On the Scene in Palm Beach, Where New York’s Most Powerful Galleries Have Opened Spaces in the Land of Mar-a-Lago
Transplant art galleries have found it easy to sell works in person on the US's most elite tropical island.
After swinging by the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, where I was in town after visiting Zombie Art Basel in Miami, I crossed the Flagler Memorial Bridge and, at the top of the bump, could see all of Palm Beach. The scenery changed drastically, from West Palm Beach’s high-rise glass-scape to a self-consciously preserved island sculpted for America’s masters of the universe.
The Uber pulled into the Royal Poinciana Plaza, a clubby outdoor shopping center with French boutiques and a Sant Ambroeus. The presence of the high-priced carpaccio purveyor beloved by the art world (there’s one installed in Sotheby’s New York headquarters) made it clear that Palm Beach will reign supreme as the nation’s art-world capital for the winter.
In the last nine months, Pace, Acquavella, Paula Cooper Gallery, and Lehmann Maupin have all opened up locations in Palm Beach. Sotheby’s has a large viewing room stuffed with Warhols and Baselitzes and Princes, and in the coming weeks, White Cube and Lévy Gorvy will open locations as well. Disgraced casino tycoon Steve Wynn has a space here too.
The nation’s tropical playground for billionaires—there are 35 of them on an island less than a mile wide—is now a true destination for galleries.
Walking into the only Sant Ambroeus outside the Empire State heightened the sense that there’s some magic portal that transports dealers from the Upper East Side to Worth Avenue come wintertime. Even though Miami Beach was muted for its first Art Basel-less art week, 90 minutes north in Palm Beach, things were relatively manic during the day trip I made last Saturday. Mask-wearing art-lovers were popping into galleries and shopping for couture on Worth Avenue before cocktails at the Breakers and dinner at Cucina or Cafe Boulud.
And the dealers have insisted that the spaces are not snowbird vanity projects. On the contrary, there’s so much business to be done on the island that one dealer told me on background that they just hope more shops don’t show up trying to grab a slice of the pie.
“Collectors here are from major cities, where they are on museum boards,” said Sarah Gavlak, who opened a contemporary art gallery in Palm Beach in 2005 and primarily shows female and LGBTQ artists.
“What I love about Palm Beach is that they really take the time to have the conversations about what to buy—and this is a place that needs to have those conversations about representation.”
In addition to heading up the gallery, Gavlak is the founder of New Wave, an arts organization that pushes for progressive causes on an island inhabited by tax-haven loving collectors, and hosts artists in a residency program.
In fact, Saturday was the middle day of the third annual New Wave Art Weekend, and the reason for much of the hubbub around town. New Wave had coordinated with the outposts of Yankee galleries to participate in the VIP crosstown gallery hop Saturday night, and coordinated with New Wave board member Beth DeWoody to host tours of her art space, the Bunker. For those who couldn’t travel, DeWoody hosted virtual tours, and there were also zoomed-in visits with Arlene Shechet (from her studio in the Hudson Valley) and the collector Arthur Lewis (from his home in Los Angeles).
And despite the hindrances of certain restrictions, in many ways, it was magnitudes bigger than years prior, simply because there are so many new galleries in town.
The shops have sent major firepower to oversee their southernmost outposts. Steve Henry, the longtime Paula Cooper second-in-command who’s been a director since 1998, is overseeing the gallery’s Worth Avenue space. Dominique Levy will soon be in town. Pace president Marc Glimcher has rented an Art Deco house in Palm Beach, and plans to spend much of the winter there. And Adam Sheffer, one of Pace’s top directors since coming over from Cheim and Read, has fully relocated to Florida for the foreseeable future.
Standing in a gallery showroom with works by James Turrell, Sheffer said the Palm Beach location has been thriving since it opened last month, and not just because of the longtime billionaire clients nearby—lest we forget, Palm Beach County is home to more than 70,000 millionaires, and that number is set to increase in the coming months.
