Textiles, Equality and Gallery Practices: A Conversation with Bernice Steinbaum
By Mariela Acuña and Jeanie Ambrosio
Images courtesy the authors and Bernice Steinbaum Gallery
Bernice Steinbaum will undoubtedly be remembered for being the only New York art dealer in the '80s who represented a roster of artists containing 50% women and 30% minorities. She describes art world gender and racial inequality as her motive for abandoning her career as an art historian and professor to become a gallerist. Steinbaum develops close familial relationships with her artists, where she provides tough yet loving support conducive to creativity. After closing her Wynwood gallery in 2012, Steinbaum relocated operations to her home which now doubles as a retail space complete with artist commissions and an office for her assistants. From painted branches on her concrete floor to inset embroidered drywall, Steinbaum has truly constructed an environment where art can thrive. On a recent summer morning we had the pleasure of touring her home and art collection where we sat in on the daily coffee break with her assistants and discussed her current interests.
Jeanie Ambrosio: Who or what are you excited about right now?
Bernice Steinbaum: I’ve mostly shown women artists and people of color and I am delighted that I can pass that on but here [in Florida], I am interested in recycling. I represent an artist named Enrique Gomez de Molina. Everybody thinks he is a taxidermist, but he’s not. He actually builds the form of what he’s going to make. It is his plea—not to kill animals because of his work. He says the DNA of animals will change. Partially because we are taking away their habitats and putting in mega malls and mega buildings and we have no master plan for the traffic. In addition, industrial waste is going into their waterways. And so he makes these wonderful fantasy animals, where no animals are killed in the service of his work. [Steinbaum gestures to one of de Molina’s pieces] This is an alligator back, which you can buy anywhere in Miami, as you can imagine. All of these are various feathers that are put in one by one. He also uses beetle wings—beetles drop their wings after they fornicate. Children have been running into these and making jewelry since 1680. So this is about the environment to me. We need nature, nature doesn’t need us.
Mariela Acuña: Who else do you represent who is inspired by the environment?
BS: I also represent Patrick Jacobs. Nothing is real there: the hair in the dandelion is cat hair, the yellow is recycled fabric, the mountains are styrofoam, the sky is painted, the water is tinfoil. Then he puts it behind a camera lens. He takes the most banal of scenes and he makes it exquisite.
JA: Both artists are working with very tactile materials.
BS: So, what connects us? What is the thread that makes us global people beyond the computer? There is not a culture anywhere that has not dealt with fiber. Fiber in the biggest sense of the word—not only textiles and knitting—but also crocheting, lace making, quilt making, basketry making, it goes on and on forever. I think the thread of connections is fiber. A lot of people don’t realize that the largest floor space in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is given to textile and that they have the biggest staff. So clearly, it starts to tell people’s history. I too, am very interested in that. I asked Carrie Sieh to do a commission for me. Carrie can paint and she can draw, but she chooses textile. The work was about two years in the making and a museum came up to her and said, we’d like to give you a show, so we went up to Melbourne to look at [The Ruth Funk Center for Textile Arts]. In the museum, Carrie’s piece was installed on a 35-foot wall and she painted a landscape behind it. She also has a degree in library science.
MA: I read that about her background and thought it was interesting.
BS: She reads ten books before she starts [jokingly]. This is about the industrial revolution and how it forever changed where women and men work. When the industrial revolution came, they had to move to mill towns.
JA: Wow, how beautiful! The backs of the canvases are amazing.
BS: This is mill town America. This one happens to be in Lowell, Massachusetts. Some of this is machine embroidered, some if it is hand embroidered, the canvas is painted. I think what she is saying here is that fiber and nature will come before no matter what happens with technology. She also tries to fool you a little bit. You see those itty-bitty boxes? Well, those were embroidered and the ones above them are painted. There is always that little bit of play.
JA: How do you choose which artists to represent?
BS: I never make a separation about, “I want to represent you because you are a woman or because you are an artist of color.” It’s always the work that has to intrigue me. I come from an Art History background so it always goes back to the work and every artist that I take on, I think will have a place in Art History. When I was teaching they used to say, when you show the slide the work was worth five dollars more. Now we say when you show a JPEG it’s probably worth five hundred dollars more.
MA: About your background, you were first an art historian and an educator. What led you to become a gallerist?
BS: There were galleries that I would visit on a regular basis. I knew Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Bella Apsong, Miriam Schapiro (I represented her), Judy Chicago and so they taught me well and I knew a lot about the Guerilla Girls. 60% of my class were women in the arts. Think about that, wouldn’t you think that we would have 50% representation or even 40% representation? And in fact in the Mecca, New York City, I was the only gallery that represented 50% women.
