In Miami Beach, an off-the-beaten-path gallery district awaits

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

Jupiter, which opened on March 5, is located 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 hair salon. A row of low-rise apartment buildings are across the street.

“I wanted to find a space that wasn’t in an already too hip, already overdeveloped place,” Kilongo said on a recent sunny afternoon. “There was this component of wanting to start a trend.”

Jupiter is not the first gallery to open in the region. 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 the Whitney Biennial in 2012; and 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 in recent years.

This month, he plans to open an exhibition of the work of Haitian artist Frantz Zéphirin, which is also included in the Venice Biennale.

There are no signs outside Central Fine; since the pandemic, it is open mainly 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 fellow artist Tomm El- Saieh. “It’s not near anything so you really want to see art when you come here.”

On a recent Sunday around dusk, around 40 people, mostly from outside the immediate vicinity, stood outside the gallery to watch a performance that was part of an exhibition by artist Jen DeNike, featuring rubber tires of the show as props. DeNike said earlier in the day, a passerby appeared to ask if the space was a tire store.

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

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

For the past few years, the neighborhood has also hosted Jada Art Fair, held at the same time as Art Basel Miami Beach, in a large building that was once a deli and restaurant. (At one time there was also a funeral home there.). The most recent fair attracted about 500 people to the space, according to one of its founders, about 59,500 people less than the official number of Art Basel attendees.

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

For Kilongo, 30 years old, 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 graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 2015. He plans to become an architect, but an internship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art which includes an exhibition on African art convinced him to change direction and dive into the art world.

For the past two years, Kilongo has shuttled between Miami Beach and South Williamsburg, where he frequently speaks Hebrew with his Satmar Orthodox neighbors. Like many of his siblings, he is an observant Jew — at one of Mitchell-Innes & Nash’s temporary outposts in Miami, he met a rabbi for a Torah reading. It’s a practice he plans to continue in Jupiter.

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

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

“To go next to someone like Diego and Tomm, that says a lot,” he added. “It indicates that you are interested in the emerging end of the market.”

“There’s a demand and a need to expand the conversation about what’s shown,” Kilongo said.

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

About Margaret L. Portillo

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