Sculpture by Daniel Arsham at the 2011 Armory Show
Fredric Snitzer should have been smiling. Instead, he furrows his brow. “I feel schizophrenic,” he says. It was opening day for this past March’s Armory Show—New York City’s annual answer to Art Basel—and Snitzer’s booth was reaping the rewards of the nattily dressed crowd inside the art fair’s mid-Manhattan pier complex.
Of The Armory Show’s 275 galleries, Snitzer was the only Miamian to make the selection cut (another dozen local galleries were exhibiting at several smaller satellite fairs), but his roster of Floridians was more than holding its own. A 2009 painting by Hernan Bas had already sold for $55,000, proof that Bas’ secondary market remained healthy, while a Smithsonian curator had all but begged Snitzer to enter Michael Vasquez into an upcoming portraiture competition.
“Since 12 o’clock we’ve seen so many people—curators, collectors, the whole art world comes through here in just a few hours,” Snitzer says. So why the long face? “Schizophrenia,” he repeats. “I love Miami, but the problem with being a dealer there is that you have to have two minds. What will sell in Miami won’t sell anywhere else. And what will sell in the rest of the world won’t sell at all in Miami.”
He isn’t going to find too much sympathy for his plight in South Florida circles. Snitzer is the acknowledged big dog of the Miami art world: His gallery’s program includes several of the scene’s reigning art stars such as Bas, Naomi Fisher and Bert Rodriguez; a client list studded with the city’s marquee collectors; and not least, a seat on Art Basel Miami Beach’s gallery selection committee. His is a prominent cultural position that inspires equal parts admiration and resentment from many of his colleagues.
But to hear Snitzer himself tell it, 34 years after first hanging out his art-dealing shingle, he still feels like he’s banging his head against the wall. As for that presumed cat seat among Basel’s pooh-bahs, he notes acidly that he still hasn’t been able to land a booth at Art Basel’s parent fair in Switzerland. Moreover, he points to his summer 2010 Miami group show featuring a slew of gorgeously homoerotic paintings by Germany’s Christian Schoeler. Not a single one sold. Yet come December and the arrival in Miami of Art Basel’s out-of-towners, every last Schoeler painting was snapped up.
Likewise, Snitzer says his recent solo shows by Miamians Loriel Beltran and Gavin Perry, two young artists whose work carries a visceral, often eye-popping appeal, produced “under-par” local sales. The bulk of those exhibitions’ pieces sold to collectors living far from the Miami-Dade county line. So don’t expect Snitzer to join in the self-congratulation over Wynwood’s ever-expanding gallery walks.
Yes, the number of neighborhood art spaces has ballooned, he says. But how many are actually worth setting foot inside? “There’s a huge consensus of mediocrity. The community’s happy to put a bunch of crap up on the walls on a Saturday night—the mediocrity just piles up and reinforces itself.” Between the sidewalk-clogging food trucks, the hackneyed street theater and an increasing flock of conceptual color-by-numbers gallerists, how is a novice able to sort the aesthetic wheat from the chaff to find the good stuff?
FROM LEFT: Michael Vasquez’s Untitled, 2011; Bert Rodriguez’s The True Artist Makes Useless Shit For Rich People To Buy, 2008
“Why did Emmanuel Perrotin leave Miami? Why did Kevin Bruk close his gallery?” Snitzer continues rhetorically, referring to the Wynwood departures of his former Basel-booth neighbors. “You can’t run a gallery on five collectors. You have to get your artists out of Miami.” To that end, his own 2011 itinerary includes manning booths at art fairs in Aspen, Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Rio. “You take it on the road. This is the game we’ve chosen to play.”
In downtown Manhattan, at the Pulse art fair booth of Wynwood’s Dorsch gallery, the attitude was brighter—but the gallery’s directors, Brook and Tyler Emerson-Dorsch, used the same vocabulary. “We’ve just begun the art fair game,” explains Tyler Emerson-Dorsch. “But even if we didn’t sell anything, it’s worth it just to get the name of our artists out.” Fortunately, it hadn’t come to that. A striking cyanotype by Brian O’Connell had several collectors clamoring over it—“We could’ve sold it eight times over”—while Miami art advisor Lisa Austin was admiring several sculptures by Robert Thiele, each smaller than the towering monoliths he’s become known for, but with carved-out compartments no less hauntingly eerie. Austin’s own take on the fair circuit? “If you want to be big in Miami, you have to get out of Miami,” she agrees.
And the artists themselves? Back at The Armory Show, Miami sculptor Daniel Arsham was spotted wandering the aisles with a dazed look in his eyes. “I have no idea where I am,” he chuckles, thankfully seizing upon my booth layout map. He’d set up Snarkitecture, his studio, in New York. And while that made it much easier to install his creepy, wall-enveloped mannequin inside his Dutch dealer’s booth, it also meant he was expected to put in some face time out on the floor. With its sticker price of $45,000, collectors were more than a little interested in the man behind the mannequin. “It’s the same people as Art Basel,” Arsham says with a shrug. He studies the map, brightening as he plots his exit. “I’m really looking forward to the day when I never have to go to an art fair again.”