Gavlak Gallery Scores Coveted Spot at Basel

Gavlak Gallery Scores Coveted Spot at Basel
By Brett Sokol

“If I think about it too much, I won’t be able to sleep,” laughs Sarah Gavlak, owner of Palm Beach’s Gavlak Gallery. “It’s wonderful and terrifying at the same time.” “It” would be this month’s annual Art Basel Miami Beach fair, drawing a who’s who of contemporary art collectors and curators for a week’s worth of see-and-be-seen parties, celebrity-studded dinners, and not least, pricey purchases. For a young dealer like Gavlak, one of only three Florida galleries to be selected for a booth among the fair’s Convention Center aisles, it presents an incredible career-solidifying opportunity.

Which is where Gavlak’s anxiety kicks in: Basking in Basel’s prestige doesn’t come cheap. By the time she has paid for her booth at the fair and added in shipping costs for the artwork to fill it, “we’re talking $60,000.” And that’s before she’s sold a single piece.

This year’s fair also brings a special form of pressure. Though Gavlak was featured in Art Basel from her gallery’s launch in 2005 through 2011, she was cut from last year’s edition—without much explanation. Indeed, while many gallery owners now choose to call themselves “gallerists” instead of dealers, preferring the former term’s more genteel and less crassly commercial connotations, the art world remains a highly competitive business. Outwardly, polite smiles hold sway. But behind closed doors, sharp elbows and cutthroat tactics emerge.

Still, the fair’s selection committee has come full circle by not only readmitting Gavlak, but upgrading her previous designation from the Art Nova section—a corner of the Convention Center reserved for newer players on the scene—to the main area. “A lot of people will be watching me very closely,” she offers. Yet she also sees this spotlight as vindication of why she moved to South Florida to open up shop.

“Maybe it’s my democratic perspective, coming from the Midwest,” she explains, referring to her Pittsburgh upbringing, “but there’s interesting work and interesting ways of working everywhere.”

While the overall vibe may be more Lily Pulitzer than Prada, Palm Beach is still home (or snowbird nest) to a significant number of deep-pocketed avant-garde art collectors. Moreover, Gavlak herself is hardly picking straw out of her teeth. Following a decade in Los Angeles, where she earned a graduate degree in art theory, she spent five years in New York, including a stint working at the powerhouse Gagosian Gallery.

However, focusing on homegrown talent isn’t just talk on Gavlak’s part. She has consistently shown local artists alongside heavyweight out-of-towners, even after moving her gallery space from the funky environs of West Palm Beach into the tony heart of Palm Beach’s Worth Avenue. Her exhibition schedule continues to make room for the area’s own sculptor Phillip Estlund and collagist John Loring as well as Manhattanite heavy hitters Marilyn Minter and Jack Pierson. Her Basel booth this year is no exception: Work from the Plantation-based painter Jose Alvarez will share space with sculptures from New Yorkers Simone Leigh and Orly Genger.

Gavlak is particularly proud of her part in resuscitating experimental filmmaker and photographer David Haxton’s career. A rising star in downtown Manhattan during the late ’70s and early ’80s, tapped for three Whitney Biennials as well as for shows at the prestigious Sonnabend Gallery, Haxton seemed on track for art stardom. “But he was totally burned out on New York, he had to get out,” Gavlak says. A faculty position at Orlando’s University of Central Florida provided a mental respite and financial security—but Haxton may as well have dropped off the face of the earth, as far as the art world was concerned. Nearly three decades later, Gavlak says she became intrigued when two of her staffers were raving about the short films of their college professor. What she discovered floored her: “Why has no one looked at his work for 30 years?”

Thanks in no small part to Gavlak’s championing him, Haxton is now in the midst of a proverbial second act, with a fresh batch of his films bought for the Whitney Museum of American Art’s permanent collection and a slate of upcoming museum shows. “There’s so many artists like that,” Gavlak says. “For whatever reason, they dropped out, or the fashions changed: Painting is dead! Painting is back! Or galleries close and an artist is left behind. It doesn’t mean they’re not a great artist or are no longer relevant. It just means they don’t have someone advocating for them. That’s why it’s so important to look in your own backyard—especially if your backyard isn’t an art world center. Great artists are everywhere!”