Miami art doyenne Nina Johnson-Milewski opens her Gallery Diet in Little River.
Nina Johnson-Milewski in the garden at Gallery Diet’s new Little River home, part of a four-building compound that she calls a “connective space.”
Nina Johnson-Milewski’s parents didn’t share her early passion for contemporary art, but they nurtured it when she was a high school student by driving her from their Kendall home up to Wynwood so she could intern with veteran dealer Bernice Steinbaum. That was how, while still a teenager, Johnson-Milewski discovered the business side of art—“facilitating it rather than making it,” she says.
But it was a summer school trip to Paris that crystallized her idea of what an art gallery could be. During a visit to a gallery, a busy dealer took the time to give the group of high schoolers a tour. “As a kid, that kind of engagement really changes the way you perceive art in general,” says Johnson-Milewski. “It was one of the first times I really felt that the art gallery wasn’t just a commercial space; it was a community space, an educational space—a connective space.”
After a few years in Boston, where she studied simultaneously at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and Tufts University, Johnson-Milewski returned to Miami, this time with artist Daniel Milewski, whom she would later marry. (Today they have two sons: 1-year-old Lee and newborn Cy.)
Johnson-Milewski opened Gallery Diet in 2007. For the next eight years, it would remain on the corner of NW 23rd Street and Second Avenue in Wynwood, where it was known for its eyeblistering white f loor and a program that gave both local and international artists a chance to experiment. “I’ve always built my program intuitively, responding to our local climate,” says the gallerist, “but also listening to the suggestions of the artists I’ve worked with in the past.”
The opening of the Nicolas Lobo exhibit “A Modulor Broth” at Gallery Diet.
The resulting growth was organic and communal, with the gallery’s curatorial choices shared by curators like Jarrett Earnest and James Cope as well as artists such as Joshua Abelow. And while the art is contemporary, it’s often intergenerational. Take 85-year-old ceramicist Betty Woodman, whose brightly glazed work has been shown numerous times. Gallery Diet is also noted for its penchant for difficult installations, as in Nicolas Lobo’s acclaimed 2014 show “Bad Soda/Soft Drunk.” The artist (whom Johnson-Milewski represents) not only filled the gallery with a series of sculptures made of homemade napalm and Play-Doh, but he ref loored the entire space with unopened packages of an expired energy drink. When Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) acquired one of Lobo’s sculptures, the energy drinks came with it.
During those years, Gallery Diet’s programming was a bellwether for a changing Miami. A home to locals such as Bhakti Baxter and designer Emmett Moore, as well as transplants like Christy Gast, the gallery also showcased work by internationally known figures, such as performance artist Clifford Owens and sculptor Ohad Meromi. For Johnson-Milewski, this dialogue between locals and visitors is what defines Miami. “One of the really rewarding things about being here is this constant inf lux of new people,” she says. “They bring a new way of thinking and a broadening of horizons.”
In 2011, Johnson-Milewski’s own horizons began to broaden. On the occasion of an exhibition of paintings by Nathlie Provosty, the artist’s partner, Phong Bui, spoke at Daniel Milewski’s popular Wynwood coffee shop/bar, Lester’s. The subject was Bui’s influential art publication, the Brooklyn Rail. “Who knows?” he laughed. “Maybe one day there will be a miami rail.” Johnson- Milewski didn’t think it was a joke and asked the Knight Foundation for seed money. The contemporary-art quarterly was launched in June 2012.
Traditionally, a commercial gallerist wouldn’t also publish an art magazine, but Miami isn’t a traditional town. It’s a place of collaboration and blurred boundaries. Johnson- Milewski is a founding member of PAMM’s Core Creative, a sustaining membership group, as well as ICA Miami’s similarly minded NEXT Committee. “Overall, I see partnering with our local institutions as critical to everyone’s success,” she says. “Culture is a symbiotic network of individuals, institutions, and capital.”
But as Miami’s cultural stature skyrocketed, so did rents in Gallery Diet’s longtime home. One by one, long-standing Wynwood galleries moved away—David Castillo to Lincoln Road, Fredric Snitzer to Downtown. Johnson-Milewski was one of the last to go, heading north to a building she purchased on the border of Little Haiti and Little River. She sees the move as inevitable, a necessary lesson in how Miami develops. “I’m not somebody who thinks that neighborhoods evolving to the point where galleries no longer belong there is a bad thing,” she says. “It’s part of the natural progress of a city…. If culture wants a place in a landscape that evolves as rapidly as it does in Miami, we must be fully invested in the neighborhoods we helped create.”
Her new space, designed by the New York architectural firm Charlap Hyman & Herrero, is spread over a fourbuilding compound. The main gallery—which opened in November with the Nicolas Lobo exhibit “A Modulor Broth”—is an intimate, humanscaled white cube placed within the raw remains of a 1940s-era structure. There is also a garden, where additional programming will take place, as well as a residence for artists, which can also accommodate social events. The compound represents a new development not just for Gallery Diet but for art in Miami: a move toward the social, the immersive, the lived—a connective space. 6315 NW Second Ave., Miami, 305-571-2288
Photography by: photography by NIck garcIa