How the Michael Jon Gallery Became an Instant Success
by hunter braithwaite
Gallerist Michael Jon Radziewicz was astute enough to see Miami’s art wave and ride it, first to the Design District and now to Downtown and beyond.
Michael Jon Radziewicz at his eponymous gallery in downtown.
On the long list of places where people decide they want to become art dealers, shoe stores in Tampa sit near the bottom. But when Michael Jon Radziewicz walked into one in January 2011 and bought out its stock of Vans, that’s exactly what happened. “As I was giving [the cashier] my credit card, it was like, ‘Wait, this is it. This is the moment when I’m figuring it out.’ I had them ship all the shoes to Chicago; I sold them [in my studio].”
At the time, Radziewicz was finishing an MFA in Studio Arts at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and the project was a wink to commodity culture—buying and selling as performance. But while the footwear flip began as art, the sale part of it felt right. And like that, the artist became the dealer. But where to put the gallery?
New York and Los Angeles were the obvious choices, but the idea to come to Miami came from Radziewicz’s awareness of this city’s potential and his own grassroots individualism. “You always want to root for the underdog; you always want to do the opposite of what everyone else is doing.” So he and his wife, Jennifer Ponce, a math and science tutor, packed up their car, headed south, and opened up a little gallery on 41st Street in the Design District.
A little gallery—at 180 square feet, the floor plan was barely bigger than the pizza boxes at Harry’s across the street. He brought in art like LA-based Theodora Allen’s small, tender paintings about country musician Gram Parsons. Tight relationships with up-and-coming artists around the country allowed him to flood his gallery with top talent.
Radziewicz hanging works in his gallery. John Opera’s cyanotype on linen Blinds II (2014), in the background, was part of a recent exhibition;
Beyond the art, the gallery had two great things going for it: a location directly across from the de la Cruz Collection and a porch that swelled with artists, collectors, and friends during every opening. With a cooler full of Budweiser, the Michael Jon Gallery had the halcyon warmth of a high school party, just with better art.
A year in, the gallery moved 30 blocks south to the Downtown Art House on 11th Street and NE First Avenue, in a former fishing supply warehouse. The move was typical of a quickly changing Miami in which galleries are expanding beyond Wynwood and the Design District in search of cheap rents and dynamic audiences. “Wynwood was the site of artist production and display during the first decade,” Radziewicz says, referring to the period of Miami’s contemporary art boom. “Now it has morphed into something else, neither good nor bad. However, context is important, and we’re doing something different.”
Once the Michael Jon Gallery was up and running, the crowds followed, and new works by Carlos Reyes, Math Bass, and JPW3 went up. Radziewicz doubled down by partnering with Alan Gutierrez, a local artist and curator. The gallery was invited to show at the Untitled. art fair in 2013, and, soon thereafter, Michael Jon announced he was opening a new space in Detroit. They also started going to fairs outside of Miami, such as Mexico City’s Material earlier this year.
Often, a brick-and-mortar gallery is nothing more than a place to photograph art that customers first see on Instagram, Facebook, or the Web, but the massive growth of the fair scene has created more foot traffic than any single gallery can garner on its own. And at the same time, fairs mean collectors.
While he has sold to some of Miami’s biggest collecting families, he’s also placed work across the world—from Switzerland to Panama, Italy to Los Angeles. Placement has always been a priority for Radziewicz—from the specific fit of his early gallery to the maintenance of a cohesive ideology and plan for commerce.
“I’m not big on selling. I’m much more interested in talking about the work, providing a context. I don’t want to sell. I want to place it,” he says. “The collectors are the custodians of the work, so I love it when they have a real connection to it.” Not bad for someone who started out placing a bunch of skateboarding shoes. 122 NE 11th St., Miami, 305-521-8520
photography by gary james