assault by politicians, cannot be broken. Steinbaum reminds us that we are a community, a diverse and mangled mass, that might be pushed out of our homes or gallery spaces but are resilient and stronger together.
“I never represented an artist because that artist was a woman or because he or she was a person of color,” Steinbaum says. “A common denominator for me, as it should be for all art dealers who are not ‘fame fuckers,’ should be that the artists’ work speaks to the vision of the gallery and is the kind of work that will be recorded in the annals of art history."
Call 305-573-2700 or visit bernicesteinbaumgallery.com.