‘What Is an Exhibition Without an Opening?’: New York City Galleries Kick Off a Surreal Fall Art Season Unlike Any Other
From safety upgrades to ethical reflections, New York dealers are finding their way through the strangest fall ever.
As Labor Day fades from view and September stretches its legs, New York City has completed a journey that perhaps no other metropolis in memory has ever traveled as quickly. Described in early April as “the epicenter of the epicenter” of the US’s coronavirus pandemic, the Big Apple rallied to become arguably the safest urban center in America by mid-summer. This remarkable transformation in public-health standards foregrounded a set of crucial questions in every industry, including the arts: When should businesses reopen? And how could they make people comfortable enough to return with open wallets?
While world-class institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney began unveiling their attempts at answering these quandaries over the holiday weekend, some of New York’s galleries were allowed to emerge from government-imposed lockdown as far back as late June. Now, with the fall art season upon us (and the 2020 calendar officially wiped clean of its last possible domestic art fair), dealers across the boroughs and the price spectrum are putting to use what they learned this summer to make the best of the fragile autumn calm—and being met halfway by a surprisingly game audience.
What’s required? Reevaluating how they do business from nose to tail.
“We were one of the first galleries to reopen—I was really adamant about it,” says New York dealer Robert Dimin, who reopened his doors in late June. He describes himself as “obsessed” with the daily briefings from Governor Andrew Cuomo and tracking COVID rates. “It seems to me we were in a safe space. If shops selling t-shirts were allowed to be open, why couldn’t we? Because of the fact that art galleries kind of fit into this ambiguous gray area of retail spaces, I saw it as almost my responsibility as a New Yorker and a provider of culture” to reopen as safely as possible.
Safety in Numbers
The first and most vital challenge for dealers was determining what new health and safety measures they would implement when they reopened. As with so much else in this crisis, individuals largely had to make a judgment call about where to look for guidance on this issue. Some relied on internal discussion among their own staff members; others traded ideas with artists and peer galleries; still others scoured the Centers for Disease Control recommendations for reopening office buildings and other businesses.
“We spend a lot of time in our staff meetings figuring out who is coming in, and when,” says Wendy Olsoff, co-founder of PPOW gallery in Chelsea. “Who feels comfortable coming in and how many people can be in the space? Then you add in who can walk, who can drive, who wants to take a bike, who can take an Uber, who is freaking out and who wants to come in every day because they’re sick of staying home … it’s a lot of moving parts.”
The gallery is gearing up to move to Tribeca, a switch that was originally planned for November but has been pushed back to January. Olsoff is not sure what will happen with the Chelsea lease in the next few months, but one thing is certain—the shutdown has already proved to her and her staff that they can operate remotely and survive if they somehow end up gallery-less for a while.
The Art Dealers Association of America has been in constant contact with its member galleries since mid-March when the shutdown first happened, including talking to members directly, sharing information, and organizing an ongoing series of webinars, said executive director Maureen Bray. “It ran the gamut,” she said, “everything from webinars on pivoting to digital, strategies for expanding the digital presence, how to create a successful online viewing room, changes in employment law, and return-to-work strategies,” to name just a few.
Olsoff praised the efforts of Bray and other leaders from the industry association, calling their work “amazing.” Dealers welcomed the support and information as they struggled with severe drops in revenue amid the shutdown and the cancellation of most art fairs.
Despite the variety of sources consulted, though, a consensus about the fundamentals seems to have emerged among dealers at different levels of the market. All seven galleries interviewed for this piece decided to require masks for entry, make hand sanitizer readily available to guests at or near the front desk, and limit the number of visitors allowed in the space simultaneously, and to monitor their physical distance while inside. Several also said they had amped up cleaning protocols by disinfecting commonly touched surfaces like doors and restrooms between visitors.
Another matter of broad agreement: The public opening reception is, for now, a relic of a bygone era. Instead, dealers are largely treating the debut of new shows as just another day of having works on view. Many were only willing to go as far as inviting the featured artist and a handful of close friends for cocktails—and even then the muted festivities were often held after doors closed to the public or in an outdoor area. Expect setups like these to remain the upper limit for most New York dealers this fall.
Beyond these commonalities, though, approaches diverge. Interviewed dealers expressed a universal willingness to schedule appointment-only viewing for guests wary of a walk-in visit, even if it meant finding slots outside normal operating hours. As Jack Eisenberg, a director at the Brooklyn location of Clearing, put it, “Before COVID, after COVID, we’re always open.” But whether or not appointments are required, recommended, or totally optional varies from gallery to gallery.
Some dealers generated site-specific solutions inside less spacious environs. Allegra LaViola, owner and director of the gallery Sargent’s Daughters on the Lower East Side, measured out a series of Xs at six-foot intervals on the gallery’s floor using green tape—a visual aid to help visitors maintain social distancing. “Before we put down the tape, I could see how people were [unconsciously] drifting toward each other,” she said. “Six feet is farther than you think, especially when you’ve been physically distant from people you know for so long.”
In many ways, the safety measures in place represent the divide in circumstances and resources separating New York’s galleries. Of herself and her fellow dealers curating tighter spaces, LaViola says, “We don’t have a warren of offices that we can escape to. We are the front desk staff.”