MA: Yes, especially with all the charged up male energy that was was coming out of New York.
BS: You would have thought that someone would have realized that women make art too besides Georgia O’Keefe and Grandma Moses. For a long time, they were the only two people that were included in Janson’s History of Art. I wanted to change that, and so I decided those were going to be my statistics. I really felt that this was my calling and I could help those people getting out of MFA programs more by being a role model. Yes, there are dealers that will take women artists. Yes, there are dealers who will take people of color. Indeed, after 20-sum years, that was happening. Not as much as we would like it to happen—we just want equality. If men were in the same position I would have done the same thing; but men were not and women were taking greater risks because they had nothing to lose. Do you know Carol Prusa?
MA: Yes, she was our professor.
BS: I just love her. She’s everything right in the world.
JA: She looms large in our hearts as well.
BS: She cares about other artists, which I care about too. She will do the the chandelier for the new gallery. When I thought about this new gallery addition, I wanted her to do the chandelier even though there will be all of these ordinary technological lights. Every art-minded person will see it. It will again be part of my daily life, now it’s part of my nightly life.
JA: Michelle A. M. Miller and I interviewed Carol for Cabbage Palm a couple weeks ago. She’s amazing, I remember the panel you had at your gallery several years ago. It was with you, Carol Prusa, and a few other museum administrators.
BS: Oh yeah, I remember that.
JA: That was probably the first time I began to understand the artist/gallerist relationship. She described the first time you visited her studio—the mattress was on the floor and her kids were jumping up and down. She spoke of how she followed you here from New York and went to every one of your openings.
BS: It’s true! I am not one of the boys, and I say that in the most derogatory manner. I think what the artist does, male or female, is so intimate and I know when they are stuck, I know when the kid is on drugs, I know when their car has broken down, I know when their finances are in trouble. I take the magic from them and I sell it (it makes me feel very generous because I want it all). But I also sell a piece of myself. I’m honorable. I never change the price, ever. I only give museums a 10% discount. There is no bargaining in the gallery where my prices are posted. I find that so odd about Miami, that dealers don’t post their prices. In New York, it was a law—not every gallery did it but it was a law—that the prices had to be on a desk somewhere. And so, people are not charged by the fact that they have a gold Rolex or they have a Rolls Royce. It’s the same for everybody and what is important about that is that the dealers—and many of the artists have dealers everywhere—have to have the same price. It helps everybody. I don’t want anyone to say, “I can get it cheaper at Steinbaum’s.”
MA: Do buyers try to haggle with you?
BS: I don’t know whether it is the flea market mentality here but a lot of people come to the gallery and say, “Oh well, such and such gives me 30% off.” A dealer can’t afford to stay in business if you give them 30% off. I always want to say, “You mean you don’t want 50% or 70% off?” It’s unrealistic. Even working out of this house, where I don’t have to pay rent anymore. It’s an expensive business and sometimes there are dry months and sometimes we are very very busy and make lots and lots of sales. You have to be like a squirrel and store that. Some dealers don’t do that so, they owe the artists money or they bargain with a collector. I think that if a dealer is not passionate then they should be used cars salesmen because they can make more money that way.
JA: Carol would always say in our art classes, “If you can do something else, then choose another major.”
BS: Absolutely! Probably what I’m very excited about with Carrie Sieh is that often I stand outside where the magic potions are made and they bring me their work and I’m not part of process but this time I was. First she painted the landscape in grey paint and said, “What do you think?” It’s hard for me, “I said what do you think this is your work,” she said “I don’t like it.” I said, “Okay!” She repainted the wall white eight times. Then she came up with the graphite and we both loved it and I mean there was no question that was the right thing for her to do. Just seeing the process and what goes through her head and how she creates the problem, solves the problem, is so extraordinary. At this moment [my artists] are all very dear to my heart. I learned so much from all of them in very different ways and some of this has to be a learning experience for the dealer too.
JA: You seem very connected to the work’s history.
BS: I am very interested in the narrative because traditionally, women and people of color had passed down their history orally. I’m first generation American and my parents passed their histories down to me orally so you will see that you won’t find anything abstract, maybe one or two things but not a lot. I am interested in the story. I love the story.
MA: I also see a lot of displacement within the work. There is narrative but also a sense of going from one place to the other.
