This analysis was originally published on CoBo Social on 19 May 2020.
The past few weeks have seen European art galleries and museums slowly reopening their doors to visitors with heavy precautionary measures in place, as part of the easing of lockdown restrictions to deal with the ongoing, global pandemic COVID-19.
Most recently, France announced plans to reopen galleries and small museums from 11 May. Museums in Italy and Belgium also start to reopen in mid-May, while German museums and art galleries began welcoming visitors again in late April.
All of these reopenings come with strict measures, such as online ticket purchasing, social distancing in the galleries, appointment-only visits, plexiglass dividers at ticket booths, self-scanning tickets, reduced visitor capacity, and more frequent cleaning.
German art-collector-turned-dealer, Amadeo Kraupa-Tuskany, who runs Berlin gallery Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler with his partner Nadine Zeidler, spoke to CoBo Social about reopening and the safety measures being adopted.
“The gallery was closed for six weeks. [Now] we only admit three people at once. A safety distance of 1.5 metres, as well as a face mask, are obligatory. Some galleries in Berlin implemented a ticketing system to control the number of visitors,” he said.
Kraupa-Tuskany noted a sense of caution in terms of market interest and limited attendance, but remained optimistic that the situation would improve after the gallery puts up the major exhibitions that they postponed to September.
However, a number of Berlin galleries are postponing their prime exhibitions until next year. Galerie Nordenhake’s exhibition of historic works by artists, including Richard Serra, Imi Knoebel, and Stanley Whitney, and Galerie Thomas Schulte’s exhibition by Rebecca Horn have both been pushed back to 2021. There is reportedly a great deal of tentativeness regarding planning for exhibitions held as late as September, when Berlin Gallery Weekend is taking place after being postponed from May. Berlin art dealers and galleries expect a very local crowd of collectors in September, given travel restrictions and overall wariness.
Nonetheless, Max Goelitz, former director of Häusler Contemporary Munich, remains highly optimistic.
Leading a new gallery under his own name, which was founded on the basis of the gallery he ran for almost a decade, Goelitz described the quick redirection of his team towards making the content of their first exhibition available online following the lockdown, as well as communicating with clients and artists during that period, and “intense and very personal gallery visits” following the reopening.
“We could feel in all the conversations how much our guests had missed visiting galleries and museums, and the discourse on art,” Goelitz said.
He did note that galleries relying on participation in a high number of art fairs each year, and on a jet set clientele, would feel pressure. “Their business model will probably not work as successfully [over] the next months—maybe longer.”
Kamel Mennour, who owns and runs Galerie Kamel Mennour in Paris, which has been closed since mid-March and is expected to reopen at the end of this month, disagreed with Goelitz’s point about international galleries struggling.
“Our online exhibitions have been successful in terms of both sales and drawing in new audiences. As a gallery that truly believes in the physical experience of art, and is imbedded in our local communities, we are looking forward to reopening,” he said.
“As a global gallery, our spaces are frequently visited by international audiences, and we are expecting travel will take time to get back to 2019 levels. Therefore, as an artist-centric organisation, it seems vital to us to carry on our mission in both the physical and digital realms, [in order] to best serve audiences around the world: to bring art to our community, share the work of the artists we believe in, and curate shows that are meaningful and add value to the global context,” Mennour added.
In spite of furloughs and lay-offs by mega galleries, small to mid-sized galleries, from New York to Singapore, are amongst those worst hit by the economic impact of the global pandemic. These art galleries are not just worried about business slowing down during lockdown, but also in the months ahead. There is widespread concern about the exacerbation of inequalities, with “mega-galleries and art stars surviving, and the gap between them and everyone else only widening, rendering the scrappier artists and galleries something close to invisible.”
Yet, Goelitz views this crisis as “an unexpected opportunity for small and mid-size galleries, which have been massively under pressure from the large and mega galleries that have shaped the art market during the past 15 years.”
“The concept of a locally-rooted gallery, addressing the local and regional audience, but presenting an international program, is probably a promising one for the time that lies ahead of us. I dream of a network of authentic galleries and project spaces that act super agile and collaborative, in a decentralised organisation that corresponds much more to artistic visions than hierarchical structures,” he explained.
Goelitz is not alone in this seemingly out of place optimism. Amidst the doom and gloom we have been grappling with on both a personal and a global level, most cultural stakeholders, especially gallerists, are clinging to such narratives. While it would be easy to deride such rhetoric as purely PR-speak and whitewashing—which most often tends to be the case—there could be some truth to Goelitz’s vision and observation.
From 23 May to 14 August, blue chip gallery Perrotin will invite 26 Paris-based galleries to present a selection of work from their artists at their Saint Claude space. The exhibition will feature four consecutive, two-week-long presentations, with each one including six to seven independent galleries.
“This collaborative project evolved out of a desire to celebrate the experience of seeing art in person and it also marks the reopening of our Paris galleries. Although difficult, this is the time to underline the foundations of our profession and our commitment to diversity, openness, and art,” said Emmanuel Perrotin.
Perhaps the reopening of the art world post-lockdown will see a collective understanding that collaboration and community are not merely great buzzwords, but real tools to build a sustainable art ecosystem. However, it is also clear that, for now, this sense of collaboration and community is likely to focus on the local, lending an advantage to art scenes with inherently strong and active local stakeholders.