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Predictions for Making and Selling Art Post-Pandemic, Pt. 1

Predictions for Making and Selling Art Post-Pandemic, Pt. 1

How the pandemic will affect art is unknown, but what is certain is that a lot of people want to look into that future-of-art crystal ball and share what they see.

I sent notes to a dozen or so people — artists, dealers, collectors, gallery directors — asking, how will this pandemic affect the sale of art, and how artists make art? Almost everyone responded, and blew past my request for “even a single line of insight.” To paraphrase Cole Porter, the response was, “ I have too many words, don’t fence me in.”
The outlook is grimly expectant of fundamental change.

“The commercial art gallery system was already headed for a shakeup with a lot of unsustainable models beginning to show cracks,” said Danny Hussey, the artist and co-owner of Central Art Garage, the framing shop and exhibition space in Chinatown. “The pandemic will only hasten that erosion.”

I heard this sentiment over and over. Many galleries “already have a hard time getting by as it is, and this extended closure during the pandemic may be too much for them,” said Kristy Gordon, the B.C./New York-based painter who formerly lived in Ottawa.

If one word sums up the future as foreseen it’s “digital.”

“It seems to me,” added Dale Smith, who used to run her own eponymous gallery in New Edinburgh, “that galleries have been gradually changing the way that they do business over the last few years. They have recognized the need to become much more technologically savvy and to branch out in terms of the services/product that they offer. What the pandemic has done, I think, is to stress to artists/galleries/art fair organizers etc., the necessity of throwing the old business model under the bus — or suffer the consequences. Learn from that model but expand upon it and take it in new directions.”

Artist and University of Ottawa art professor Andrew Morrow agreed that “the pandemic has demonstrated the viability of virtual models, at least on some levels. When/if things return to normal, I suspect some people, both buyers and sellers, may choose to continue to operate in this way.”

There are real-time examples of this migration to online. Most galleries have web sites, some more successfully than others. Galerie Jean-Claude Bergeron in the ByWard Market had “learned to rely on and to use the web for our sales” prior to the pandemic, due to neglect by Ottawa’s major media, Bergeron said. Other examples include Cube Gallery, which closed its Wellington West location last year and just launched a revamped website to sell art and curatorial services. And Ottawa artist Andrew King has ever craftily used social media to promote an online sale of his new works, “the Art of Isolation.” Marc Adornato, whose sales at Ottawa Art Gallery, the Diefenbunker Museum and Union 613 restaurant have come to “a complete halt,” said he’s “leaning towards an online video and image gallery exhibition in Sept/October under my own banner.”

Adornato, a connoisseur of controversial positions, added that galleries have the option to “ditch the storefront” and reduce “the 50/50 cut they take from the art sale, as they would have no rent to pay, and less need for open-hours, and employees, and give more of the art sale to the artist.”

Gallery owners are weighing their options. Hussey was set to open an exhibition of work by Joi T. Arcand when the public-health shutdown began. He’s considering how to make the exhibition happen.

“Certainly on-line, but with our space we may be able to open up in a way that individuals and small groups could experience the work in person. Some of Joi’s exhibition is intended to be installed on the exterior wall of the building, so that it will be accessible. The days of the crowded openings are a long way away.”

Carrie Colton said that since she launched Studio Sixty Six, now in the Glebe, six years ago, she’s “been aware that the bricks and mortar model of art galleries was in a state of flux. . . COVID has accelerated our plans on moving more towards more of an online presence.” In place of the usual in-person events “we’ve had live-streaming exhibitions for Andrew Beck and Guillermo Trejo openings, followed up with PDF catalogues and email communications with interested collectors. I’ve been dropping a lot of work off for people to view in their homes and or meeting people one at a time (while practising social distancing) in the gallery to see the hung show.”

Emily McInnes has 10 years of online experience at, so “when the pandemic hit we were well-positioned to adapt. We already work remotely with Rose (Ekins, curator) in Ottawa and me here in Toronto, and everything about how we operate is already virtual from our accounting system to operations and sales” Still, McInnes said, “we have yet to see the long-tail effect of this,” and she is “knocking on wood as I write.” They’ve made changes, including cutting non-essential spending. “So far we’ve been very lucky.”

Everyone I spoke with acknowledged that digital has limitations, most obviously with not seeing art in the flesh, so to speak.

“You can’t really understand a painting from a photograph of it,” says Glen Bloom, the Ottawa collector and chair of the advisory board of the Agnes Etherington Art Centre in Kingston. People will be reluctant to attend crowded art openings and that’ll have a “significant negative impact” on galleries, said Bloom, who is also on the board of directors of the School of Photographic Arts Ottawa. “I’m really concerned that a number of the galleries won’t be able to open, or if they do open they won’t last,” as many were already “operating on the margin.”

Hussey said he’s “noticed a rash of gallery mergers in Montreal and Toronto. Galleries are consolidating their brick and mortar spaces to save money.” The other side of that frugal coin is that, “I am sure these mergers will mean some artists will be let go as well.”

Stephen Borys, director of the Winnipeg Art Gallery, said smaller commercial galleries might be more nimble, and bigger art houses that rely on crowded previews and openings “will be impacted more.” Borys said that sales of more modestly priced art have already moved online, much of it controlled directly by artists. Hussey agreed that “small project spaces and galleries will be the first to come back.”

They are patiently waiting to do so. Wall Space Gallery in Westboro and the Ottawa Trainyards has been promoting exhibitions online, though director Patricia Barr had a lament for closer contact. “Part of what I love about what we do is observing the reaction of a client to a piece of art — joy, horror, love, hate — those visceral emotions you can ultimately share with the artist (that) are not seen when they are home purchasing online.”

There’s also the open question of how much money there’ll be for buying art after months — years? — of pandemic closures. Ottawa art collector Mike Manson said sales will depend on how much disposable income is available, and that won’t be known until we all see how long and broadly the shutdown continues.

As Andrew Morrow put it, “Without knowing how long this thing could go on, it’s hard to really say.” Which, at this unnerving moment, stands as an answer to most any question about the future of art sales, and art itself.

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Up next: How will artists make art during, and after, the pandemic?

Peter Simpson is a former arts editor for The Ottawa Citizen and writes about visual art for various publications. He lives in Centretown surrounded by more than 100 works of art.

All opinions expressed in this article belong to the writer and interviewees and are not that of Wallack's Limited.

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