Rules of Engagement

Like other small businesses, indie art galleries, centers struggle with how/when to go public


Travis Apel at MaMO solar array, 2020

(The following is a more complete version of the one that printed in the June issue of the Reader)

Small businesses are no stranger to soft openings and landings as they cycle through the vagaries of even the best of economies. But leave it to an unforeseen and unprepared for pandemic to be a game changer. Positive vaccine news and another potential Federal stimulus may point to a brighter fall and 2021, but first you have to survive summer in the city.

Whether or not you live, work and play in a state where governors have lifted all or some commercial and social restrictions, COVID-19’s impact on our health and economy has created an environment of both urgency and uncertainty. Permission granted is just part of the picture. When and how to re-open, safely, will impact not only the here and now but the near future as well.

In Nebraska, Governor Pete Ricketts calls his re-entry plan “phased openings” allowing small businesses—which one can argue have been hurt the most in this economy–to slowly land on their feet and open doors to patrons under certain heath restrictions. While this applies mostly to the “three R’s”, restaurants, retail and recreation, other fields of social engagement and recreation face an equally uncertain summer.

This includes Metro’s art market, especially small galleries, non-profit or private, that depend heavily on donations, grants, memberships and sales to make ends meet, to put art on their walls and pay the rent for the walls as well, month after month. Larger, more established venues such as Joslyn Art Museum, Bemis Center for Contemporary Art, Kaneko and El Museo Latino may fall back on their investments and endowments as well as the deep pockets of their board of governors to sustain them through difficult economic downturns.

They too face serious financial challenges in order to meet their goals but are able to further adjust budgets by furloughing staff, cancelling exhibitions and closing their doors to the public until further notice, which all four have done.

Larger private and non-profit galleries such as Gallery 1516, Modern Arts Midtown and Anderson O’Brien are also closed for the summer to meet budget challenges of their own. MAM and AOB, meanwhile are still able to profit from sales and commissions from the stables of their artists, and the non-profit G1516 may be sustained by its membership, own board and investments as well as donations and grants.

Smaller art venues can benefit from all of the above also, depending on sales, donations or a possible non-profit status. But galleries such as Petshop, The Little Gallery and Maple St. Construct in Benson, Generator Space, RBR G and Project Project on Vinton Street and two key community service art centers, Amplify Arts and The Union for Contemporary Art face one additional challenge.

They need to be “open”. That is, they need to be visible and engaged in some way to meet their mission and be sustainable. They are less likely to ride the coronavirus wave financially or to rest on their laurels like their bigger brethren. Joslyn, Kaneko and Bemis, as well as the full service galleries above aren’t going away anytime soon, but the turnover for small businesses of all kinds is not fake news.

Virtually all small art galleries rallied in the beginning of COVID-19 by opening virtually or digitally, if only to get their bearings and make a financial assessment. Now, a few are transitioning to the next stage of “re-opening” to the public, cautiously, because frankly, putting art in front of patrons is what they do. Real openings, the night of the opening, sell art and by all accounts, art sales from digital exhibits have been very, very low. To a gallery big or small, job one is to serve its artists, to help them create and sell their work and to that end, there is no substitute for a real opening.

“Chaos” installation by Travis Apel from his exhibit Makes Know Since

For June, only two of the above smaller galleries, RBR G, and Mayflower Mobile Gallery (MaMO) are planning, cautiously, to re-open to the public with an exhibit. John Rogers, founder of RBR G, which had the first soft re-opening in May, is planning a second in June titled “Fine Art Prints” featuring work by John Thein, Keith Buswell, Shawn Ballarin and others.

Rogers will take the necessary precautions of masks, spacing, sanitization and even gloves because he noted during the May show that “some did the health safety things, and some did not. I was surprised to see that several wanted to shake hands.”

Also in Benson during a June artist walk, MaMO will exhibit an installation from artist Travis Apel, the mobile venue’s first artist-in-residence. The exhibition is called Makes Know Since, riffing on the Apel’s numerous collection of sculptures created from a myriad of found objects.

Further details for these shows and virtual openings at other venues can be found in Reader’s art picks/previews online and in print written by Janet Farber. In addition, Petshop Gallery and Amplify Arts hope to “go public” later this summer.

“Our plan is to move forward with an opening during July First Friday with artist Evan Stoler,” said Petshop owner and artist Alex Jochim, who also will require masks for everyone and limit the number of patrons in the gallery at any time.

Shawn Ballarin, Heavy Sun, 2019, woodcut, relief etching

Peter Fankhauser, program director for Amplify Arts said that while the center’s programming for its Generator Space on Vinton Street will remain virtual in June, “We’re tentatively planning to have people in space again for our July opening…contingent on whether or not we see a dip in (virus) cases by then.”

Amplify Arts too will limit mask only patrons in place, disinfect surfaces and provide hand sanitizer. Despite these precautions, some venues express doubts about “opening too soon”, if at all, and look beyond this summer before they will re-open. Ross Miller, co-founder of Maple St. Construct in Benson, says COVID 19 presents a logistical nightmare.

