Galleries, artists forced to get creative in response to coronavirus pandemic

A mural urges residents to stay home as a couple wearing masks kiss while taking a selfie on La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles on Saturday. Some urban artists have been inspired by the coronavirus pandemic. Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI
A mural urges residents to stay home as a couple wearing masks kiss while taking a selfie on La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles on Saturday. Some urban artists have been inspired by the coronavirus pandemic. Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI | License Photo

April 16 (UPI) -- As soon as states and cities began shutting down non-essential businesses, museums began making their collections available online, whether through simple digital slideshows or more elaborate virtual reality tours.

Large art institutions like New York City's Metropolitan Museum or Paris' Louvre will survive the economic impact of the pandemic, despite temporary closures and staff layoffs.


Smaller art galleries and individual artists, though, could lose everything. While the Guggenheim and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art rely largely on donations and tourist dollars, smaller galleries must make sales to stay afloat.

Some are having to get creative -- like many other industries -- in learning how to operate in this new world in which they've found themselves.


Like their museum counterparts, galleries are turning to digital exhibits to draw in clients. Representatives from multiple galleries in New York City told Crain's they've created online viewing rooms and are being more transparent about pricing to boost sales.


One gallery, Gagosian, said it's started highlighting one artist each week -- focusing on those who may have had an exhibition canceled -- and listing one artwork and its price from each show for sale for 48 hours.

"To anyone who's not familiar with how the art market works, it's literally the most counterintuitive way to do business," gallery director Sam Orlofsky told Crain's.

For some, galleries, though, even that may not be enough to save their business. Griff Williams, owner of Gallery 16 in San Francisco, said a government small business loan may be able to help pay his five employs through June.

"Past that we may not be able to pay all of our full-time staff," he told the San Francisco Chronicle.

"We have been in business for 26 years and this may very well be the end. Only those with vast cash resources will be able to weather the next several months."

Even large art fairs like Art Basel are offering online viewing rooms for the first time, The New York Times reported last month. The Hong Kong version of the fair was canceled due to the growing virus outbreak, foiling the plans of more than 230 art dealers to bring some $270 million in art to the market.


The Times reported that while most art buyers still prefer to view artworks in person before shelling out thousands -- or even millions -- of dollars, some have become more comfortable making online purchases from galleries and artists with which they're familiar.

"The online platform is something we have envisioned as an important part of what we do," art dealer David Zwirner told the Times. "In a funny way, the art world is late to the party if you think about other retail experiences."

It's possible even more large art fairs will be canceled over the coming months as health experts warn social distancing measures may have to be taken off and on until 2020.

Cultural workers

But it's not just the galleries that are feeling the impact of the various bans on large gatherings and non-essential businesses. Without galleries and fairs, artists have restricted ability to sell their artworks. Without museums operating, a whole host of art handlers, educators and other workers may not have jobs or health insurance.

Next City reported nearly 5 million Americans work as artists or at cultural organizations. In Massachusetts, nearly 58 percent of organizations expect to lay off or furlough employees.


Many large cities have established artist relief funds, including Boston, Cambridge, Mass., and Denver. Some are providing no-strings-attached grants for artists, prioritizing those with lower incomes.

"Half of our budget is dedicated to funding and programming for individual artists. They are our friends, family and community," said Boston's chief of arts and culture, Kara Elliott-Ortega.

A group of non-profit organizations have also established the Artist Relief fund, making about $10 million in grants for artists impacted by the economic downturn caused by the pandemic. About 2,000 people will receive $5,000 unrestricted grants.

United States Artists CEO Deana Haggag told Quartz the application process will be pared down compared to the normal elaborate application process for artist grants.

"You do not have to upload anything -- no paperwork, no work samples," she said. "We are thinking critically about equity, access, geographical range and discipline range ... we needed enough information to be able to do that. But we didn't want to burden artists to work too hard in a moment when frankly I have no idea how people are being productive."

And while exhibitions are off the table for most artists, many are taking their work to the streets -- literally. Some urban artists say they've been inspired by the pandemic, spray painting celebrities wearing face masks, like Jules Muck in Miami, and animated coronavirus cells, like Eric Joza in Brooklyn. Toilet paper makes an appearance in Hijack Art's mural in Los Angeles.


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