East Bay art galleries are struggling to maintain their spaces and communities, even while enjoying more global online exposure during the pandemic.
While none of the factors involved — high rents, low foot traffic — are caused by the pandemic, they’ve been pushed to a breaking point at a time when many potential patrons are still not ready to return to in-person crowds.
4th Street Fine Art, a gallery and collective studio space which has been in West Berkeley since 2002, is closing completely when its lease expires in September. Treasurer Sherrod Blankner, who has been a resident painter since its opening, is used to business trouble, remembering that they “almost had to close” in March 2009, during the Great Recession.
The strategy that worked then — raising rent for their 35 resident artists — won’t work now. Many artists aren’t looking for a shared space or don’t have the money for one.
“Before COVID,” Blankner said, “we could find 3 candidates right away; now it’s hard to find any.”
After its landlord doubled the rent in 2012, the business moved south of the freeway down 4th Street, condensed to 18 members, and operated as a co-op rather than a single-owner LLC. Blankner attested that by winter 2018, as unameliorated homeless issues swelled and an encampment formed by the freeway, “people didn’t come to the gallery anymore.” After the city cleared the camps, COVID hit.
While a grant from the city and another from the Small Business Administration kept 4th Street afloat, members eventually left (there are currently 16) and their online presence was sporadic.
“So much of a successful art business,” Blankner said, “is marketing. There were only three of us with sales skills, and nobody could commit to the full-time job that marketing requires.”
While the original owner was an adept salesperson, Blanker stated, “the burden was on her and she had no time off,” so 4th Street became a co-op. The majority-consensus model didn’t work either: “You’d be amazed what people disagree on — especially little things, like a cleaning budget, getting higher-quality labels.”
After 20 years, Blankner has learned that much of selling art depends upon its presentation. “If I were to counsel anyone getting into the art business, I’d say make marketing a big part of your budget,” he said.
Kimberley Johansson of Johansson Projects in Downtown Oakland has done just that. “During lockdowns,” she said, “we became comfortable with online acquisitions and it still makes up most of our business. It’s quite a difference, not meeting your patrons.”
While she’s maintained her local following, in-person shows still aren’t as well-attended as they used to be. She compensated by hiring a designer to help build a digital space for virtual studio visits, starting with a June 2020 online show set in her backyard.
After its success, Johansson realized that “we could create a virtual space anywhere.” For the Miami Art Fair in December 2021, she created a virtual tour and posted works on volleyball nets in the beach and a barge floating off the coast.
While her success continued, online exposure was a double-edged sword; it drew more crowds in international hotspots, and less in Johansson’s community base.
“People here are more cautious,” she said, “which is great, but it means we have less foot traffic in a city that’s already on the periphery as opposed to New York and Los Angeles.” Even in-person art fairs are not an ideal way to present work — they’re short-term, small, often shared spaces which require painstaking curatorial coordination and environmentally harmful shipping.
Nevertheless, Johansson noted, “there are advantages to being on the periphery.” Artists aren’t as focused upon what’s selling as they would be at a fair. Johansson has stayed in Oakland since establishing her gallery 15 years ago “because an artist can put more sincerity in a work when they’re not driven by what they’re supposed to be doing.”
Lonnie Lee, founder of Vessel Gallery in Oakland, has had a wholly different experience of the periphery. Having been in Oakland since 2010 and Berkeley for six years prior, they lost their 25th Street space before the pandemic. Their next space on 23rd was open for a month before lockdowns, and their landlord allowed them out of their lease in summer after they were unable to upgrade the space and install HVAC.
Since then, she has emphasized site-specific installations, most notably displaying the gallery’s interior works by sculptor Evan Holm outdoors. “This already fragile, ephemeral work took on a new meaning in natural conditions, open to all passersby. It became a shared documentary experience,” Lee said.
While she continues to look for a space, Lee has shifted her focus to global, online exposure. “Someone told me ‘In my business, I’ve learned not to plan more than 2.5 weeks ahead,’ ” she said. New variants (may) never go away, and I want to use this experience to reach people differently.”
Lee wants to use this uncertainty as an opportunity to represent the collective experience of the pandemic. “People say ‘I want things to return to normal,’ ” she said. “But haven’t we all changed? I want to see that reflected in what we do next.”