Galleries, Art Centers, and Artists look forward to the new normal, whatever that may be.

Matt Nowak and Shelly Marquardt-Nowak, art collectors and first responders in
the COVID-19 crisis.

In March, when Ohio Governor Mike DeWine had just issued his stay-at-home order to slow the spread of COVID-19, there was a sense that riding out the crisis would be like holding your breath and diving under water before coming up for air again. Galleries would be closed, and artists and patrons would stay home for a couple or three weeks. Then we’d all get back at it.

But reality quickly set in: stay-at-home orders would endure at least until May. “Re-opening” the economy would happen in baby steps. Events the art sector depends on, like opening receptions, benefits, and festivals, will be among the last we can safely resume. The cancellation of those events meant not only that people couldn’t attend them, but also that money would stop flowing. In just one example, Valley Art Center was forced to cancel its flagship white-tent festival, Art by the Falls, which meant a financial loss for the organization as well as the artists it serves. The coming months bring a host of similar cancellations: Parade the Circle; Waterloo Arts Fest; Solstice, and on and on. The Cleveland Museum of Art, as well as smaller organizations like the Morgan Conservatory and BAYarts, not only closed their doors to visitors, but had to cancel classes and refund fees. They laid off staff and took pay cuts, and began to explore online options.

For administrators and advocates, it was easy enough to adopt Zoom and other video conferencing platforms. Arts Cleveland quickly convened weekly video gatherings for both individual artists and organizational leadership, and strategies for advocacy and survival were vigorously discussed. And artists, of course, could work alone in their studios. But showing, selling and teaching about art—the traditional ways of connecting to the public and making money—are much more hands-on, tactile, social activities. The way those parts of the art ecosystem adapt to the pandemic could be transformative. On the one hand, we could come out of the crisis with pent-up demand to see people and have real world experiences. On the other, caution and concern in combination with ramped-up virtual communication skills might make real world interpersonal contact seem less necessary.

The Virtual Reality

The world has already seen at least two industries badly damaged by the shift to online platforms, because the way they adopted the internet caused people to think the content is free. The music industry once thrived by selling physical albums, but that source of revenue was erased by streaming services.

Newspapers suffered a similar fate, as content sharing through online platforms created the impression that content was simply “free.” When artists keep in touch by giving away their ideas and images online, do they create the impression that their content is free? And will that erode whatever sense of value their work has established?

Musicians, at least, were able to change their business model, making their money on frequent performances, and on merchandise sales. Then along came COVID-19, which made concerts impossible.

Commercial galleries might be the most vulnerable part of the art ecosystem. Already struggling to pay rent and net any gain from commissions on sales, the weight of the COVID-19 crisis could hit them especially hard.

Galleries already used the internet to reach out to audiences, but the bedrock of their business remained in their physical galleries. With the arrival of the Big Disease, the internet became their only outlet. There’s some irony here: Internet platforms like Saatchi and 1stDibs already have put a dent in business for bricks-and-mortar dealers. After they embrace virtual selling as a COVID-19 survival strategy, will they ever regain their place in real world communities?

The Verne Collection, a Little Italy gallery specializing in contemporary Japanese prints and works on paper, has been in business since 1953. Proprietor Michael Verne had a successful run just before the stay-at-home order, at Art on Paper–a fair in New York City. Remembering the lessons of the 2008 recession, he has kept expenses and inventory down. He’s taking the opportunity to redesign the gallery’s website, and using social media to keep in touch. “We had a pretty good month in April due to the internet, Facebook posts, Instagram posts, and video posts. It [was] certainly not record breaking, but we were able to hold our own. We are not out of the woods yet, but by taking these actions, we will hopefully survive until things improve in the world.”

His website indicates that he’s planning to sell at several upcoming fairs: Art Market San Francisco is slated for August 13 to 16. At CAN’s press time, it had not yet been cancelled. He also plans to sell at The Fine Print Fair in Cleveland, slated for October 1 to 4.

Hilary Gent says HEDGE Gallery, at 78th Street Studios, has made sales even under lockdown, including from new clients. Her website is not set up for e-commerce, so customers reach out by phone or email. She has, however, ramped up her social media presence, including a video series called Art at Home. And her e-newsletter, which used to go out monthly, is now a weekly outreach. HEDGE plans to reopen in June, with Matthew Gallagher’s long-postponed exhibit (see Brittany Hudak’s story elsewhere in this issue).

Diane Schaffstein, of Bonfoey Gallery, describes the situation as being in “limbo.” She says they’ve had framing and art inquiries since they closed the doors, but aren’t able to make sales because they are strictly abiding the order that “non-essential” businesses be closed. “Hopefully clients are understanding of this, and amenable to waiting until our re-opening for purchase and delivery,” she says. They’ve applied, but at press time didn’t  yet have approval of funds from the SBA.


Less-established galleries face more of a challenge.

