Call 2020 “The Year of the Wall.” Never have the vertical planes in homes received such attention as they do with the coronavirus pandemic pinning people inside their abodes. If we aren’t staring at our own walls, we’re forming opinions about the walls of others in Zoom meetings or shot-from-home TV segments.
So, should they not convey comfort, movement, intrigue, passion, power, or escape?
“It is nice to have the distraction of a beautiful piece of art rather than watch the news, which is so relentless,” says Chip Tom, senior curator at Heather James Fine Art in Palm Desert, who has curated 25 virtual exhibitions since the start of the COVID-19 crisis. He tailors private messages to clients, recording videos at home and embedding them into catalogs. Like other galleries, Heather James offers private appointments. But with people staying home, the gallery also ships works for remote viewing — while art handlers aren’t operating as usual. “Everything is harder and takes longer.”
Melissa Morgan Fine Art, on Palm Desert’s El Paseo, found itself in a similar position. In the past three years, it has participated in 20 North American art fairs. Though some fairs have moved online, Melissa Morgan is waiting to see if virtual events can be a viable option for the gallery, says gallery director Alec Longmuir.
“In our experience, the live [exhibition] is the best,” he says. “We have enough of an established and secondary market that we will be OK, but it will be hard for up-and-coming galleries to survive [without art fairs].”
Galleries that have built reputations on blue-chip and specific genres of art have seen sales continue even in the pandemic.
“We have well-established artists with a built-in audience,” Longmuir notes. “Walk-in business accounts for only 20 to 30 percent of our sales. Although El Paseo traffic came to a screeching halt, we have high-net-worth clients with second homes [in the desert], and a lot of people decided to quarantine here where they could be more socially distant than in Chicago or New York. If anything, [the crisis] gave them more time to spend with us and looking at art.”
Glenda Ramey, owner of Ramey Fine Art on El Paseo, concedes that some customers have canceled in-the-process sales. But most of her clients have the means to withstand economic strain. She emails them when she receives new work from artists they collect.
In the spring, artists she represents began making videos to expound online about their creative processes.
“Even before the pandemic,” Tom says, “30 percent of our business was done online. Since 2006, Heather James has pushed to constantly utilize technology to sell art. When COVID hit, we were poised to expand on using technology.”
Longmuir says Melissa Morgan Fine Art is spending more time on social media and communicating through Constant Contact emails. The gallery also reaps benefits from its 30,000-square-foot outdoor sculpture garden (also on El Paseo), which has remained open.
As for the future, Tom admits, “That’s something we all talk about a lot.”
“There really is no established normal for what galleries are going to do in the future,” Longmuir affirms.
According to Artnet News, a group of art dealers, gallery owners, and collectors met in July with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Ivanka Trump to lobby for federal measures that would aid the art-sale industry. (Mnuchin’s father, incidentally, owns an eponymous gallery in Manhattan.)
Locally, Ramey wonders how decreased travel will play out: “Will people not be coming back in the same way that they have in October?”
Although questions such as this linger like the virus, one query yields a clear and positive answer: Is art essential?