The snowbirds of Palm Beach are now year-round beach birds, and the recent influx of dealers and bankers to the Florida enclave—who followed the super-rich south in autumn 2020—are there to stay. Acquavella gallery has signed a lease until June 2022. Paula Cooper, which initially committed to a six-month lease, is now there for the foreseeable future. And Pace looks to be a long-term prospect, having sold out shows of works by Sam Gilliam, Robert Nava, Julian Schnabel and Tara Donovan last season and recently hired former Salon 94 specialist Allison Raddock to run the space.
The Sotheby’s Palm Beach outpost is also “pretty permanent”, says David Schrader, the auction house’s global head of private sales, noting that the space is open seven days a week year-round, along with the other art businesses located at the Royal Poinciana Plaza shopping mall.
Clearly, the influx of collectors since the start of the pandemic brought success for Palm Beach’s new arrivals. “We were really impressed by the number of people who came in,” says Steve Henry, a partner at Paula Cooper, of the gallery’s pop-up experience in Palm Beach last season. He says the gallery connected with new collectors from not only New York and Florida, but also Boston, Philadelphia, Canada, the West Coast and South America. “In New York people are trying to see 15 to 20 shows in an afternoon. It takes a little while for them to come back around to you,” Henry says. “In Palm Beach there are six or eight galleries. There’s not a hell of a lot to do there so people come to the galleries a lot.”
Dealers in Palm Beach are consequently rotating shows in some cases every two to four weeks, a strategy that seems to be paying off. Businesses are reporting robust sales to institutions as well as collectors in the region. Among sales in Palm Beach over the past year, Paula Cooper placed an early Claes Oldenburg with the Norton Museum of Art; an important work by Luciano Fabro with the Margulies Collection in Miami; and a work by Veronica Ryan with the Pérez Art Museum Miami, which was bought as a gift for the museum.
Henry says he has seen a strong response to the work of rigorous, contemporary conceptual artists such as Jennifer Bartlett as well as crowd-pleasers such as Oldenburg. “People will say, ‘Don’t you need to bring bright and shiny to Palm Beach?’,” he says. “No, not really!” The gallery is currently hosting an exhibition of work by Atsuko Tanaka (until 11 December), the late Gutai artist’s first solo exhibition in the US since 2004. The artist’s drawings and paintings are quite colourful, but it is serious work, Henry says.
Longtime Palm Beach gallerist and resident Sarah Gavlak, the founder of the region’s New Wave Art Wknd, says her Florida location has consistently outperformed her Los Angeles gallery in sales. Notably, she does not represent blue-chip heavyweights, instead emphasising women, artists of colour and LGBTQ artists. Gavlak sold out exhibitions of works by Gisela Colón and Jose Alvarez last season, placing a few works by the latter with US museums.
“This is what I’ve been shouting from the mountaintops: there are really great people here!” Gavlak says. “I showed Betty Tompkins before she was showing with PPOW. So imagine, I’m showing these hyperrealist, large-scale hardcore pornography paintings and placing them with collectors like Andy and Christine Hall.”
“Before I moved to Worth Avenue I had trustees from the Carnegie Museum [in Pittsburgh] coming and buying Jose Alvarez,” she adds. “Last year [the philanthropist] Aggie Gund bought a work of his for the Brooklyn Museum. I knew there were a handful of really good collectors down here and I had this instinct that it might grow.”
Pale and stale?
Gavlak says she has watched the Palm Beach population swell throughout the pandemic, thrilled at the arrival of new colleagues who can help provide art historical context for her artists—but it is a trend that began years earlier. The island may still overwhelmingly be a sleepy enclave with a large contingent of hugely wealthy retirees, but she also observed the shift to a slightly younger demographic beginning around eight years ago.
Nonetheless, she notes that the area is still lacking in diversity, as well as any significant artist community. (It is 95% white, and the average resident age is 70, according to a recent article in the Financial Times.) “There are no artists here, and certainly not people addressing some of the bigger issues [in the art world] in a more constructive way,” she says.
Gavlak hopes the new gallery community in Palm Beach—which includes at least one recent transplant from nearby Miami, Robert Fontaine—will engage in creating lasting change for the area. “My hope is that there will be a long-term investment in the community, and it’s not just pop-ups,” she says.
