ABOVE: Install of Sunspike at Moremen Gallery
︎ Jessica Oberdick, Louisville
Resiliency During Crisis: How Louisville Galleries Are Adapting
In the coming weeks, restrictions on the stay at home orders across the country will slowly begin to lift and society will begin to transition to life with COVID-19. This phase will be difficult for the arts. Since March, museums, galleries, and other cultural institutions have shut their doors and been forced to make the difficult decisions to lay off or furlough employees, and institute pay cuts. The Louisville Arts and Culture Alliance estimates a $1.3 million daily economic loss for the city during the shutdown1, proving the pandemic has strongly impacted our art community here with no exception. The way our institutions operate and the way we are able to experience the arts will be drastically different than before. Even during these uncertain times, however, galleries in Louisville have strived to continue bringing art to us and many in our community have created new initiatives to keep us engaged and support their fellow artists.
For our galleries, stay at home orders and social distancing has forced many to cancel exhibitions and alter the way they reach their audiences. “The pandemic has had an enormous impact on Quappi Projects’ operations and plans,” says owner John Brooks. Quappi’s current exhibition I Do Not Ask Any More Delight opened only a few short weeks before Kentucky’s shut-down order was put in place which has meant very few have been able to see the show. “The pandemic has wrought innumerable sorrows on so many people, and of course it doesn’t compare to loss of life or loss of employment, but for the nineteen artists whose work is included, it’s so unfortunate that the exhibition wasn’t able to be experienced as it should have been,” says Brooks.
Susan Moremen, owner of Moremen Gallery echoes Brooks regarding the vast changes the pandemic has brought. “At the moment it has totally changed the way we do business. We are open by appointment only, and we don’t really encourage that. It has also changed our future plans because the future is constantly changing in terms of what the government says we can do/can’t do.”
In an effort to make up for closed doors, both Brooks and Moremen have turned to the digital world to continue promoting their exhibitions and artists. “Since its inception, Quappi Projects has had a fairly robust Instagram presence and I have promoted the current exhibition there, as well as on Facebook and through targeted emails. I have also been sharing images of the artists’ other work, not just work that is hung in the gallery. People have had more opportunities, theoretically, to spend time browsing Instagram and other social media, and I have hoped to give them a more comprehensive picture of the artists’ practice,” says Brooks.
Moremen Gallery’s most recent exhibition, Sunspike, a solo show by Anne Peabody, switched to a digital format. A virtual exhibition catalog was used to present artworks and a video tour was also uploaded. “We had an excellent response to this format,” says Moremen. “We sold quite a few pieces sight-unseen and overall the show was extremely successful. I think this is due in large part to the fact that Anne’s work is quite well known in Louisville because of her presence at 21c. This would have been her first show here and it was highly anticipated.” Not knowing how things will look as we begin reopening in Louisville, Moremen also shared that they plan to continue offering their exhibitions in a digital format. “The stay at home time has forced people to get much more comfortable with shopping/ordering online and I think it has been a lifesaver for businesses and in some cases a real winner.”
While Moremen Gallery has had success selling work digitally, Brooks at Quappi Projects has found the digital market less promising. “We have made a few sales during the shutdown, though the purchases came from collectors who saw the work in person before the quarantine. I have had very little success selling work via the internet, either for Quappi Projects or my own personal practice. I think there are a number of reasons for that, perhaps most of all because we are a relatively new gallery and are still in the process of building a clientele, as well as exhibiting mostly younger artists whose collector bases are still developing.”
Results during the shut-down have been mixed over at Garner Narrative as well. At the onset of the pandemic, Will and Angie Garner set up studio space in their front gallery windows offering anyone passing by the chance to follow what they are doing. “It's been life-affirming on all sides I think,” says Angie Garner, “It helped take the sting out of the mandatory closure.” They also put their last exhibition, Bill Pusztai: First World Problems entirely online. “That particular work really lent itself to online viewing, which is unusual, and the timing was good in that people at home were hungry for content,” Garner explains. While they plan to continue offering additional online content, it’s not something they will focus on entirely. As far as online sales: “It’s happened,” Angie shares, “but honestly more credit goes to the collectors than to me. They followed up about pieces they were already considering before closure. But then, this is what art collectors are like! They are special people.”
Advertising current exhibitions has not been everyone’s main focus since the start of the shutdown. After postponing their next exhibition, houseguest created a new project in response to the pandemic. Founder Megan Bickel sent out a call for her “One-Pagers”—a prompt that can include anything as long as it fits on a single 8.5” x 11” piece of paper. The call is open through the end of May, and the project will culminate in a final display in houseguest in June and July, pandemic permitting.
As Bickel explains, the One-Pager is the result of trying to communicate or be creative at a time when access to art studios or supplies may be limited. “Essentially, in my observation, that has been the one agreed upon experience of everyone at this unique time in our social history—how do I do as much as possible (this construct being applicable to whatever goal the individual has) with as little resources as possible or are available to me?” says Bickel.
And this idea, doing as much as possible with as little resources as possible, is reflected in other, entirely new projects that have sprung up during the pandemic as well. One of the first responses to the calls for social distancing was Benjamin Cook’s project Social Distance Gallery. Based entirely on Instagram, the project focuses on presenting the artworks of BFA and MFA students whose thesis exhibitions were canceled due to COVID-19.
