For the latest edition of In the Lead, we had a conversation with Bernice Steinbaum, an iconic gallerist, curator, and a self-described “survivor of the art world.”
She has owned and operated galleries in New York City and Miami, Florida. Currently, she maintains a gallery space in her home. She is the subject of the documentary short, Bernice produced by Kristina Sorge.
She is a member of IWF Florida and will speak at the 2018 World Leadership Conference during Setting the Scene, a panel discussion on the art scene in Miami taking place at the Perez Art Museum Miami.
When you opened your gallery in New York City in 1977, you made a commitment that 50% of the works you show would be by women artists and 40% by artists of color. At the time your gallery was really one of the only places to do so. More than 40 years later, would you say that opportunities for diverse artists have grown?
Of course, we are finally making inroads in diversity. However, the art community and diversity applies to not only artists, but also extends to those who are supporting the art community, including curators, educators, museum directors, and college campuses and faculty. I have included a current article from the New York Times that addresses diversity in museums, from the guards to directors, and everything in between. Much has been written about the undervaluation of women’s contribution in all fields. The gender and diversity gaps still exist, and although there is progress, white women are still paid 78.6% of the salaries commanded by men; African American women 63.3%; and Hispanic women 54.4% of what white males’ compensation is. In reference to auction houses, 7% of the work that is auctioned is created by women, meaning that men create 93%. Hopefully, the women in IWF will have a better sense of engagement with the bleak conditions of the art world and make a change. It begs the question, “When will we rise up and take on these issues?”
“With New Urgency, Museums Cultivate Curators of Color.” Robin Pogrebin, New York Times, August 8, 2018
Next month as a part of the 2018 IWF World Leadership Conference, you will participate in a panel discussion on the art scene in Miami. Has Miami has earned its spot as an international hub for the arts?
Each year Miami celebrates a commercial event called Art Fair Week in which approximately twenty-one fairs take place during the first week of December. This week constitutes a playground for the wealthy and is in fact not about educating people about the importance of art. The events for the week are primarily about commerce and partying, which does not make for an international hub for the arts. An art community must have a doctoral program offered at their universities— Miami does not have one. The seeds of an art community have been planted. There are a number of museums in the community: The Perez Art Museum, the ICA, the Bass, the Lowe, the Wolfsonian and the Frost Museum of Art. The private collections of Marty Margulies, the Rubells, and the De la Cruz families add another layer. Public transportation, as yet, is still not resolved in Miami. All journeys start with a single step—I am hopeful.
In 2012 you closed your Wynwood gallery and currently show art in your home. How is this process different from the traditional gallery experience?
Having a gallery attached to my house allows for museums, clients, collectors, and “busybodies” to experience my personal collection as well as the one person show or group show that is currently on exhibit. It allows for me to serve the best cortaditos (coffee) and partake in conversations away from the office, the phones, and the hubbub that takes place in a gallery that is a public space.
The Bernice Steinbaum Home Gallery is open to the public on the night of the reception, where we serve mediocre wine and cheese, and then during the rest of the exhibit people make appointments to see the current show, or to see the work of the artist I represent. We are able to spend time with our guests without the party-like atmosphere of a reception. We also set aside a time to foster artists’ works that are not seen at the gallery when they might be intimidated by the reception atmosphere, or afraid of being turned away. I continue my internship program. We are always pleased when a visitor takes note of the quality of the work in the collection as well as its diversity. The artists in the collection come from across the US, Japan, China, Cuba, Columbia, Austria, Venezuela, Argentina, France, Mexico, Guatemala, and throughout the continent of Africa. It pleases me particularly that my house from the exterior looks like everyone else’s house, but on entering, it feels like you are transported into my world.
Throughout your decades-long career, you have continued to push and reinvent yourself. What’s next for you?
I have definitely concluded that I cannot reinvent myself as a 6’1” tall, long-necked ballerina, in spite of my fantasy. The stretching machine did not work on my 5’ 1” body.
However, the arts and humanities have had and continue to have an indispensable role in my life, and that of the nation. The artist’s vision has opened our eyes to the richness and diversity of the human spirit. I hope that my grandchildren will know that I did more than just bake chocolate chip cookies. At the risk of not sounding humble, a role expected of many women, I hope that I raised the visibility and the value of the work of women artists and artists of color.
For example, in 2016, one of the artists I represent, Faith Ringgold, sold an important painting pertaining to the civil rights upheaval of the 80s to the Museum of Modern Art in New York for 7 figures. Currently, at the Museum of Art and Design in New York, there is a retrospective of Miriam Schapiro’s work. The Whitney Museum’s recent show, An Incomplete History of Protest, featured four of my artists. As a part of the exhibit, a Guerilla Girls manifesto was on the wall, which included the name of my gallery. My artist, Maria Magdalena Compos-Pons, was featured in Documenta this year.
My move to Miami—the crossroads of Latin America and the Caribbean—has become my newest purpose. My artists and I are addressing issues such as climate change, sea level rise, pollution, and conservation. My interest is with artists who recycle materials, as I hope to recycle myself.