Thinking outside the white cube: how Miami’s galleries make money the rest of the year

At the turn of the millennium, a group of renowned Miami collectors threw their weight behind a single premise: bring Art Basel to Miami Beach, and spur the city’s cultural development alongside it. The legend of this story—that the De la Cruz family, the Rubells, Craig Robins and Martin Margulies pushed Miami Beach as the Swiss fair’s US outpost—is one anyone working in the Miami art world has heard countless times. Bringing Basel to the beach was a crucial turning point in Miami’s evolution, one that catapulted the city into view for the international art community. In the 21 years since the inaugural Art Basel in Miami Beach, the number of museums, private collections, galleries and artist residencies in the area has ballooned into a thriving creative landscape.

And yet, the Miami art scene is often overlooked when Miami Art Week—as it is now more widely known, given the volume of satellite fairs taking place alongside the main event—opens during the first week of December. Local institutions and artists are often sidelined in favour of the buzzier out-of-towners showing at the fairs and throwing private parties and events, largely ignoring those shaping the way Miami is shifting into a more appealing cultural centre.

While Nina Johnson gallery has cultivated a local audience, it is also expanding its reach and recently hired a New York-based client development director Photo by Andre Herrero; Courtesy the artist and Nina Johnson

For non-locals, there is an assumption that Miami is just not a serious art town, that it cannot thrive on its own without the Art Week apparatus. With a collector base that is markedly smaller than what one might find in New York or Los Angeles—and a high cost of living pushing many cultural workers and organisations to the brink—it can seem like sustaining an art business is an economic challenge in Miami. But as established galleries are doubling down on their commitment to the city by buying property and growing staff, and a handful of upstarts are opening their doors, the opposite appears to be true.

Nurturing local tastes

“We’ve been in business for 16 years, so there is obviously a market all year round because we’re still here,” says Nina Johnson, the founder of Nina Johnson gallery, which got its start as Gallery Diet in Wynwood in 2007 and now boasts a three-building compound in Little River. “Maybe because I’m from here, I’ve worked diligently to cultivate a Miami-based audience,” she says. “We have a lot of clients who made their first purchase with us that now sit on museum boards here.”

But Johnson admits that her gallery’s clientele is predominantly not local. Much of that is due to the internet. “The market has become less localised and more digital,” she says. “A lot of mid-level galleries today operate out of multiple cities.” Johnson herself just hired a client development director based in New York to continue to grow the business in one of the country’s largest art markets.

Ibett Yanez del Castillo, the director of Emerson Dorsch in Little Haiti, agrees that platforms like Artsy and Instagram have helped broaden her own gallery’s reach and impact its annual revenue, which amounts to between $300,000 and $400,000 each year. But with a homegrown programme that launched in 1991 to support the Miami art scene, her gallery relies on the name recognition and relationships it has built locally. Today, roughly 60% of its collectors are based in South Florida.

“We have some really dedicated collectors that come through every show and acquire work, whether it’s a small piece or a large one,” Yanez del Castillo says. “We also have enormous support from the local institutions, like the Pérez Art Museum Miami and the Frost Art Museum.”

Established galleries like Nina Johnson and Emerson Dorsch participate in Miami Art Week—Johnson is exhibiting at Nada Miami for the fifth year in a row, while Emerson Dorsch shows at Untitled Art—but they do not rely on the rush of Art Week to make their money for the year. The same rings true for Mindy Solomon, whose eponymous gallery in the Allapattah neighbourhood exhibits annually with Design Miami. Solomon says that Art Week “is not a make-or-break for us, but it generally is a strong month. It definitely helps the bottom line, but it’s not the only indicator”.

For emerging galleries like KDR305, which recently inaugurated a new permanent space in Allapattah and returns to Nada this year, the week’s events can build confidence about the year ahead. “It’s amazing to have all of your collectors descend on you at once,” says Katia David Rosenthal, the gallery’s founder and director, “and to tell your artists, ‘You made thousands of dollars in a matter of hours!’”

Juggling fairs and permanent spaces

Each gallery typically presents a group exhibition at the fairs while programming their respective local spaces, stretching both their budgets and their employees. While all have teams in place—Johnson has a staff of seven, and Solomon, Emerson Dorsch and KDR each operate with around three workers in addition to a roster of contractors—they tend to alternate coverage between the gallery and the fair.

“​​Scheduling is really important, and being organised to execute an installation or programme—whether it’s at the gallery or at one of the fairs—if we do that well, we can do it quite easily and affordably,” Yanez del Castillo says.

Because of the pressure on staff and revenue, relying on fairs outside Miami to sustain business is becoming increasingly rare. All four galleries reported being highly selective about which fairs they choose to attend. Johnson and Solomon might do two or three per year, while KDR and Emerson Dorsch have decided to focus solely on the Miami fairs this year, noting that the travel and shipping costs for fairs are high and can make participation risky.

It’s ship to be square

Prices for things like shipping, insurance, mortgages and leases are impacting Miami galleries, as well as the global art world at large. Johnson, Solomon and Emerson Dorsch are unique in that they own their properties, so rising rent will not impact their businesses. “If you can afford it, it’s the smartest decision you can make,” says Johnson, noting that cultural producers often boost the price per square-foot of real estate in many Miami neighbourhoods—for better or worse.

And as the art world has become increasingly global and galleries reach outside of Miami for talent, shipping costs tend to represent one of the largest line items in gallery budgets. All are regularly showing artists who work elsewhere, driving up the cost of shipping. A recent group show at Emerson Dorsch highlighting works by alumni of the local residency programme Fountainhead, for example, saw the gallery spending tens of thousands of dollars to bring in around 20 works from 12 countries.

Solomon, whose three-room gallery typically shows out-of-town artists, says shipping is one of her biggest costs. “It is probably the single largest expense we have, and we spend an inordinate amount of time working on getting the best possible rates,” she says.

Despite the challenges, what these gallerists most enjoy is the flexibility in a market as unique as Miami’s. They can afford to show works priced between $1,500 and $150,000 because the overhead is far lower than in most major cities. “It’s a different animal here,” says Solomon, adding that for her, the thrill is really in developing an entry-level art collector who falls passionately in love with collecting. “It’s about creating a new collector and continuing to nurture them, and that is a very direct experience, which is the reason why most galleries get started in the first place. They want to create community, educate and build aesthetics. That’s part of the fun for me.”

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