Cook, a University of Louisville alum and adjunct professor at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, came up with the project as a way of blending his studio practice and responding to the numerous canceled BFA and MFA thesis exhibitions happening around the country. “I thought it would be interesting to use my practice to address the issues of canceled shows and further explore the ways in which images of physical works can be experienced,” he says. Cook’s initial call for art appeared on Instagram on March 13, and he has since posted artworks from hundreds of students across the country.
We also saw the emergence of Gallery Q, started by Stephanie Wise and Adelaide McComb (both MA alumni from the University of Louisville). A virtual gallery and community space, Gallery Q’s mission is to exhibit work by artists made during the pandemic. The digital exhibitions are posted online for a limited time and are accompanied by receptions hosted through Zoom.
“Seeing all my artist friends lose shows, residencies, jobs, and access to the studio was the real impetus for creating the Gallery,” says McComb, “For me, Gallery Q was an opportunity to develop community and relationships through art. Why can’t we have opening receptions? Who says you have to go to a gallery to participate? What does it look like to change these institutions, and potentially break down barriers that have kept so many from attending galleries? For me, this was just as much an opportunity to foster artistic literacy among the general public as it was to support and foster artists.”
Gallery Q offers a solution to how we can continue to participate in the arts during the pandemic and offers a potential future if we need to continue social distancing. Regarding their first online reception, Stephanie Wise stated, “I was delighted to see family members of some artists join the Zoom calls! Most everyone ‘brought’ their beverage of choice as recommended in our digital postcard. We chatted not only about quarantine woes and art practices, but also the things you’d come across in any opening reception like compliments on outfits and questions on how to make donations to/purchases from the featured artists.”
The emergence of these digital galleries not only highlights the effectiveness and benefits of digital platforms, but the resilience and determination of our artists and gallerists. The question that remains, of course, is: how will things look as we re-emerge?
“I take comfort in the fact that no one knows and we are all relearning together,” responds Megan Bickel when I ask how she sees the future of the arts after mandated closures are lifted. This sentiment is shared by many of the gallerists I have spoken with. “I think that it is up to us to remain committed to protecting the health and well-being of anyone who walks in our doors over the next year. In my mind, it eliminates large gatherings, it requires masks, constant sanitizing of the gallery and entrances, and small numbers of people in the gallery where we can maintain some sense of social distancing,” says Moremen.
Angie Garner stated that they plan to be open by appointment only for the remainder of the election season. “Through 2020 I will have changing exhibits as before, and they will be installed and promoted more or less as usual, with some more attention to online presentation.” she says, adding that they don’t plan to host receptions either,“ The restrictions on social gatherings are likely to be lifted well before medical experts say yeah it's a great idea to attend a crowded reception. It will be quite a while, a different world, before I personally will ask an artist to attend a reception and risk that kind of exposure.”
For Benjamin Cook, he hopes individuals will be more open-minded to viewing work digitally, giving it the same kind of appreciation one would show to seeing the work in person. “In the past, digital documentation has been seen as a lesser version of the ‘real’ in-person artwork. On some level, we know this not to be true since we all have meaningful responses to images we see through a screen, but we tend to reject it because we fetishize the object and are constantly hearing terms like ‘IRL’ and ‘real world’ which imply the digital experience is less than real,” he says, “The pandemic has taken away options of in-person art consumption and forced us to reconcile with the fact that consuming art online is a part of today’s art world. I hope that going forward people start to give documented images a greater value.”
This sentiment, however, is not shared by Brooks: “I have dedicated my life to the pursuit of art and I believe that it - speaking particularly of visual art - is profoundly experiential. Viewing things online is a wonderful option, but there is no replacing experiencing art in person. Scale, color, texture, are all best viewed in person, not to mention the relationship between various works of art, either speaking about a solo or group exhibition. I am not willing to give that up. And art galleries seem like relatively safe spaces. There are either small or no crowds and there is generally no touching. (I do think interactive art needs to take a hiatus for a while). Committed art lovers know and understand its value, but art is often viewed as extraneous by many - yet it is art that has sustained so many of us during this time. Visual art, music, film, fiction, poetry, television, comedy, even food have all been sources of respite for people. I want the gallery to be a space that feels like respite from the world. I think it’s necessary. Even, to use a loaded word, essential.”
Brooks is correct that art is essential and has been sustaining many of us during the pandemic. We need look only at the popularity of the #GettyMuseumChallenge and the Museum from Home project to see the impact art is having while we shelter in place. Perhaps we can take some comfort in knowing that even though the future is highly uncertain, no one I spoke with had any plans to shut down permanently just yet. Even if we have to schedule our First Friday Hops solo, there will still at least be art to look at.
Editor’s note: At the time of this article’s release, retail spaces, which include most galleries, have been allowed to reopen for groups of ten or fewer. Many will be open by appointment-only in order to promote social distancing.
- 1. What’s at Stake? Covid19 & Nonprofit Arts and Culture accessed on May 10, 2020
- Quappi Projects
- Moremen Gallery
- Garner Narrative
- Social Distance Gallery
- Gallery Q
Contributor to Ruckus
Will Garner painting in the window of Garner Narrative. The gallery has since moved the window studio upon reopening. Photo courtesy of Angie Garner.
Welcome, Not Welcome (2020) by Melissa Vandenberg, part of Gallery Q’s online exhibition Letters From the Front.
Instagram feed of Social Distance Gallery
Rembrandt Tulips by Nikki Mayeux, an example of houseguest’s “One-Pagers.” Courtesy of houseguest.
Install of I Do Not Ask Any More Delight: the body and contemporary intimacy at Quappi Projects.