Art Galleries Work Together to Beat COVID

Bay Area art galleries are finding that collaboration is the key to surviving the pandemic.

Given that they are in the business of creating and showcasing creativity, it should come as no surprise that artists and art galleries have adapted to the pandemic in creative ways.

When the Boston-based artist Eben Haines realized how COVID-19 was going to impact in-person exhibitions, he decided to downsize operations. The result, “Shelter in Place Gallery,” is a miniature space that can showcase miniature works that appear large when placed within Haines’ maquette gallery.

Drive-by art exhibitions organized by Warren Neidich in Los Angeles allow people to enjoy art in-person without stepping foot indoors and sharing air with strangers. Online art exhibitions have proliferated.

Here in the Bay Area, the Catherine Clark Gallery hosts curbside exhibitions, while the Jenkins Johnson Gallery allows art lovers to view exhibitions online. Although some galleries have shuttered, others have made lemonade out of this lemon of a year. Collaboration has been key.

When shelter-in-place orders hit, “there was particularly a lot of focus on care,” says Piero Spadaro, owner of the gallery Hang Art. “Everyone was trying to do what was best for someone else.” 

Not only did Spadaro’s gallery survive — it thrived during the pandemic, opening a new space in Fort Mason with better airflow than his second-story gallery space downtown. His new space is a bit of a collaboration in and of itself: the luxe vegetarian restaurant Greens is right next door, offering special menu items to those who know the code word “Hang Art.” When asked about collaborative endeavors he’s embarked on, Spadaro takes the opportunity to highlight the work of one of the artists showcased at his gallery, Pablo Manga, who helped decorate the walls of temporary field hospitals designed to hold overflow COVID patients in the Presidio. While one iteration of his art was made for a small group of doctors and patients, Spadaro also commissioned him to paint a mural in the stairwell of the Fort Mason gallery.

“As a gallery, we’re very supportive, and tried to find our own ways to highlight that and bring it in” says Spadaro. 

Galleries are collaborating with each other, too. 8-Bridges, a group of nine dealers and advisors, hosts online, rotating exhibitions of local artists. Dogpatch’s Minnesota Street Project, which houses 13 different galleries, has been hosting socially distanced group exhibitions. Neighbor galleries Et Al and Ratio 3 have coordinated viewings, so visitors can book an appointment to view both galleries

The collaborative energy, however, does not stop with displaying art. The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA), has long prized working with other nonprofits, community action orgs, and city government. CEO Deborah Cullinan, for example, is also co-chair of the San Francisco Arts Alliance, a group of organizations in the arts and culture sector who advocate for better funding and public programs. During the pandemic, that’s only expanded: in partnership with the San Francisco Office of Racial Equity, the YBCA is sponsoring a guaranteed income pilot for low-income artists in the Bay Area. Each artist chosen for the pilot will receive $1,000 per month between now and October. 

“We’re moving away from sort of more transactional, presentational, product-oriented relationships to much deeper, collaborative relationships,” says Cullinan. “We’re creating the conditions for artists to really explore big ideas.” 

For Qualia Contemporary Art, which opened during the pandemic, the spirit of collaboration has appeared on a smaller scale. Director Dacia Xu finds herself collaborating with the artists themselves more than ever before, as they collectively navigate remote technology and social distancing guidelines. Whereas pre-pandemic exhibitions followed a standard format, with horves d’oeuvres and wine to keep visitors occupied and paintings uniformly hung on plain, white walls, now Xu finds herself working out every detail with the artists. 

“When you can just have an opening, you don’t need to keep people’s attention,” says Xu. “But when you’re doing a zoom opening, you start way earlier, I have to tell artists the format, they have to prepare a Powerpoint — and then we have to try to make it look casual, but not so casual that people lose their attention.” Striking the perfect balance, she says, requires input from all parties. 

What has stood out most, however, is the collaborative effort between artists, galleries, and the greater San Francisco community to keep the arts alive. Xu, for example, has been shocked by the amount of positive feedback she’s gotten from visitors. “Some people will even say, ‘can I do something for you? Can I help?’ And it’s very encouraging,” she says. 

Spadaro, too, has had a similar experience. Reaching out to other businesses for collaboration opportunities has been frictionless, he says. Even more, many of the clients who rent his art, ranging from law offices like that of Lankin Spears, LLP to realtors, have continued to rent — despite the fact that these businesses have fewer visitors to impress. 

“None of them stopped their program, even though, to this day, some of them haven’t returned to their offices, because they believe they chose our program to outfit their spaces as a community initiative as well,” says Spadaro. It’s because of that community support that San Francisco’s art galleries will still be there when we return. 

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