Finding Comfort in Discomfort
The truth of the present moment is that there is no completely risk-free way to do anything outside of sheltering inside your own home, no matter how many precautions you take. Being willing and able to reopen a gallery does not necessarily mean a person doing those things is completely comfortable at all times. Despite New York’s admirable public-health progress, the city is still in the middle of a pandemic.
Yet the dealers interviewed were surprisingly sanguine about the task at hand. Eisenberg said that Clearing’s concerns were “mostly about protecting the staff.” The gallery decided that only one staffer per day would actually work inside the building when it reopened on June 22, and that policy stayed in place after the exhibition on view switched over from Sebastian Black’s “Local Warming” to the group show “Life Still” on July 9.
A big part of the (relative) comfort comes from a high level of cooperation from gallery visitors. Mask requirements have been followed dutifully so far, and patrons have been happy to wait outside for spaces to clear out a bit if capacity limits are reached. Anthony Miler, cofounder and codirector of the artist-run gallery Marvin Gardens in Queens’s Ridgewood neighborhood, summed up the interpersonal dynamics this way: “I feel like everyone is sort of taking care of each other.”
Circumstances also seem to be doing something that many on the gallery-sector treadmill have been craving for years: slowing down the pace. “It feels like people spend more time looking than in the past,” observed Meredith Rosen, whose namesake Upper East Side gallery reopened on August 15 with a solo show of figurative painter Susan Chen’s quarantine-themed canvases. While Rosen partly attributed this phenomenon to the notion that “you can really get lost in [Chen’s] work,” the larger conditions no doubt play a role.
“What is an exhibition without the fanfare that an opening creates?” asked Kendra Jayne Patrick, whose itinerant gallery program (translation: she does not maintain a permanent physical space) will investigate that question in a collaborative online exhibition with Metro Pictures opening just after Labor Day. Although Patrick emphasized that while the causes for this change in viewer behavior are terrible, “bringing a sort of solitude back to looking feels like something to think through and be excited about.”
Duty Bound and Digitally Exhausted
Multiple dealers felt a certain principled, or perhaps impassioned, obligation to return from the lockdown. Miler says that he was torn about when to reopen Marvin Gardens; while he felt it was necessary for him and his partner to “do [their] due diligence” monitoring virus-transmission rates, the shutdown had already forced them to shelve half their programming for the year—a blow felt more from art going unseen than business going undone. The gallery’s mandated hibernation therefore became “a time of reflection” that “reaffirmed why I got into this in the first place: to try to put some infrastructure under careers where people really deserve it.”
When the gallery reopened by appointment on July 31, it had a renewed determination about it. “I guess after knowing that we could continue to operate in some way, there was no way that we would not,” Miler concluded.
Similarly, Eisenberg said that Clearing “felt a sense of duty to open.” Partly, the gallery wanted to do justice to Black’s exhibition, which had only been on view for about a week and a half when the citywide clampdown began in March. But in Eisenberg’s telling, Clearing also recognized a larger job to be done as spring blurred into summer: “With museums closed, galleries were the main source of art in New York, so it was important for us to remain open to the public.”
Digital fatigue has proven to be another motivating factor for dealers to push forward. “I’m tired of JPGs. I want the real thing,” said LaViola. In her experience, collectors and her fellow dealers are all generally singing the same chorus by this point in 2020: “If you’re not around the art, what is the point?”
Bray, who has been visiting member galleries of late says, “it’s so meaningful to be in the room with the work … it has been so restorative.”
Staying Resilient and Looking Ahead
Dealers surveyed for this piece largely reported a healthy flow of visitors to their spaces, but few have had to play foot-traffic cop and ask viewers to wait outside. (According to Eisenberg, Clearing has had more walk-in visitors than scheduled-appointment visitors since the gallery resumed operating.)
Sales, too, have been upbeat—at least relative to what dealers feared they might be. Many transactions are still being done through online viewing rooms, but the option to see works in person has helped grease the wheels as well. Rosen relays that her exhibition of Susan Chen’s works sold out before its opening date, with select buyers coming in to lay eyes on the pieces they’d already agreed to acquire remotely.
After an extremely difficult shutdown period, business has largely returned to pre-pandemic levels at Marvin Gardens, according to Miler. Meanwhile, LaViola says that she’s made “several” sales from Sargent’s Daughters’ current show of isolation-inspired paintings by Brandi Twilley, at prices ranging from $1,500 to $4,000 each.
Overall, the core themes of this highly unusual fall gallery season are flexibility and adaptability. New Yorkers have done admirable work keeping the virus at bay, but with schools about to reopen, temperatures declining, and regular cold and flu season on its way, no one is sure what will happen in the final four months of 2020.
Miler says that Marvin Gardens plans to promote its remaining exhibitions of the year and think more strategically about next year than he otherwise might, including working on two publishing projects due in 2021. “I think now is a good time for things like books,” he said.
Between the absence of potential synergies like art fairs and the general uncertainty of the climate, LaViola admits that she is talking to her artists “about seasonality rather than specific months” for their exhibitions. “I loved my calendar,” she mused about the pre-shutdown era. “Now, I’m just Zen bamboo bending in the wind.”