Portland’s art galleries remain closed. But many galleries in Oregon’s less-densely populated areas, such as Bend and Joseph, have opened under Phase 1 of Gov. Kate Brown’s plan to ease COVID-19 restrictions.
Phase 1 allows more businesses to open to the public, provided they follow social distancing guidelines.
Susan Luckey Higdon, artist and owner of the Tumalo Art Co., a collective art gallery in Bend, had to close her doors when the shutdown first began in March, but she has since reopened. To stay connected with the public, she and a collective of artists sent out daily emails centered around art called “The Weekly Art Fix.”
“Part of the reason to do that was both to get our art in front of people for potential sales, but also just to encourage people, because it was such a weird, scary time, and we really felt like our customers were missing the art, missing the ability just to come into the gallery for how that made them feel for a while,” Higdon said.
Since reopening, Higdon has implemented rules and guidelines for social distancing in her gallery.
“We did some taping around the desk for people to try to keep distance, but the great thing about galleries, and I think that’s why we’re part of Phase 1 and why we were able to make appointments during the close down, is that most galleries have some space and they’re not clogged with people,” she said.
Like most organizations affected by COVID-19, art galleries in Oregon’s smaller towns have seen a significant hit in revenue. Higdon said she’s concerned for businesses in Bend that heavily rely on tourism to make ends meet.
“I’m probably personally most worried about the restaurants, and I think a lot of people are, because they really don’t have room in there to not have high volume.”
Malcolm Phinney, owner of Phinney Gallery of Fine Art in Joseph, said that he isn’t seeing as much business as compared to previous years.
“On a normal year, it would be a couple of weeks before things really start to kick in for us. And then we go gangbusters until fall. But for me, it’s a wait and see,” Phinney said.
An artist himself, Phinney said he considers himself fortunate that he can focus on his art if business doesn’t pick up.
“When I don’t have the gallery activity I can still do my art, which means that right now I’m having an opportunity to build up a lot of inventory,” he said. “And hopefully it will sell in the future, but it is kind of a blessing for me in that way that I am finding more time to create.”
Phinney and Higdon said they appreciate being able to provide art for their customers again, but they are concerned about the future of art galleries, especially if a second wave of COVID-19 cases forces them to close once more.
“Our gallery lived through the recession of 2008-2009, and the reason we got through it is because we’re a collective and we don’t have to pay employees,” Higdon said. “But while our landlord has been helpful easing things up during this time, we still have to pay our lease and we still have all our bills come in exactly the same.”
Phinney said he hopes that, through the uncertainty, art galleries will continue to be a place to visit and will not be forced to transition to strictly virtual tours and online purchases.
“After this is all over, I don’t know if there’ll be more online purchases and less going about in the brick and mortars and the retail outlets that way,” he said. “I hope that art stays more in the brick and mortar. It’s hard to pick up on the internet.”
But despite their worries, Phinney and Higdon are optimistic that as summer weather arrives, tourism will increase and galleries will remain so that the community can enjoy a little art in uncertain times.
“We’re staying positive and we’re staying hopeful and we’re staying creative and we’re going to keep doing all of this, because it’s what we love. So, we just need people to hang with us,” Higdon said.