“As of right now, we are planning to continue our digital exhibitions through at least August,” Miller said. “We may not have any physical exhibitions for the rest of 2020. We had to reschedule our first 2020 residents in April to 2021.” In addition, MSC’s second resident from Los Angeles may also have to reschedule to 2021.

For The Union for Contemporary Art, COVID-19 exposes a logistical as well as ethical problem of its own that has shifted the center’s current focus according to communication director Patrick Mainelli who said, “We are not making any concrete plans to gather in person at the moment.”

“Understanding that our North Omaha community is already being hit harder by the health and economic effects of the pandemic, we know that meeting our mission demands we do all we can to alleviate the suffering caused by the crisis,” Mainelli added. “We’re calling this new initiative Radical HeARTS which incorporates both direct physical action (Dedicated Hands) and new virtual programming (Connected Minds).” Details of both can be found at https://www.u-ca.org.

Project Project co-founder and artist Josh Powell said he and partner Joel Damon are “unsure when we’ll decide it’s responsible enough to be open to the public. At the moment we don’t plan to do a soft opening.” But they too have another concern.

“Artists work very hard to create work and prepare for an exhibition,” Powell said, “so I don’t think it’s fair to them to host their opening and only have a few people show up.”

Fairness doesn’t seem to be a pandemic quality as all of the above art venues struggle to cope with and compensate for this new business normal even if it’s just to pay the bills, to make ends meet. As tenants, two galleries are grateful for their lessors.

At Petshop, Jochim said “Our landlord has provided rent extensions, although most of our artist renters (studios) have been able to make their payments on time. Our galleries are run pro-bono and the building’s rent is paid for by studio artists and BFF overhead funding.  MaMO is under a grant from Douglas County Visitor Improvement Fund.”

“Having a great and understanding landlord has helped,” agreed Rogers. “I applied for an SBA Payroll Protection Program loan, got it, and it allows for payments for rent, utilities and staff. Since RBR G is small, it was not a large loan but it will help and it can be forgiven.”

A few galleries were able to cover expenses in a down sales market with arts related projects such as Maple St. Construct’s popular hard copy of its annual operations.

“We are currently working on our second book that captures all our exhibitions from 2019, which will be available for sale later this year,” Miller said. “Our first book, MAPLE ST. CONSTRUCT 2018, sold out rather quickly, and our 2019 book will be even bigger, in terms of content.  All the sales of the book directly help cover the cost to publish the book, but also go back into the organization to assist in our operations and to provide our programming free to everyone, as well to host artist residencies here in Omaha.”

Keith Buswell, Hawley, 2019, etching

Little Gallery owner Teresa Gleason is holding her own because the space is doing double duty.

“I think my business model is somewhat unique,” Gleason said. “The gallery, which I own and operate, is also home to my small business, Polecat Communications, a small communications/public relations company. The income I earn through my work with Polecat clients essentially pays the gallery bills.”

Amplify Arts also applied for the Federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) which Fankhauser said the venue used to stay fully staffed “and support the expansion of social safety nets that protect the 99%–including artists.” As for coping, he thinks COVID-19 has an upside not only for AA but for the art market in general especially when funds begin to run thin.

“As a small-ish nonprofit, most of Amplify’s funding comes from the generosity of individual donors and foundations,” Fankhauser said. “We know those dollars will likely have to stretch much further, both in the immediate and distant future.

“Our work uniting the arts sector around shared values and objectives is going to be more important now than ever as we collectively advocate for policy that positions culture as an essential, not a luxury in our city. Working to develop more substantive and meaningful partnerships with other arts organizations will help us to avoid duplicating services and alleviate some financial stresses.”

Robin Donaldson A Surfer’s Time 2019

The Union has also taken advantage of federal programs to accommodate its short term budgets Mainelli said, and it will continue to draw upon additional grant funding as well as the generosity of local donations. But he too says the pandemic has lessons that will impact how the art market will  function in general and specifically for U-CA.

“We are truly optimistic that this whole experience will push The Union to grow and innovate in ways that we may not have otherwise,” Mainelli said. “This has already been a reminder of the depth to which we are all connected. The health and well being of our most vulnerable populations is so directly linked to the health and well being of all.

“This is especially relevant to North Omaha which has, for so long, experienced the negative consequences of disinvestment, neglect, and isolation from the rest of our city. In short, we hope that this experience leaves us more efficient, more engaged, and better suited to directly meet the needs of those we serve.”

Meanwhile, no matter what the mission of these indie art galleries and centers, they face the same financial and health issues that threaten the very community they are anxious to serve. What will it take then to give all art venues more confidence to open up and as Miller put it, “look forward to the day where we can have physical exhibits and engage with our supporters”?

Mainelli says whatever the “new normal” is, “it needs to bring us to a point where the risk of person-to-person infection has dropped significantly in Omaha.”  Fankhauser agrees saying “More data based on testing and contract tracing in Nebraska could definitely help guide decision-making.”

That, and one thing more, Gleason, Rogers and Powell said: A vaccine for COVID-19. That may not happen before 2021, but all vendors remain optimistic about the future. Powell pretty well sums up for all.

“We take a lot for granted, but where you’d think the current situation would bring the worst out in people, all I’ve seen is generosity and care for one another. Maybe I have rose colored glasses, but I hope that’s true.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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