—omar sommereyns PHOTOGRAPHY BY GESI SCHILLING| November 1, 2012 |
Johnson-Milewski at Gallery Diet in Wynwood
Inside Nina Johnson-Milewski’s high-ceilinged office behind the exhibition area at Gallery Diet—one of the most avant-garde art spaces in Wynwood—there’s a sculpture on the wall evoking ship rope, except it’s actually a hollow tube of burlap hand-sewn on the bias, with threads meticulously removed to create a plaid effect. Surely it’s quizzical to some, but the piece, created by Christy Gast, speaks to Johnson-Milewski’s unwavering devotion to showcasing challenging, conceptual art. “For me, art is about opening up new perspectives and ways of seeing,” she says, “and I like how conceptual artists do so in the most intuitive and often inexplicable ways.”
While she’s still young—turning 28 this month— Johnson-Milewski’s been involved in the art scene since she was just a teenager. At 15, she interned at the Bernice Steinbaum Gallery on the outskirts of the Design District, assimilating the inner workings of the art world and realizing that she’d rather run a gallery than be an artist. She eventually earned her BFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (an institution affiliated with Tufts University), then returned to Miami and joined Steinbaum as assistant director.
But at only 22, she struck out on her own, spurred by a desire to show artists dealing with conceptual practices, and opened Gallery Diet in 2007 (which currently has a roster of 12 artists). Ever since, she’s become ubiquitous on the scene. “I responded to what I felt was a void in the art community,” she says. “A common thread with the artists I show is that they don’t have a particular medium (or, for lack of a better word, ‘look’) that they always turn to. They really work based on an idea, and the resulting object is a method to describe, or even question, that idea.”
Earlier this past summer, Johnson-Milewski launched The Miami Rail, a quarterly publication covering art, culture, and ancillary topics from an unabashedly critical perspective. The impetus came when Phong Bui, founder of The Brooklyn Rail, was in town to give a talk at Lester’s, a literary café/cultural hub in Wynwood owned by Nina’s husband, Daniel Milewski. Attendees asked why there wasn’t a similar publication in Miami, and Bui teasingly told her, “Why don’t you start TheMiamiRail?” Johnson-Milewski took the question seriously enough to snag a $26,000 grant from the Knight Foundation to assemble a local periodical (with a no-frills, black-and-white design on newsprint with a color cover) that pushes forward intellectual and cultural dialogue in Miami.
“Miami often suffers from brain drain, but that’s in large part due to a notion that there’s a general public here who can’t handle something that’s intellectually rigorous,” she points out. “But if you do offer something that is intellectually rigorous, you set the bar high, and then people will raise their own reference points to meet you there. That way, you can build a real audience.”