Citadel Securities, founded by whale-hunting collector Ken Griffin, moved some of its employees to a makeshift trading floor at the Four Seasons on the island. Blackstone followed soon, with its executives snapping up eight-figure seaside manses. Now Goldman Sachs is considering moving its asset-management division to Palm Beach County, which would amount to an infusion of thousands of Wall Street transplants.
“Guys like Ken Griffin, they’ve moved their companies down here, and there are dozens of new investment bankers who have bought houses here, enrolled their kids in school here—who are here for the long haul,” Sheffer said. “And they come by the gallery a lot—they come by before lunch, after lunch, they come by the next day, and they want to buy.”
Indeed, the Sant Ambroeus was packed not just with the Palm Beach old-timers, but also younger professionals and their teenage kids.
After lunch, there was a tour of the Bunker, trailblazing collector Beth Rudin DeWoody’s space to show at least a fraction of her 15,000 artworks and design objects. The current show cherry picks works from the vast trove in an ingenious way, allowing Bunker curators Laura Dvorkin and Maynard Monrow (along with guest curator Simon Watson) to sequence the space into a series of small themed groups.
“Herstorical Works on Paper” keeps to that gender and medium in thrilling ways, opening with two unforgettable charcoal works by the late, great Joyce Pensato, and crescendoing to a paper work by Susan Rothenberg that served as a study for the painting that, during the Obama years, hung in the White House’s Treaty Room. (Obama’s successor, who famously has one of the larger country clubs in Palm Beach, had his presence felt but rarely mentioned over the course of the day.)
Other rooms included a rare painting by the poet ee cummings of transvestites in Paris, a de Kooning oil work on the foreign affairs pages of the New York Times, and Amoako Boafo’s Mauve Turtle Neck (2019), which DeWoody acquired from the artist’s studio via the artist’s manager Amir Shariat. A price wasn’t given, but last week a work by Boafo sold at Christie’s for $1.2 million.
Across the bridge again, my cab arrived at the Breakers, the century-old castle on the water modeled after the Villa Medici in Rome. After a spin through the cavernous lobby, two martinis at the ancient HMF bar, and three impromptu stop-and-chats (I’m telling you, the portal is real), it was back to the galleries.
Several of the outposts had chosen storefronts on Worth Avenue, the main high-end shopping artery of Palm Beach, in hopes of attracting the well-heeled clients who hop into Saks or Armani or Louis Vuitton. Paula Cooper has a show of work by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen (their massive work, The Typewriter Eraser (1999), greets those entering the Norton), and Lehmann Maupin has staged a group show including works by Hernan Bas, McArthur Binion, and Erwin Wurm.
Also on Worth Avenue is Wynn Fine Art, founded by the disgraced billionaire Las Vegas hotelier Steve Wynn. (Though he had a show up, the former Vegas head honcho was nowhere to be seen.)
At the other gallery hub of the Royal Poinciana Plaza, Gavlak had a show of work by Gisela Colón, who makes Light and Space-inspired works that glow—which is the perfect kind of work to sell to Palm Beach art-lovers, she told me in the gallery.
“There’s a real huge collector base that can be engaged in a way that’s not like during an art fair, not just a short and quick chat,” Colón said.
Across the open-air muggy mall was the Acquavella outpost, which opened in November, marking the first time the legendary Upper East Side space had ever branched out beyond Manhattan. But this is familiar territory for the family—gallery founder Bill Acquavella has for decades had a lakeside home on the island—and Eleanor Acquavella seemed very much at home in the space, offering up Tom Sachs stickers to visitors. She said many of the works in the inaugural show, which features heavy-duty pieces by Bonnard, Haring, and Matisse, had found buyers.
Acquavella was about to lock up, but right then, Beth DeWoody walked in, raving about the show at Gavlak, and saying that she had never seen Palm Beach this lightning-struck with art-world energy. DeWoody had come in with two friends, Lisa and Richard Perry, the Pop art collectors who last month put their New York apartment at 1 Sutton Place on the market for $45 million. They plan on staying in Palm Beach until at least May.
“I saw your parents earlier today,” Richard Perry said to Eleanor Acquavella.
“See?” Eleanor said. “Isn’t Palm Beach just this little oasis?”
And then everyone left to have dinner at Sant Ambroeus.
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