Eric Payson, an artist who moved to the area during the pandemic—to more affordable and diverse West Palm Beach, representing a population of around 1.5 million—is also excited about the arrival of new dealers in the region. But he says that, beyond Gavlak’s programme, “these are very much retail businesses”. Here, he says, “the art is just sort of a quiet component to a suburban or small-town tableau. It’s almost like there’s one shopkeeper in there and they might as well be selling eyeglasses or tapestries or clothing like the stores next door. They’re selling goods”.
In the more liberal West Palm Beach, Payson says, there is perhaps more promise of an art scene growing into something edgier and more dynamic. But the region has seen its own recent real estate boom—fuelled partly by investments from developers including the billionaire art collector Jorge Pérez, as well as the influx of transplants to the area—that has sent prices soaring. Pérez has just signed on to invest in the new multi-use development Transit Village planned for West Palm Beach. And through his Related Companies, New York developer Stephen Ross recently invested millions in the mixed-use site Rosemary Square, which features various art and architectural attractions. The recently reopened Brightline train, connecting both Palm Beaches with Miami, is also being heralded as a major boon to the area’s economic and cultural prospects.
All of this bodes well for the nearby Norton Museum, which inaugurated a Norman Foster-designed addition in 2019 and is part of a 6.3-acre campus featuring other cultural attractions that are set to open in the coming years. Norton Museum chairman Bruce Gendelman says he is aware of other art-related developments in West Palm Beach, including private museums planned to open between the Norton and The Bunker, the art space of prolific local collector Beth Rudin DeWoody.
The Norton’s new director Ghislain d’Humières says he has seen evidence of the area’s ballooning capital trickling into the museum in the form of donations to its benefit auction and an uptick in member acquisition.
“We’ve been signing up a lot of people in the past six months, at a rather high level of membership,” d’Humières says. A lot of the new arrivals to the region, he adds, “need to justify for fiscal reasons that they are residents here. So that’s been helpful.” He notes that when he arrived at the museum in autumn 2020 and began fundraising for the institution’s current Frida Kahlo exhibition, members of the community gave generously.
Equally auspicious for the wider art community around Palm Beach may be recent announcements of local outposts for Goldman Sachs, Blackrock and other investment banking firms signalling yet more wealth in the area, as well as new potential client opportunities.
Gavlak, who also works for the Forbes Family Trust, educating and advising its art-collecting clients, says the presence of more investment firms in the region could open up the possibility of similar partnerships for dealers and advisers. “As art has become more of an asset class, a lot of these hedge funds and banks understand that they need to offer that to their clients,” she says.
Indeed, according to Noah Kupferman, of Athena Art Finance, wealth advisers “love to go shoulder to shoulder with the art community, because the clients like that. That’s why you’ll see financial institutions underwriting museums and exhibitions”. He adds that new dealers in the region may also be able to capitalise on wealthy, international jet-setters who have a foot in Palm Beach.
“Globetrotting, non-domiciled folk, who banks often don’t want to work with,” he says, may see art as “a store of value—because art holds its value in a way that’s safer than a lot of other assets. If your Modigliani is worth $20m today, it’s going to be worth $20m tomorrow”.
Whatever the future might hold for the Palm Beaches’ expanding art community, it is clear that the season started early this year—well before Thanksgiving, when the social and cultural calendar historically gets underway. Gavlak Gallery’s exhibition Kim Dacres: Black Moves First (until 2 January 2022) sold out before it opened on 1 December. Allison Raddock, the director of Pace Palm Beach, says around 30 or 40 people had attended the opening of the gallery’s Calder exhibition in early November, “which is a lot for pre-season!”
When the season is in full swing, Raddock expects to see at least 100 people coming through the gallery doors each day. On an island with “more collectors per square mile than almost anywhere in the world”, as Gendelman puts it, that level of foot traffic could represent a goldrush for galleries.
Correction: Stephen Ross is the owner of Related Companies, the developer behind the Rosemary Square mixed-use site, not Jorge Perez, who runs the Related Group, as we originally reported.