Survival tips for the art galleries in a time of pestilence

Facing fear in our new climate of coronavirus, gallerist Michael Reid offers tips to get on with the job, and to survive the forthcoming market dip.
Survival tips for the art galleries in a time of pestilence Plague has been among us for a long time. Image Shutterstock.

Michael Reid

Monday 16 March, 2020

The death rate from our current 'Ragin’ Contag’n' coronavirus is estimated to be somewhere between 0.5% to 2%. The jury is still out on the exact figure. But suffice to say, when all has run its course, the death rate could well be greater than a general flu but less than many other nasties.

Let us put a little perspective on this global pandemic. In the modern era, cumulatively 75 million people have been infected with AIDS. The death rate from the Ebola virus is 60%+. Great flu pandemics annually sweep the globe. But nothing in the history of human mass communication has quite swept the globe like the fear of contagion.

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The movie Contagion, a nine-year-old film directed by Steven Soderbergh about a flu pandemic, was the 270th most-watched Warner Brothers film in December 2019. By early March, that film is now the second most-watched Warner Brothers film in history.

It is fear that has become so dangerously real, and it is this fear that we must deal with in the art world.

But there may be a silver lining. European art rose to glory during a time of disease and great death. In the mid 14th century, a third of the European population perished with the Black Death, in cities such as Venice over 60% of the population were quietly rolled into the canals. Giants of the day, Hans Holbein and Titian died of the plague, along with many other artists.

Could this pandemic herald the coming of another Great Age for art? Unlikely. But it is as good a time as ever for commercial galleries to ask themselves, am I corona-ready? (and I don’t mean the beer).

Having experienced record sales months for both January and February of 2020, our galleries are off to cracking start to the year. It is however, quite conceivable that the day-to-day of gallery life is about to be entirely disrupted.

Read: Bail out the Australian arts industry

The art market will possibly go through an unsettling and ultimately sales quiet-time, visitation will drop dramatically and gallery openings will be avoided like the plague (so to speak). So what to do?

There are two facets to this. The first being: What can we do to mitigate the impact of a sales downturn and a homebound buying audience? How can we continue to connect with audiences and maintain sales for our artists?

And facet two: With more time on our hands and possibly less visitors to the gallery, what jobs can we take on to maintain momentum and productivity in a sluggish period?

Each commercial art gallery or museum will have a multitude of its own very specific jobs to do, but in no particular order here are a few to consider:

  • Get on the phone to clients – let’s face it, people will be physically coming in even less. Be conscious of connecting with clients over the telephone, more than we already do.
  • More personal video content on social media. The personal live contact you have when you can’t have live contact.
  • Fast and reliable shipping of artworks from the galleries to clients. If clients can’t come to us, let’s make sure they don’t need to.
  • Online presence needs to be flawless. The visitation to a digital gallery will increase in a lockdown. A good polish of our websites is a must as people spend more time than ever online.
  • Better all-round email communications are needed. Time to refresh the general design of all our email communications.
  • Can we educate our clients while they are stuck at home? With a Trent Parke exhibition coming up in June for example, my Sydney gallery will over the next few months will work towards a campaign that educates our audience in-depth about Trent Parke.
  • While now is the time to keep a watchful eye over collector attendance at art events, when the time comes be ready to cancel all openings and events, just do it. Be prepared for this eventuality.
  • Professionally photograph your exhibitions so collectors can immerse themselves in art, not COVID-19.
  • Contact your artists, who are exhibiting over the next six months and inform them of your action plans. Work with them on contingencies.
  • As collectors are less likely to attend your space over the next few months reduce your opening hours. Figure out flexible working arrangements with your staff so they are ready to work from home.
  • Consider having a flu injection. In 2019 over 900 people died in Australia as a result of flu complications. If we prepare for flu season, it takes pressure off our health system so that it can focus on the coronavirus. For which we have as yet, no vaccine. Let us all help here.
  • Get planning for the longer term. Think Art Fairs and exhibitions. Be ready to rock and roll once the storm has been weathered.

Remember, as a species we have a history of fearing that which may never eventuate – it’s partly what helps us as a species to survive – but can anyone remember Mad Cow Disease or the Y2K technological global meltdown fiasco?

Coronavirus is like a kidney stone, and shall painfully pass. So, let’s us not dismiss the pain of coronavirus. Let us however, put coronavirus into some wider real-world understanding. Let us prepare and beware, but please let’s – Keep Calm & Sell Art – after all that is our job.

About the author

Michael Reid OAM is the owner of Michael Reid Galleries in Berlin, Sydney and Murrurundi.