In December, Michael Loderstedt and Lori Kella opened PhotoCentric, a commercial gallery on Waterloo, specializing in art related in some way to photography. The stay-at-home order came down just three months after they opened their doors. They’ve hosted Zoom events every Friday since then, which Loderstedt says have gone fairly well, but with an audience that has gradually tapered off from a peak of about 25 during the first online talk, to a small number of stalwarts who want to keep in touch. “I don’t think we’re attracting any new audiences,” he says, “but the feedback has been strong. Folks are cooped up, bored and interested in maintaining contact with us, it seems.”

He says March and April sales were about one-fourth what they were in the previous months.

Loderstedt has big picture concerns, beyond the finances of his own gallery during the shutdown. “Galleries do more than sell things: they provide a community for artists, patrons and enthusiasts to meet, exchange ideas and come together. When a collector purchases your work, they’re doing more than buying that object: they’re gaining access and insight into your creative life. So if they can’t meet you, or ask you about your process, the whole aspect of involvement in culture is missing.”

He’s concerned about giving content away, too. “I’m concerned that the expectation of artists now is to soothe society’s anxiety via the internet with a lot of free content. I think we can do that for a minute, but we’ve always been living on the margins, and for that type of expectation to continue is unreasonable, in my opinion.”

The Electronic Classroom

There are plenty of questions about the viability and long-term impact of online art classes, too. Teaching online is not a new idea, particularly in academic subjects. But what about learning to throw pottery, make paper, weave, or make prints? Most people don’t have the equipment for those things in their homes, which makes online classes in those disciplines difficult, if not impossible. Some of the region’s busiest nonprofit organizations—like the Morgan Conservatory, Praxis, and Zygote Press—are homes for communities of artists practicing those studio-dependent disciplines. However, several community art centers are testing the waters of online painting and drawing classes, and classes for kids—at least to keep audiences engaged.

Valley Art Center director Mary Ann Breisch says that organization began responding to the shutdown by offering online classes free of charge, with no requirement to sign up. “We wanted to keeps folks engaged while we were building our boat,” she says. Breisch says analytics show that people are watching, and feedback indicates that the community is enjoying what they have offered so far. A spring online session was to begin May 4. At press time, she was still wondering, though: “What to charge, to engage a crowd that has been accustomed to getting so much free content? How do we set fees in a way that properly compensates our art instructors while we cover our overhead to live another day?”

Feedback also indicates that a sense of community is part of what both children and adults want from their classes. As BAYarts director Nancy Heaton says, “The pleasure of classes [at a community art center] is the community. We know this is the future, so we are exploring ways to offer online classes as an option to in-person, small group classes. But we don’t want to roll it out unless it’s done well.” She’s also cautious about a flood of online offerings all at once, at the same time as web-based classes erase the geography of community-centered audiences.

Press “Resume Play”

At some point, galleries and art centers will reopen their doors. As George Gund Foundation program officer Jennifer Coleman predicts, there will likely be a crowded calendar of events in the Fall, due to all that was postponed in the Spring. Holding aside what lasting impact the current dependence on the internet may have, how will that physically go? It is possible that masks will be the only requirement, but it’s probably going to be more complicated than that.

Maybe gallery floors will be marked off in grids of six-foot squares, with visitors limited by the number of squares. Perhaps there will be special protocols for moving around the gallery: no reckless hopscotch allowed. Or maybe there will be “viewing stations” marked in front of each work of art, with six appropriate feet of empty space between them. Viewers might queue up six feet apart at the door, waiting their turn. And when they get to the door, an attendant might take their temperatures. Maybe galleries will issue free tickets with assigned times for admission, and set amounts of time for viewing each work. Then, like in a volleyball game, someone will call “rotate,” and everyone will move to a new spot.

It sounds like a game. And if rules like this go into effect, some gaming by artists and people who program galleries is inevitable. But whether they can invent and manage systems that keep people safe is just one piece of the puzzle. Here’s another: Will gallery-goers feel safe enough to go? With an economy in recovery mode, will patrons have money to spend on art? Perhaps above all, how should artists interact with the world when going out to interact with people still seems dangerous?

In all the uncertainty, artists themselves are—as usual—great at finding inspiration. It comes not so much from the art industry as from the world itself. While expressing concerns about the way the economy and the digital world will treat artists in the long run, Michael Loderstedt found plenty of bright spots.

“I’ve been really encouraged by how many [social media] posts I’ve seen of people starting gardens, maybe for the first time in their lives. A number of folks have asked me about raising chickens, or keeping bees. [I’ve seen] an uptick in inquiries about a bird they saw, or [about how they noticed that] the air seems cleaner. [In] areas along the Atlantic coast, people have cited more new sea turtle nesting sites this year with less people on the beaches. Folks seem to be dusting off their bicycles, or taking long walks around my neighborhood. I’ve heard of more acknowledgement for grocery clerks, postal workers, delivery drivers, home health care workers and others who are often underpaid and under-appreciated. And yes, a couple of angelic souls have given PhotoCentric a donation. They will have a special place reserved in heaven.”