BS: In this room, just to give you an example, you will know Mendive, who is Afro-Cuban and Caribbean. Perhaps one of the most famous artists living there today. He’s a Santeria priest and oddly enough he was Magda’s [Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons] teacher. I just installed them together by mistake. It just worked for me visually. This is Liliana Porter, she’s an Argentinian. This is Luis Jimenez, Ed Ruscha, Aurora Molina, the photograph with dreads are a Russian couple named Gerlovin and Gerlovina, next is Luis Gonzalez Palma from Guatemala, who I think is the most important artist who has come out of there. Keith Haring, Louise Bourgeois, Enrique Gomez de Molina, Ida Applebroog, and so, it has nothing to do with their country, nothing to do with their ethnicity, the color of their skin. There is a level of art here that cannot be denied even if you hate it.
MA: How is the work you do here in South Florida different from New York? What surprises did you find when you arrived in Miami?
BS: In New York, every Saturday I would see like a thousand people. From museums, from everywhere, and in that sense, New York was the Mecca. On any given day, someone from the MET, or the MoMA, or the Whitney, would be in the gallery. I don’t think every artist can live in New York but I do think they have to go on a regular basis to get their fix. When artists would come and visit often they would spend days in the museums and I wouldn’t see them. Because they didn’t have the Frick and they don’t have the MET.
JA: What can you tell us about your gallery in Wynwood?
BS: When I opened the gallery, I was the first commercial gallery—although Brooke Dorsch had a gallery and he was not an art person, just a lover of art. He was only open two days a week because he had another occupation. I was the first real commercial gallery and it was about being a risk taker. I loved my building. The realtor said, “Bernice, this is not a destination.” I said, "I guess I have to make it a destination." My kids all lived in Florida and they said, “do you understand, Wynwood isn’t safe, blah, blah, blah, blah.” The building had become a crack house, people using the hose to wash themselves and all kinds of paraphernalia in the front yard of the building. The police were very kind and very happy that a real business was going there, with a real person, and were extremely helpful. Midtown was not there. It was an empty dusty lot with the containers for the shows. So if there was a slight wind, your car was covered in dust. I can’t tell you that there were a lot of clients from Midtown in terms of the gallery but we did get people, we did get restaurants, we did get some beautification.
JA: Why Wynwood and what changed?
BS: The part about Wynwood that intrigued me personally, coming from SoHo, was that artists and dealers walked around all the time checking on what you were showing, talking with you, exchanging ideas, and when I first came to Wynwood, artists still lived there. That changed with gentrification, artists could no longer afford to live there and that was really painful, too. My husband passed away, and although he did not help me financially he was the emotional support. He was my best and worst critic. I’m worried that I’ve spent more time with my gallery than I did my kids and my husband. I worry that I would have so many regrets, and did in fact. So, I stayed home for three weeks and I realized that it’s the only thing I know, and it’s the only thing that interests me. I’m building careers.
MA: Is this when you closed your gallery?
BS: Yeah, and so, the things that changed for me, was there was so much environment here that one does not see in New York. In New York, people come indoors [for entertainment]. So it’s not only the art in New York, it’s the theater, concerts, the movies, whatever. Here, people go outdoors so I didn’t get that type of traffic. Also, when the artists came, there wasn’t a lot for them to see in way of museums. The best museum in this town is the Wolfsonian, no question, hands down. It’s visionary, and it’s lovely to have a wonderful building. The private collections are far better than the public collections.
MA: And the art fairs?
BS: The fairs changed things. People don’t want to study. They want immediate gratification. They want all the dealers lined up like a meat market where you are selecting the best piece of meat. And finally, what really made me close, really, really, really, when I think about it, is the graffiti. All of the people I have always represented are studied artists. They are not by accident. I understand what graffiti is and why young people do it. Don’t misunderstand me, but when people came and ignored the galleries and just photographed kids doing tags, it was extremely painful. Because an artist, like you know, waits two years to have that one person show and then people don’t come in. I mean, because it’s a circus outside. Everybody is seduced by a circus, right? And so the tourists are, like “what are the hottest restaurants?” I want to tell them about the hottest show. It’s a different thing people seek when they come to Miami and that really has been the bane of my existence.
MA: You mentioned, in an interview from around the time when you closed your gallery that some of the artists you were working with were leaving Miami.
BS: I had that too. I said to four or five of the people that I represented, “You have to go find another gallery.” You build an artist’s career—you don’t want it to go down the tubes—and they said, “I’ll go wherever you’ll go.” I said, “I’m going to my house.” They said, “Wherever you are going, that’s where we are going.” Finally I said, “Okay let’s hang some work in the house.” I own a big collection. And so we did, and business got so brisk. I can’t begin to tell you. People I didn’t know said, “Where does she live? What does she have?”
