In the minds of most art aficionados, nothing can replace the immediacy of being face to face with a work of visual art. Along with many other things, the pandemic made having that visceral experience much more difficult. And while that’s been an emotional blow to those who find joy in oil on canvas or sculpture or fine art photography, it’s been an out-size hardship for those in the business of art. While we’ve been stuck at home for the past nine months staring at the (often blank) walls, Denver’s galleries, museums, and artists have had to reimagine how to stay solvent during stay-at-home orders and with reduced visitor capacities. It hasn’t been easy; however, it has forced the art community to do what it does best: Get creative.
“At first it was just putting out fires,” says Bobbi Walker, who has owned the Golden Triangle’s Walker Fine Arts for 20 years and weathered two previous recessions. Revenue was immediately impacted by canceled events, but Walker decided to use her unexpectedly wide-open schedule wisely. She began doing some of the things she always wanted to do but never had time to accomplish, namely closing the figurative—and now with COVID-19, literal—distance between artists and collectors. She began facilitating small, in-person socially distanced dinners between creatives and connoisseurs. She also set up an online viewing room on her website where artists and collectors can interact with zero health risks. Additionally, Walker leaned into a timed-entry system; she found that the process slowed visitors down and allowed them to really engage with the works. The gallerist, who was able to keep her staff employed and notes that the year’s revenue is actually ahead of 2019, was pleased to see viewers reading the explanatory statements they might have breezed by pre-pandemic, creating a chance for a “deeper dive for meaning.”
Michael Burnett, 45, owner of Space Gallery in the Art District on Santa Fe, lost a significant amount of revenue too, but, much like Walker, he has tried to look on the bright side. “If you want to survive, you have to find the positives,” Burnett says. Having long wanted to build up his e-commerce capability, Burnett used the pandemic-induced slowdown to upload more than 2,000 works of art and four years’ worth of virtual gallery tours onto Space’s website. It was free time well spent: Even with virtually no sales between February and May, his 2020 sales have been higher than in 2019. “I attribute about 30 percent of that to implementing the e-commerce on our website,” he says.
Museums are, of course, a different breed of art-viewing space, but Nora Burnett Abrams, 42, the Mark G. Falcone director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, has come around to the fact that people are never far from their screens, especially during quarantine. She says MCA Denver has been able to increase viewership and grow its audience on both the web and social media in 2020. In fact, she says their current numbers are where they’d hoped to be three to five years from now. In providing rigorous, fun, and creative digital experiences, Abrams says, “we like to say that we haven’t been pivoting; we’ve been pirouetting instead.”
Other art industry insiders have had to do more than simply go digital in 2020. Doug Kacena, 45, who owns LoDo’s K Contemporary, ventured outside gallery walls this spring, displaying large-scale art on a nine-foot-by-18-foot billboard truck that drove through Denver and Boulder to allow citizens to view art during quarantine. He also partnered with women’s empowerment nonprofit Athena Project to create multi-disciplinary creative experiences with the likes of Cleo Parker Robinson Dance and the Guerilla Fanfare Brass Band.
Forty-five-year-old Mai Wyn Schantz had opened her Denver gallery, Mai Wyn Fine Art, in 2012, but closed up shop and returned to her artist roots when the pandemic made it impossible to pay rent on the gallery space in the Art District on Santa Fe. The silver lining? She’s been painting in her home studio and created pieces for a show at Art & Soul Gallery in Boulder, which will run through January.
While 2020 has upended the art scene in Denver, the innovations that galleries and museums have implemented out of necessity likely will not disappear post-pandemic. In fact, in some cases the changes have improved revenue in a notoriously feast-or-famine industry. In the end, though, Walker says that the only thing she and others can do is keep the doors open and keep exciting exhibitions on the walls. It’s up to people, she says, to continue to engage with the work and the artists enough to collect and share the reward art brings to their lives. Says Walker: “I believe now, more than ever, that everyone has to take ownership of the arts, that we have to step forward and support the artists and the art community in order to sustain it.”