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The Sunshine Economy

The Sunshine Economy: Creativity and Commerce During Art Week

Tom Hudson
WLRN Public Media
Tomas Esson stands in his home studio with several of his paintings before they are taken to Frederic Snitzer Gallery for a solo exhibit during Art Week.

Tomas Esson's giant paintings will not be at Art Basel Miami Beach this year, yet he's hopeful this could be his break out year. "I have been close to that breaking point, but I never have made that crossover yet. So maybe this is my time. I am ready," he said.

Esson was standing in his studio -- a converted single-car garage attached to his home near North Miami. His paintings may not be for sale at the Miami Beach Convention Center as it hosts the Art Basel fair, however, they will be looking for buyers as a solo exhibition at the Frederic Snitzer Gallery near downtown Miami. It is one of the many art shows that are synchronized with Art Basel and make up Art Week in South Florida.

Pepe Mar is one of 34 artists chosen to participate in a new section of the actual Art Basel fair. This year will be Mar's second consecutive appearance, and last year was a big success for him. "Last year, I sold all my works that I had at the convention center to one collector," he said.

Both Mar and Esson are experienced, professional artists making their living full-time creating art in South Florida. For them and other artists, Art Basel brings the world's contemporary art marketplace to town. And with the opportunity for financial and reputational success.

Tomas Esson’s old garage is now the studio where he paints. Where there was a garage door is now a wall of ground to ceiling bay windows, allowing natural light to flood into the space, especially in the morning since it faces east.

Inside, the walls are lined with his work. These are massive pieces of linen stretched across wooden frames -- 6, 8, 10-feet tall. One is more than 18-feet wide. It is Oráculo IV. Esson had just finished it a few days before it was due to be picked up and transported to the Snitzer gallery where it would be among seven others in a solo show. Globs of paint were still shiny on the canvas. They hadn't dried completely yet. The painting is more abstract than Esson's earlier work. And it is among those he hopes to sell during Art Week.


"This painting took me six months," he said. "I expect the knowledgeable people that I respect to see what I'm trying to do."


Esson's previous paintings are not subtle. "Forceful" is how one art critic has described his earlier work depicting mythological creatures -- beastly, sexual centaur-type figures -- in raw form. His painting has transformed into more abstract shapes, yet with the same furious energy.


"When I was a little boy, money was not an issue. Now, of course, I am a professional. Money is an issue. But if it's worth to sell the painting for a lot of money and it doesn't have any impact, this doesn't fascinate me at all," he said.


Credit Tom Hudson / WLRN Public Media
WLRN Public Media
Tomas Esson in his home studio. His large canvas painting, Oraculo IV, is to the right.

  What does fascinate Esson is work that raises his reputation as an artist. He’s in his mid-50s, married with four kids, including one step-son. All are younger than 11. He’s been painting since growing up in Havana. He came to the U.S. in 1990, first living in Miami, then New York, then returning to Miami. He’s been on the edge of breaking out before. In the early 90s, he was among the Cuban artists featured in a Newsweek magazine article titled “The Next Wave from Havana.” He was commissioned to create an ad for Absolut Vodka. He was paid $5,000 for it.


As ambitious as he is to have his art held in high regard, he has down-to-earth plans for any proceeds. After his showing at Art Basel Miami Beach in 2017, Esson said he was able to take his family to Disney World. If his work finds buyers at his off-Basel show, he may use some of the money to build a backyard pool.

Fred Snitzner is the gallery owner looking for buyers for Esson's work. "The best opportunity we have to sell his work...is the month that we're giving him, which is opening during the time of Miami Art Week," Snitzer said. The asking price of Esson's biggest work is close to $100,000.

"Right now, it is the best time I have ever seen for artists of color to get their work shown," Snitzer said. "It is not why I'm showing Tomas but, for better or worse, it should play to his favor."


Pepe Mar has been part of the South Florida art scene for about 20 years. He came escaping the high cost of living in the San Francisco area during the dot-com bubble boom. Two decades later, Mar finds himself still looking for ways to ward off escalating rents.


Mar's current studio is behind a storefront on a short commercial strip in Miami’s Little River neighborhood. It’s a narrow and long rectangular space. He shares it with a fashion designer and it is crowded with their work. Narrow aisles squeeze between desks and tables overflowing with all kinds of stuff that make up the raw materials of Mar’s art, including the work that will be featured in a new section of Art Basel Miami Beach.


Credit Tom Hudson / WLRN Public Media
WLRN Public Media
Artist Pepe Mar makes his second consecutive appearance at Art Basel Miami Beach this year. After years of renting studio space, he hopes to build a home studio to save on rent.

  Mar works with collage, asemblage and other mixed media formats. A few smaller pieces are hung on a wall of his studio. His work for this year's Art Basel is big. It is the size of a large living room and is one of 34 works featured in the Meridians section of the art fair. Mar's contribution is called Varla TV. It is an homage to the drag queen Varla, who performed in early 90s South Beach. Varla was painter Craig Coleman. He died in 1994. Mar’s work incorporates Coleman’s paintings with his own into one massive piece. 


The spotlight comes after Mar's first year at Art Basel was a success. Last year, all of his work at the show was sold to a single collector.

"That meant that I was able to pay the rent for this space for a whole year. And then I had money left over to do other things that I had to do," he said.

This time, Mar is not looking for rent money. He plans on moving. He wants to build a studio at his home, in part, to gain more control over his expenses. "You have to look for opportunities, creatively and also economically. You have to try to survive this environment."

David Castillo is the Miami Beach gallery owner showing Mar's work at Art Basel, and looking for buyers. Due to the size of the Mar's spotlight piece, Castillo expects the buyer will be a museum. The asking price is $85,000, though Castillo said there is a standard 20 percent discount for museums.

The art gallery business model is for the gallery and artist to split the purchase price 50-50, minus any upfront production costs.

But, Castillo said, there's the intangible value for selling at Art Basel. "It is another feather in their art-world cap. It adds to the prestige of their work overall. It adds to their career advancement."


Tom Hudson is WLRN's Senior Economics Editor and Special Correspondent.