MA: People are nosey, they want to come to the house.
BS: Absolutely! And then seriously, I cleaned it up a little bit, but there’s usually a sock of one of my grandchildren. They are ever-present and it’s a real family that comes here. There’s always chocolate from grandma for the kids.
JA: What is it like showing the work in your home?
BS: I feel people want to say, “If she can live with this, I can live with this and look how she did that installation.” Anyway, they also see that it all works. We are a little disturbed right now because of the commission that is going on. We don’t usually have plaster walls sitting there. But in any case, I think there’s a curiosity. So, we are extending our space so that we can separate what is for sale and what is not for sale. The hours are by appointment only so that gives me a little breathing space. I’m doing a lot of lecturing and some curatorial work in addition to selling, and I’m doing two or three fairs a year. So, everything has changed a bit but what I’m showing and what I’m selling, I’m kind of sure about. I hope that answers your question.
MA: It does. But also, thinking about your artists, it really is a shame that they have to leave Florida to advance their careers. What do you think Miami is missing?
BS: Well, a couple of things. We are too close to New York and so a lot of the major collectors worked with me in New York, and bought art from me in New York don’t buy the same artists here. Which I think is a riot, there is not enough panache to buy it from a Florida dealer as compared to from a New York dealer. Artists are leaving and I’m thinking the museum scene is really a negative thing. The buildings don’t count, it’s what’s in the buildings. If I had my way, every museum would be a rectangular or a square box. There’s also a lot of wheeling and dealing that goes on here that surprises me.
MA: Yeah, it’s not easy to navigate for an artist.
BS: And there aren’t a lot of very good dealers. Maybe two, or three, just maybe.
JA: Thinking about this nurturing symbiotic relationship you have with your artists, can you speak more to how you cultivate your relationships with artists and what advice you might give to young art professionals when working with artists?
BS: First you have to realize that there’s no deal without the artists. A lot of dealers don’t want to have a relationship with the artists. Part of being a contemporary dealer is getting into the head of the artists and sharing that with the collector. I always find it very strange when the dealers don’t want to introduce the artists to the clients. I think it’s the gift that you get. You know, in Colombia they have something called pan de bono when you buy a dozen of these buns you get a thirteenth for free. When you buy an artist’s work, the freebie is that I’m going to introduce you to the artist. How fabulous is that? And of course, I can talk about the work but the artist gives another dimension to the work and it may be different than mine. Or maybe we are both right, or maybe neither of us are right.
MA: I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between passion and ambition and I’m sure the you have juggled both. How do you manage those?
BS: I am not ambitious for myself anymore. I’m sure at the beginning I must have been. But my calling is larger. My ambition is for my artists. I want them to know they are successful. When you work in isolation as most artists do, the dealer becomes the umbilicus to the world. I want them to know that success is not measured by money and they just have to continue to do their best work. What my artists do is magic. If I could be and do anything, I would be an artist. I just haven’t been given that gift. Most of us don’t get that gift. Maybe I was ambitious at the beginning, maybe I had to prove that what I was teaching had some validity in the world in which we live. The gallery was another way to say, “Yes, women can too!” and that was a time in history, and times change and other people are doing what I did so my vision has changed, too. Maybe I mellowed, who the hell knows.
JA: I’ve always loved your ‘know/no BS’ campaign. I love the tenacity and how it seems to represent this humorous but very serious aspect of the art world. Does humor play a role at all in what you do?
BS: For me it does. I’ll give you an example, I represented Miriam Schapiro and there was a painting that had a kind of doily and it was a woman with an apron and she was bowing a little bit to a guest. When Miriam lectured, women who were making quilts all over the world would give her gifts like, “My mother or my grandmother started this quilt and never finished and so I’d like you to have it”. She liked 96 x 144 inches, that was her format size and I was with her when someone came with one of these quilt boxes and she laid it out on her canvas and she had exactly the right number to border this painting. A woman with a lot of money came into the gallery and she wanted a Miriam Schapiro. In New York, I had big staff so I could say “bring out, Welcome to my Home,” and they would unwrap it and two or three people would bring it out to the main gallery. When I was walking around the painting with two people behind it [holding it up], my staff could hear us. The woman said, “Oh I like it very much, it goes with my dining room chairs but it’s a little too large, would you take the border off?”
JA: Oh, no!
BS: I said, “You know, I would have, except, I already took one of the borders off for the last person who came in.” And you could hear the painting giggle because my staff was hysterical that I would say that and that she would believe me.
For more information about Bernice Steinbaum, visit www.bernicesteinbaumgallery.com