Every third Friday of the month, 78th Street Studios is usually packed with about 1,500 people at the largest art and design complex in Northeast Ohio. But in August, a band played in a mostly empty performance space while nearly 300 mask-wearing patrons visited galleries and art studios that chose to open at this four-story warehouse space in Gordon Square Arts District.
After canceling its March, April and May events, 78th Street Studios only allowed up to 200 people in June and July. But one resident artist, Eileen Dorsey, still chose to paint a landscape outside at the August event.
“I was testing the waters,” she says.
For Dorsey, whose studio has been here 11 years, opening her space to the public felt personal. It’s where she creates art and it still felt strange opening her home-away-from-home to strangers during a pandemic.
“After observing the event, I’ll definitely be open next month,” she says.
Except for large-scale institutions with major resources, such as the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, the city is already a tenuous market for galleries. Even major institutions don’t have huge reserves, but in a smaller market of buyers, galleries have thin margins to begin with, and artists rely on in-person activities to drive sales. Many small galleries in the area reportedly shut down temporarily because of the pandemic, raised money online to pay rent in the interim and worked hard to find ways to feature artists online.
While Cleveland is fortunate to have a vibrant arts and culture community, albeit in a smaller market, we can’t assume everything will be the same after the pandemic.
Cuyahoga Arts & Culture executive director Jill Paulsen notes that a recent study by management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. says the arts sector will be the last to recover and could take four to five years.
“The impact is more than empty stages, shuttered museums and canceled festivals,” Paulsen says. “Job loss has affected our friends, neighbors and families.”
From March through June 2020, 65 Cuyahoga County-based arts nonprofits reported layoffs, furloughs or canceled contracts of 2,533 people resulting in a loss of compensation totaling $8.1 million.
Northeast Ohio is a reflection of what’s happening nationwide. An ongoing survey of more than 17,000 people by Americans for the Arts, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization, reports that U.S. culture and arts organizations have lost more than $12 billion since late March because of the pandemic.
Nationally, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts is allowing partners nationwide to offer annual grants initially aimed at other projects to instead be used to help artists get by.
In April, Spaces art gallery reallocated $60,000 in funding from the Andy Warhol grant that was initially going to be spent on 10 artist projects. Instead, 60 artists in Cuyahoga County each received $1,000. The gallery went a step further to help thanks to funding from the Cleveland Foundation and individual donors. Of the 77 artists who applied, 66 received money in amounts that ranged from $500 to $1,000.
But artists also may need to shift the way they market themselves to survive.
Dawn Tekler specializes in encaustic wax paintings. With galleries closed and fairs and commissioned artworks canceled or put on hold, she’s found time to finally work on her website and spend more time touting art on social media.
It’s something other artists have been doing as well. According to the Americans for the Arts survey, 70% of artists have increased their online presence.
For instance, Tekler, who is used to creating large pieces, came up with an online mystery art promotion on social media. She offered people color palettes and three different price points for much smaller art that would ship for $75, $125 or $150. She says people familiar with her art, both local and across the country, were happy to participate.
“It was fun,” she says. “I’m grateful for clients that didn’t cancel commissioned pieces, but instead spent less. But I’m also working on finding innovative and creative ways to get out there again.”
Still when it comes to art, there’s just nothing like seeing it in person. And after a few months, gallery directors such as Marcia Hall at Bonfoey Gallery are finally able to start inviting consumers in again, by
“Let’s just say there’s a lot of wine in the fridge,” she says.
The 127-year-old downtown Cleveland gallery rescheduled an April opening to September with 13 artists. Only one artist decided not to return.
“Art is something that you really have to see in person,” Hall says. “Subtleties like pencil lines look totally different online.”
Some businesses will always be in a better position than others to succeed when it comes to unpredictability. Sometimes it’s timing. And sometimes it’s all about their offerings, resources and already being set up for success with technology and inventory.
Dana Oldfather, who sells her art through galleries in five cities and dealers across the country, is encouraged by the uptick in residential sales as the result of so many people being home now and wanting to add art to their spaces.
“I’m doing about a third of the work that I usually do, but I’m optimistic,” she says. “Corporate sales used to account for all of my large work. But residential sales are up. People are stuck in the house. They’re not spending on travel and home renovators are booked.”
From artists who create, to galleries, museums and fairs that show it, to collectors who buy it, everyone is coming to terms that the art world will probably look different after the pandemic.
Paulsen says Cuyahoga Arts & Culture reported that in 2019, including events, workshops and performances, there were more than 7.4 million experiences where the public interacted with the arts and culture sector across Cuyahoga County, and more than half were free to the public. And while the current circumstances are devastating, her organization is committed to providing support to groups similar to the way they accelerated grant payments of $5.1 million by nine months in April to 65 organizations.
“We have committed to steady operating support funding in 2021 so our arts organizations can plan ahead,” she says. “We will be there to support them — and the artists and creative workers they employ — so that they can strengthen our community for years to come,” she says.
Meanwhile artists are working harder than ever to pivot and reinvent. Dorsey, like so many others, says she questioned her ability to survive as an artist and muralist.
“I had five big jobs scheduled this year and all but one canceled,” she says. “Luckily for me it was the biggest one, and the restaurant trusted me to do a whole different style of art. I spent a month in Columbus working on the project. I’m proud of it, and I’m grateful I’m still able to provide for myself.”