Charles Froelick opened his new show featuring printmakers Yoshihiro Kitai and Tom Prochaska on March 3 at the Froelick Gallery in Portland.
“We had a really good start,” he said. But as news continued to break about the rapid spread of COVID-19, “it was evident that things were really going bad very fast.” By March 12, Froelick canceled all events at the gallery. Three days later his doors were closed and he had laid off his staff.
Galleries across the state are now shut, and gallery owners, facing an uncertain future, are looking for creative ways forward. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s order closing many businesses specifically called out art galleries, requiring them to see customers by appointment only.
“We had a really strong January and most of February, and then it’s just basically dropped off a cliff,” said Jeannine Grafton, owner of Astoria’s RiverSea Gallery. “The closest comparison I can think of is the immediate aftermath of 9/11. The uncertainty, the empty streets, no one really knowing what will happen next. The big difference now though is we can’t gather socially and commiserate with each other.”
Grafton gave her two employees the option of reduced hours or unemployment. For now, they are still working a few hours a day, receiving deliveries and fulfilling online orders.
How long will this go on?
From his desk in the Phinney Gallery, Malcolm Phinney looks out picture windows to the streets of downtown Joseph, Oregon.
“I have not seen any foot traffic at all,” he said. “An occasional car goes by but it’s very quiet.”
Phinney is used to slow spring months – his season doesn’t generally start until summer. But “if this is protracted into June,” he said, “then it starts to get a little worrisome.”
Many gallery owners worry that the pandemic could set off a recession, damaging sales and threatening long-term survival. “The winds of change can strike an art gallery and wreak havoc pretty easily,” Froelick said. Many regard art as a non-essential purchase, one that can wait until the economy improves. “People are afraid for their lives. People are afraid for their jobs. People are afraid for their families and their investments and just their basic income.”
“During the last recession,” Grafton said, “we had a lot of failures of galleries. And the aftermath was there were a lot of artists out there who had no real-world place to show their work.”
RiverSea and Froelick galleries both survived the last recession, but the journey through it was hard. Beginning in 2008, “we had an initial just rough several years,” Grafton said, “where people were wanting to get things at extreme deals … we had to fight for artists’ right to set their own value on their work.”
Lessons from the past
Susan Luckey Higdon, co-owner of the Tumalo Gallery in Bend, thinks its co-op style can help with survival. “We got through the last recession, and I think largely because of our model,” she said. “ All the artists work as gallerists, so we don’t have to pay an employee and … that’s a very good model for a recession. But it’s definitely scary.”
In many ways, art galleries are like any other small business, struggling to pay monthly expenses. But they’re also very different. Galleries function as spaces for the public to commune with art, to heal, to meditate, to find inspiration. Without galleries, cities and towns are deprived of a key cultural element, especially crucial in times of crisis.
“After 9/11,” Grafton recalls, “we mainly felt like art therapists during that time. Talking to people about what was going on in the world, and people are thanking us for just having a place where they could see art.”
Gallery owners are hoping for help from the state and the federal government. “I know that we will get very, very loud if our elected officials, municipal, state, national, don’t step up to the plate with as much support for us as they did for Wall Street back in 2008,” Froelick said.
Grafton sees this as a challenging and historic time. “I think a lot of good art will come out of this after a while.” Froelick agrees, recalling the words of Bertolt Brecht from The Threepenny Opera: “In the dark times, will there also be singing? Yes, there will be singing. About the dark times.”
It’s not clear what the path through this pandemic and its associated financial crisis will be but Froelick believes artists have a special role to play: “We chose to live in the art world because we have ideas. Sometimes they’re a little crazy, but that’s the way we have to respond to these tumultuous times, with really innovative solutions. And we can do it.”
Make a virtual visit to the Froelick Gallery’s show of work by Yoshihiro Kitai and Tom Prochaska, in this online gallery below.