For artists, the start of the COVID-19 pandemic presented twin problems: how to show work, and how to sell it. The former was, to a degree, out of their hands. Galleries have been sorting out the conundrum through online exhibitions — juried and not — along with expanding their presence on social media and their own websites. As restrictions have eased, galleries have worked out safety restrictions and socially distanced exhibits.
But the selling problem still remains, and the problem is persisting, even as the world opens up more and more.
Paul Pedulla is a painter based in Massachusetts. His primary medium is acrylic on canvas, and his work has been sold internationally. Pedulla’s paintings often depict coastal settings in a minimalist style; ever-present in the majority of his works is a transfixing blue, assigned to sea and sky, with a depth so imposing that one feels able to smell the salt.
“Frankly, I was expecting the worst,” Pedulla said about the pandemic’s start, “My January, February and first week of March sales were fantastic, and I figured it would all come to a screeching halt. The brick-and-mortar art world was closing to the public, including my studio at 450 Harrison Ave, Boston, and all of the galleries that represent me nationwide.”
Andrew DeVries, who works and lives in the Berkshires, was worried: “Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival (the first to announce there would be no live performances), the theaters, the art museums — Clark Art Institute, Norman Rockwell, MASS MOCA and finally Tanglewood — one could see that it was not going to look to be a particularly bright picture for those of us who depend on those cultural institutions to bring the art loving and purchasing clientele to our area.”
DeVries is a master of bronze sculpture and painting. His sculptures have an exquisite fluidity that captures the graceful movements of the human body with a preternatural mimesis. Each pose seems cut—real time—from a ballet performance, with every minute gesture of a finger appearing to be as integral to the stability of the work as the base.
Though fazed by the rapidly changing situation, DeVries began working out a plan straight away, “I made a decision early on that financially it did not make sense to keep paying rent, so we gave up our gallery space in Lenox for this time.”
As the stay-at-home order swept into effect, and the pandemic became ever more real, many artists were confronted with a change not just of schedule, but of how to approach their creative process in the new landscape. Pedulla — who still had access to his studio—channeled everything into his painting, “I found myself painting simple images of beaches, bright skies and pleasing architecture. Freedom in a scary time could only be found in my work. I painted joy and I painted a lot.”
Meanwhile, DeVries was moving paintings and statues from his studio space. But he did have an ingenious idea early on: “I made a sculpture trail for people to come and walk. That was one of the opportunities.”
As DeVries and Pedulla began to settle into the new normal, the task of selling work in unprecedented times came to the fore. The move online is a reality that many outside the art world can relate to. And many artists found themselves on better footing when dealing with the transition than most galleries. The use of personal websites, and of course, social media, has been for a decade or so now an indispensable tool to promote just about every artistic medium. It allows artist to be seen; to bridge their work not just within their community, but beyond.
Pedulla hit a dry spot in selling at the pandemic’s start. “After the first week of March, I had no sales at all for the rest of that month… No sales at all in May. Then, in June, two great things happened. First, my studio at 450 Harrison Ave, Boston, reopened to the public and I sold “Road, Sand and Sky” my very first day back. And second, Saugatuck Art Traders, the gallery that represents me in Saugatuck, Michigan, also reopened.”
The opening of galleries, even with restrictions has brought a resurgence in art buying. “Since mid-June, my sales at both my own studio and at Saugatuck Art Traders have been awesome,” said Pedulla, “I’m thrilled and a little surprised.”
The bounce back is astonishing. As other sectors of the art community are still reeling (no one quite knows when live performance and theater will return), the visual arts have been rebounding. This can be chalked up to a verity of factors: that artists have confronted the pandemic aggressively and creatively; that galleries were able to — whether expansively or not — move to virtual showings and exhibits early on; that buyers have been trapped in their homes for months on end, looking at that empty space on the wall and wanting to fill it. The operation has been rather remarkable given the fragility of the art market and the restrictions put in place.
However, for those who work with larger, more labor-intensive forms, there has been a snag.
“Bronze sculpture is a long process, so I have only been able to now really start up again,” DeVries said, “I was able to take sketches that I have done from the dance studios and create pastel paintings earlier in March and April.”
Though DeVries has had a web presence showing his work for 15-years, he is still more interested in having his work seen in person, though all stages of its creation. And given his location, he believes that this can continue, with some restrictions: “Out here (the studio is located in a very rural section of western Massachusetts) we have traditionally always welcomed individuals and couples who want to see where the work is created. There is plenty of space to maintain social distancing. That would be the way to overcome people’s discomfort.”
While he doesn’t outright toss-off online sales (“I don’t think one can be can be choosy about making any sale — we have always had some web sales even before the online sales system was set up.”), DeVries does think that art — especially sculptures like his — should be seen in person and curated, telling me, “The knowledge and experience that an artist or gallerist can bring to a prospective client is something that is difficult to relay online, especially in a mobile format.”
Pedulla, for his part, is an Instagram wiz. His account is streamlined, curated and has an aesthetic that reflects his work perfectly — it feels like stepping into one of his paintings. “I’d be lost without social media, particularly Instagram and Facebook. I have a loyal following on both and have sold to buyers directly. And considering every gallery that represents me also has a strong social media presence, I’m well covered and grateful for it.”
His position on online selling is enthusiastic, but like DeVries, he thinks that building a relationship with perspective buyers is key. “I love to sell work online. That being said, my website is not created as a retail site, nor is my Instagram or Facebook presence set up for the direct sale. One must contact me first via social media or email… Once the contact is made, the buyer can ask questions, have a chat with me, submit payment via Venmo, PayPal, any credit card, sometimes even an old-fashioned check.”
Going forward is a day-at-a-time job for artists like Pedulla and DeVries. The latter has now begun to return to working on sculptures; a recent commission — postponed due to the pandemic — was from the Pittsburgh Ballet. (There doesn’t seem to be an artist more fitted for the task than DeVries.)
In tricky times, people become resourceful. As we begin to navigate new ways of seeing, in relation to works of art, we also have to iron-out new ways of dispersing art, whether financially or for pleasure. At the core is a want to have a relationship: between artist and spectator; audience and creative team. For artists now, it would seem that these connections and conversations are important now more than ever. Getting beyond the often sterile, impersonal aspect of online communication is the first step. As DeVries said, “I do believe if a person is interested enough to inquire about a work of art that they should be excited enough to first explore our website and then take the time to come out here to the studio. It is always the best way to build a relationship between artist and art collector.”
(More information about the two artists can be found on their websites: paulpedulla.com and andrewdevries.com.)