Post #653 • November 7, 2005, 6:41 AM • 30 Comments
Daniel Chang for the Miami Herald (excessive paragraphing removed for the sake of my sanity):
Bernice Steinbaum puzzled over the rejection letter from the Art Basel Miami Beach selection committee. After all, Steinbaum reasoned, her Miami art gallery had participated in the lucrative fair each of the past three years. "I don't know what happened," Steinbaum said. And she may never know, because Art Basel administrators won't explain their decision.
My original post about this was positively loaded with snark. I'm going to try to take the high road on this one - wish me luck.
Denise Gerson, associate director for curatorial affairs at the Lowe Art Museum on the University of Miami campus in Coral Gables, said Steinbaum's exclusion from the fair has provoked some incredulity in art circles. "I think it raised a few eyebrows," Gerson said. "It's not just my eyebrows but a whole lot of eyebrows went straight to their hairlines." Gerson wondered aloud about Art Basel's selection criteria and questioned the integrity of the process, in particular the appearance of a conflict of a interest for Snitzer. Every member of the selection committee wins automatic entry to the fair. "I don't think it is the cleanest way to conduct business," Gerson said, "when you have one gallery taking a position about other competitive galleries."
Criticism of Snitzer Gallery on this site has inspired baseless accusations of professional envy. Consider the above. Is Gerson merely venting out of envy as well?
Snitzer said he is well aware that his motives may appear conflicted when voting on a local gallery.
In the past, he would recuse himself from such votes precisely to avoid this appearance. But this year his role on the committee changed. Art Basel administrators, who appointed Snitzer to the selection committee, designated him the panel's "Florida expert" and he now votes only on galleries from the state.
Note this - they selected him for a role that assures that his motives will appear conflicted, and he accepted it.
"Fred is probably the strongest advocate galleries in South Florida could have because he's accepted by other members of the committee as being a good gallery himself with good judgment," said Samuel Keller, Art Basel's executive director. "He could do more for Florida galleries than probably anybody else can."
And now he can do more against them than anyone else, too. Note the logic: The committee believes that he has a good gallery and good judgment, so he should decide what Florida galleries should appear at Basel. In addition to his own.
Snitzer declined to divulge his votes or address any single application.
Read: when asked whether he voted against Steinbaum, he wouldn't say.
But he emphasized that his role on the committee is limited. "I'm one vote [of 12]," he said. "So if I was a huge advocate for Bernice or if I was someone who absolutely thought she shouldn't be in the fair, I have one vote."
So maybe the AB/MB Selection Committee's designated Florida Expert stood up and said, "Dammit, we're not having an Art Basel/Miami Beach without Bernice Steinbaum Gallery!" as he pounded his fist on the table, causing glasses of Perrier to effervesce nervously, and a simple majority of the panel said, "No, O Designated Florida Expert, we defy you and your Designated Floridian Expertise; we shall not - not! - have Bernice Steinbaum Gallery at Art Basel/Miami Beach this year." Just maybe.
Well, so much for not snarking. But look at the scenarios we're being asked to accept: either Snitzer voted against Steinbaum, which would be a logical business move if an abuse of his position, or he voted for her and was overridden by the rest of the committee in defiance of his designation as the Florida expert.
Keller said the selection committee relies on two overarching criteria with multiple subsets when considering applicants. "One is the quality of the galleries and then the second one is the concept of the show."
Elaborating on the elements of the two criteria, Keller said, 'When we go into quality, one [aspect] of it is for existing dealers that have been participating, 'How was the presentation they did before?' and for new ones it is, 'How strong is the proposal?'"
From this we assume that Steinbaum failed the former test.
"The galleries are asked to come up with a concept of what they would like to show."
I have now attended, what, four AB/MB's, and have never detected a concept displayed by any gallery except, "These are our artists; Visa and MasterCard accepted." Are they talking about concept of representation? Well:
Steinbaum represents some of South Florida's most accomplished artists -- among them are three recipients of the MacArthur 'Genius' Award, two winners of the Annenberg Foundation Award and one artist represented at the Venice Biennale international exhibition. "Almost every artist in this gallery has gotten a museum show from last year to this year," Steinbaum said.
So if it's not that, then what?
Finally, Keller said, "There's a certain amount of renewment. We need to also give a chance to younger people coming in or to the people who would like to bring something new or different."
One assumes that there's no chance that Snitzer himself will be renewmented out of the fair.
Everybody who cares already knows that AB/MB lies at the putrescent intersection of art and commerce. It needs a big pile of money to happen. If its organizers aim one event at peoples' groins for every other that it aims at their heads, that money will appear more easily, hence the parties and other empty amusements. So if you like the quietude and intellectual rigor of a museum show, you go to AB/MB expecting it to disgust you at least once.
But we also expect businesses to operate in a fair, competitive manner. When Snitzer found himself in a position to decide the economic fate of his direct competitors in the market, he ought to have removed himself. But he didn't, and whether he personally whacked Steinbaum or not, he has created the appearance of impropriety. The fact that he wouldn't talk about this with the Herald except in the most general, roundabout way adds to that appearance, as do Keller's illogical defense of Snitzer.
Why does it matter? Because AB/MB makes Miami an art destination, at least once a year. But what is AB/MB, really? From the above, one concludes that it is a frenzy of crony capitalism, applied to art. Thus the question remains whether success in AB/MB represents its own kind of failure in a moral sphere that none of its proprietors seems to consider.