In response to the global COVID-19 pandemic, galleries and cultural institutions found themselves migrating online. The transition to virtual has been a mixed bag: some galleries made the move smoothly, while others have struggled. Many have upped their social media presence and outfitted their websites with new, interactive features. We have watched an entire industry expand beyond brick-and-mortar frantically, out of necessity.
Michael Rose, the current gallery manager at Providence Art Club, found himself ahead of the virtual curve. “In the fall of 2019, I think I realized in earnest that in addition to my blog and other assets included on my freelance advising and appraisal website, I could use my platform to create virtual exhibitions.” As an appraiser and art historian, along with his work at the Art Club, Rose was in a unique position, “Because my day job is managing the galleries of the Providence Art Club, I hadn’t made my personal online exhibitions a huge priority, but was planning to roll something out this spring,” Rose told me via email. “The changes brought on by the pandemic hastened this and made me aware of how relevant this project would be, both for artists who were losing shows and for audiences seeking content.”
At Boston’s Bromfield Gallery, Gary Duher was taken aback. “The big shock came at the end of that week in March when the ICA and MFA announced they were closing down, along with many galleries like a domino effect, and Bromfield decided to close as well. For the next months, we played it by ear as things unfolded.”
Luckily, Bromfield already had one foot in the virtual world: “We are fortunate in that we redesigned our website on Square Space a year ago in order to create an online Shop. So, we were able to shift to completely online pretty quickly. Now we have several online exhibitions that connect directly to our shop.”
Two of those exhibitions are “On Edge” by Barbara Burgess Maier and “Intervisible: Red Lining and Blind Stitching in the Fabric of Greater Boston” by Caroline Rufo. The two have had their showings extended through to August 2, 2020 with limited gallery hours on Saturday and Sunday. “On Edge” is a collection of gritty, reflective works, the majority of which focus on the colors red, white and black, and how confronting they are in relation to one another. “Intervisible” is a stunning installation made of fabric, paper, thread and string that visually tackles the long legacy of the red-lining policies the Metro Boston area implemented over the past 50-odd-years. Since moving the exhibitions online, Duher has been pleased with the response and traffic they have received.
Rose’s approach was to send out word for an online exhibition titled “Social Distancing International Virtual Exhibition.” The concept was simple: to give artists, in a time of pandemic, when galleries have closed their doors, a “space” in which they could exhibit their work. Rose found that his time at Providence Art Club had positioned him well, but his approach was a bit different. “Because I wanted to keep overhead low and make my first open call free to enter, I didn’t use a call for entry platform and instead used a simple online form. Overall, it was relatively seamless.”
A similar call for art has gone out from Bromfield. “SIZZLE!” is an international online exhibition slated for this upcoming August. “This is our first international online juried competition, and the first contest to offer prizes,” Duher said via email, “In the past we’ve done regional juried shows. We brainstormed summer themes and came up with “SIZZLE!” since we had done “Heat” a few years ago. We wanted something fun and engaging with a wide range of interpretations. So far, the entries have been steady, and most artists tend to submit the last couple days.”
These exhibitions are now becoming, for many galleries, a staple for how to navigate the current restrictive landscape. They also highlight a curious paradox that the pandemic has brought. Aspects of the art world are becoming more international and democratized. Yet, at the same time, the downside is that you can’t see the work in real time, before you.
There is, no doubt, a conflicting nature to viewing — let alone buying — pieces of art online. One doesn’t have the experience of taking in its physical presence. The real depth and texture of any work of art is only experienced when one is there with it, when the proximity allows that hard to pin-point well of contradictory emotions to express themselves.
Currently, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has added a series titled “Art for The Moment” to their website. The museum has allowed “MFA staff, artists, and others” to dig into their vast collection to pick works that they feel have a link to how we live now. Each work is accompanied by a short, engaging essay by the selector.
A recent pick by Catherine Johnson-Roehr is a painting by Paul Cadmus titled “Stone Blossom: A Conversation Piece.” The painting — composed between 1939 and 1940 — depicts three men loafing under a sprawling tree. In the background is a large, white farmhouse. The scene has the feeling of Jean Genet meets Norman Rockwell.
Johnson-Roehr’s pick comes at the start of Pride Month, and she writes: “Cadmus was also determined to be true to his art, even when it made his life difficult or made his work unpopular. In addition to overt homoeroticism, he frequently depicted Americans in ways that showed both a fondness for his fellow citizens and a keen observation of their flaws.”
The difficulties of the current way of showing virtually are on Gary Duher’s mind. When it comes to preparing for “SIZZLE!” he said, that while there is “very little in terms of structure,” the main differences are obvious, “…no drop off and pick up, no installation. And, sadly, no opening reception.”
Rose, for his part, is already juggling a new exhibition, “30 Under 30.” With its deadline approaching — July 17 — he has already changed his approach, learning from the previous show. Going into “Social Distancing,” Rose was incredibly hands-on, “I invited [artists] to give me their website or social media so I could review a larger body of work and learn more about them. This took a lot of time.”
With “30 Under 30,” he’s cut back a tad. He’s limited submissions to three per artist, along with a short biography and statement. And while there will be a fee (of eight dollars), he will not be taking a commission, choosing to redirect any potential buyers to the artists themselves.
The question going forward, as businesses of all kinds begin to slowly reopen, is whether the virtual platforms that so many galleries and institutions have built up during the pandemic will be continued? “I think this is the future,” Duher said. “We’ve really enjoyed our Zoom meetings every month. And interestingly, we’ve had a big uptick in artists joining the gallery, too. It could be the pandemic gave everyone more time to pursue their options.”
Rose said he will continue to use the newly built-up resources, even after we push through to a kind of normal. But he warns that some in the art scene may not be as accepting of this change. “The reality is the “art world” has been far too opaque and far too exclusive for far too long. Of course, seeing artworks online is not ideal, but it exponentially increases access and if you work to create quality content as a gallerist, curator or dealer, you can still give artists and viewers a valuable experience.”
For some in the art community, the threat of a second wave of COVID-19, already beginning to reveal itself, has left them feeling like they’re in the same purgatory they were dropped in four months ago. But others, like Duher, are optimistic about what will come next. He ended our exchange on a needed positive note: “Maybe the art world can be more spontaneous and inclusive in the future. Why not use online tools to highlight local artists? One lesson may be how deeply rooted aesthetic experience is to the human experience. It’s essential.”
(“On Edge” & “Intervisible: Red Lining and Blind Stitching in the Fabric of Greater Boston” are on view at Bromfield Gallery’s website through August 2, 2020 (and in person on Saturday and Sunday from noon-5 p.m. with the exception of July 4 and 5), and the deadline for submissions for “SIZZLE!” is July 1, 2020. Michael Rose, along with “Social Distancing” and, later this summer, “30 Under 30,” can be found at his website, michaelrosefineart.com.)