In Miami Beach, Off the Beaten Track, a Gallery District Beckons

MIAMI BEACH — When Gabriel Kilongo decided to leave his job as a sales associate at Mitchell-Innes & Nash to open a gallery of his own in Miami’s booming art scene, he chose a considerably less predictable location than a hub like the Design District or Little Haiti.

Jupiter, which opened on March 5, is in North Beach, in a Miami Beach community known to locals as Normandy Isles, Normandy Isle, or Isle of Normandy. The gallery is on a no-frills commercial stretch of Normandy Drive, next to a laundromat and several doors down from a Dominican beauty salon and a barbershop. A row of low-rise apartment buildings is across the street.

“I wanted to find a space that was not in a place that is already too trendy, already overdeveloped,” Kilongo said on a recent sunny afternoon. “There was this component of wanting to start a trend.”

Marcus Leslie Singleton’s “Diagrams and Dilemmas” is the first exhibition at Jupiter.Credit…Alfonso Duran for The New York Times

Jupiter isn’t the first gallery to open in the area. Next door is Central Fine, which opened in 2012. Its roster includes an eclectic mix of notable artists, including Myrlande Constant, a Haitian textile artist, whose work is included in this year’s Venice Biennale; Georgia Sagri, a Greek performance artist who participated in 2012’s Whitney Biennial; and the Iranian artist Hadi Fallahpisheh. The gallery’s clientele includes foundations and institutions like the Pérez Art Museum Miami, or PAMM, which has acquired several pieces over the past few years.

This month, it plans to open a show of work by the Haitian artist Frantz Zéphirin, who is also included in the Venice Biennale.

There’s no sign outside Central Fine; since the pandemic it has been open mostly by appointment. “I like the idea that when you come to Central Fine, you make an effort to see it,” said Diego Singh, the artist who founded the gallery, which he runs with a fellow artist, Tomm El-Saieh. “It’s not near anything, so you really want to see art when you come here.”

Outside Central Fine, left, and Jupiter, center. There’s no sign outside Central Fine; since the pandemic it has been open mostly by appointment.Credit…Alfonso Duran for The New York Times
Central Fine plans to open a show of work by the artist Frantz Zéphirin, who is also included in the Venice Biennale.Credit… Frantz Zephirin and CENTRAL FINE

On a recent Sunday around dusk, about 40 people, mostly from outside the immediate neighborhood, stood outside the gallery watching a performance that was part of an exhibition by the artist Jen DeNike, with rubber tires from the show as props. DeNike said that earlier that day, a passer-by popped in asking if the space was a tire shop.

Several years ago, Singh, the founder of Central Fine, was reprimanded by building department officials for keeping his storefront too empty, when it was actually filled with an intentionally sparse piece by Sagri.

“I had to explain to them that that was an installation,” Singh recalled. “They were going to give me a $1,000 fine per day because it looked like an abandoned space.”

For the last few years, the neighborhood has also had Jada Art Fair, held concurrently with Art Basel Miami Beach, in a large building that was formerly a deli and restaurant. (At one point, there was also a funeral home at the location.). The most recent fair drew about 500 people to the space, according to one of its founders — around 59,500 people less than Art Basel’s official number of attendees.

For Kilongo, 30, the path to Jupiter has been unconventional. Credit…Alfonso Duran for The New York Times

The community is welcoming but not fancy: the average household median income in North Beach near Normandy Driveis around $37,000 a year, according to Rickelle Williams, Miami Beach’s economic development director. Since last summer, an incentive has been in place, with help from the North Beach Community Redevelopment Agency, to improve the area. The goal, Williams said, is “to take the unique characteristics of North Beach and just amplify them.”

For Kilongo, 30,the path to Jupiter has been unconventional. He was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and raised in Israel, where he emigrated with his parents and six siblings in 2002. Nine years later, he came to the United States to study at Bard College, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 2015. He considered becoming an architect, but an internship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that included working on a show about African art convinced him to shift direction and dive into the art world.

For the last couple years, Kilongo has commuted between Miami Beach and South Williamsburg, where he frequently speaks Hebrew with his Orthodox Satmar neighbors. Like several of his siblings, he’s a practicing Jew — at one of Mitchell-Innes & Nash’s temporary Miami outposts, he met with a rabbi for a Torah reading. It’s a practice he plans to continue at Jupiter.

“What I’ve noticed in Miami is that unlike New York or L.A., collectors are very motivated to drive to see the art,” Kilongo said. “I don’t think the location really matters.”Credit…Alfonso Duran for The New York Times

Kilongo feels confident that buyers will travel beyond Miami’s established art communities. “What I’ve noticed in Miami is that unlike New York or L.A., collectors are very motivated to drive to see the art,” he said. “I don’t think the location really matters.”

And now, there will be two neighborhood galleries to attract visitors instead of just one. “To have camaraderie between those galleries to me trumps the actual location,” said Franklin Sirmans, PAMM’s director.

“To go next door to somebody like Diego and Tomm, that says a lot,” he added. “It says that you’re interested in the emerging end of the market.”

Kilongo indeed plans to, as he put it, “show emerging artists who are adding new perspectives to canonized art historical conversation.” Jupiter’s first exhibition, which runs until April 16, is a solo show of paintings by Marcus Leslie Singleton, whose work frequently examines Black domestic life. Exhibitions by artists including Emmanuel Louisnord Desir, Thiago Martins de Melo and Yirui Jia are also planned.

Singleton’s solo show runs until April 16.Credit…Alfonso Duran for The New York Times

“There is a demand and a need to broaden the conversation of what’s being shown,” Kilongo said.

That expansion, it seems, is also geographic. “It makes sense for Mitchell-Innes & Nash to have a space in the Design District; It makes sense for Galerie Lelong to have a space in the Design District,” Sirmans said, referring to two New York galleries with recent seasonal Miami pop-ups. “It doesn’t make sense for Gabe Kilongo to have a space in the Design District.”

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