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When you’re creating a conversation about diversity and inclusion, why not begin in one of the toughest bubbles to crack? Palm Beach of all places, with its Trump-magnified sense of entitlement and ficus-hedged mansions that distinctly say, “Scram!” was ground zero for a new cultural conference last weekend about women, minorities and immigrants. It took serious moxie for local gallerist Sarah Gavlak, who also operates a Los Angeles location, to launch New Wave Art Wknd from Nov. 30 to Dec. 2 (one week ahead of the Hollywood-packed and party-saturated Art Basel Miami) on the same red-voting island as Mar-a-Lago and its grab-’em-by-the-pussy-dwelling master.
“We thought about getting a Trump pinata,” said Gavlak, whose roster of contemporary artists focuses on her event’s themes including LGBTQ. “I think I had one straight white male artist when I started in 2005. My gallery is the gallery of the other.”
Despite a posh dinner presented by Christie’s at art collector Beth Rudin DeWoody’s sprawling waterfront compound, along with tours of other jaw-dropping residences and their museum-worthy collections, the weekend’s panels focused on getting down to business and implementing change in the art world.
Noting Gavlak’s courage, New York gallery owner Alexander Gray commented that crowds would have been even greater had the subject been Warhol and the market. Speakers such as Franklin Sirmans, the African-American director of Perez Art Museum Miami and LACMA alum; Lydia Fenet, an in-demand auctioneer and international director of strategic partnerships for Christie’s; and artist Diana Al-Hadid, a Syrian immigrant, all represented the heart of the matter, too. They rubbed elbows with deep-pocketed Democrats whose interests go beyond playing golf and mah-jongg like most of their Palm Beach neighbors. Mel and Ann Schaffer estimated that half their collection is devoted to female artists on top of a heavy concentration of works by African Americans.
“Many collectors here are happy with their Jeff Koons’ shiny heart [sculpture], but I wish they’d take more chances on emerging art,” said Ann, who was introduced to contemporary art through Felix Gonzalez-Torres, a gay Cuban artist who died of AIDS. “My hope is the next generation will be more curious.”
Alex Anderson, a 28-year-old, biracial artist based in L.A., isn’t so sure that will happen. Featured in Gavlak’s inaugural group show for her new space in the Royal Poinciana Plaza, his earthenware and 24K gold vermeil sculpture, “Hehehe,” comments on millennial self-interest and lack of empathy. “Millennials are like sharks,” he said. “They’re just cruising in a time that’s sick and lovely at once.”
Still, there are small signs of progress. Palm Beach native Jane Holzer, who remembers Jim Crow’s “back-of-the-bus days,” is collecting works by African Americans to donate to the Norton Museum of Art across the Intracoastal Waterway. Puerto Rican artist Gisela Colon is attempting to break into the art canon’s minimalism movement cornered by white male artists like Donald Judd and Larry Bell through her organically shaped sculptures, one of which hangs in Gavlak’s show. Gavlak is founding a nonprofit for an immigrant artist residency, whose first recipient will be announced at next year’s New Wave Art Wknd, scheduled from Nov. 29 to Dec. 1.
“There’s a whole new wave of refugees. It’s going to be a big crisis with climate change,” Gavlak said of her timing and first-hand experience with the Trump administration’s immigration policies. Gavlak testified on behalf of her artist Jose Alvarez, a Venezuelan who was sent to South Florida’s Krome Detention Center after living in the U.S. for 30 years. The ordeal begat his series of prisoner portraits, which will be published in a book.
“We’ll see if some curators step up to the plate now,” she added.