How COVID-19 Is Impacting Small Businesses In The Art World

Photo: John Macdougall/AFP/Getty Images.
It’s been about two months since most US cities closed all non-essential businesses in order to help flatten the coronavirus curve. While we’ve heard a lot about how this has affected restaurants, bars, and music venues, the shutdown has also meant museums and art galleries closing their doors indefinitely. The art market — with its jam-packed social calendar of openings, fairs, panels, and more — has largely come to a screeching halt, replaced in some instances by virtual fairs and viewing rooms, but otherwise mostly dark for the foreseeable future. Whether or not you’re a regular gallery-goer, visual art has an incredible power to connect people, serve as a historical record, and amplify voices, and this unprecedented time has potentially long-term consequences for the future of the field, not to mention the livelihoods of those who work in it.
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To understand more about how COVID-19 and the resulting economic shutdown has affected the art world and what it might look like moving forward, we spoke to Lauren Marinaro, who runs the Manhattan-based gallery MARINARO. She notes that her gallery is akin to any small business — and while she’s hopeful that, with a few changes, art spaces like hers can continue to exist, spark conversations, and serve as a breeding ground for social connection — she says it’s been hard not knowing what the future holds or how to plan for it.
Refinery29: How long have you been running your gallery space?
Lauren Marinaro: A little over three years — I opened in February 2017.
When did you shut down, and do you have any insight on when you might be able to reopen?
We shut down on March 13th, which was basically when they said that museums were closing. That's kind of when the gallery world shifted and started talking about closing as well. Which is crazy because Armory [Arts Week] was the week before. So you had all this socialization and seeing people, and then all of a sudden it was, you know, you have to go and lock up.
[In terms of going back], it’s a little confusing, because they said the arts are in the fourth wave. But then also, retail is earlier. So I don’t know what we will end up falling under, but a lot of galleries are talking about planning for September. And that's kind of how I'm playing it right now. I had to move two exhibitions that were scheduled for April and May, so I’ve pre-planned that and I’m just hoping that we can go in and open and continue in September.
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In the meantime, are you doing online viewing rooms or anything like that?
I’m doing Frieze, the art fair, right now. We had planned a booth and had artists that had made work, so you know, you upload images, and people can “browse booths” online. It’s been okay, but it’s not great. A big part of art fairs is that energy of seeing people, people discovering art, and seeing art in person and online has none of that. So that’s been hard. The online viewing rooms I haven’t really done. I knew Frieze was coming up, and now [the New Art Dealers Alliance] is working on something called NADA Fair, which is another online platform that will open May 18. And we’ve been doing stuff through Instagram — like a studio visit with each of our artists, where they give us a series of photos of everything from their studio to what they are working on. But it’s hard to put a lot of work into online exhibitions, I feel like, when I know people don't get the same experience with art, and not as many people are going to see it. Asking artists to make work for it just feels not as good for the work or the artist.
Are collectors still buying work, or expressing interest in buying work?
We've sold some stuff and I've heard from colleagues who are selling some stuff as well. It's definitely not what the art world normally is. But there are definitely people who want certain works that they normally wouldn't have access to — desirable works that are competitive to get. And now is the time that they might be able to acquire them.
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Obviously, the economy is in a terrible place right now, but in some ways and I think we saw this a little bit after the financial crisis the art market is perceived as its own thing, kind of separate from that.
Yeah. And this is a little different, in that it wasn’t caused by economic factors. There are still some people who aren’t affected at all. So some of those people, I think, are still looking, although I think everyone, in general, is wary just because there's so much uncertainty about what will happen going forward. And I think that there is a kind of separateness to the art world, where it does go on in some of these crises. 9/11, the 2008 crisis, Hurricane Sandy, all of these things affected the art world in different ways. But it does come back within a reasonable amount of time, in my opinion. I wasn’t there for 9/11, but the other things I have gone through, and it seems like the art world does bounce back. You just have to be kind of careful in the interim while you're budgeting and planning shows.
What does this mean for the employees of the gallery?
They are all furloughed. It kind of works out, because with unemployment and federal unemployment, they're well compensated. But it’s still hard. But they also — you know, the art world is about personal relationships — so if a collector they work with contacts them, they still talk to them. So it's kind of an odd thing. There’s that friendship within the art world, in terms of collector/dealer relationships. But yeah, that’s generally what a lot of the art world has done, people have been furloughed. I want to go back to normal as soon as possible, it’s just hard to know when we’ll be able to do that and have exhibitions. I mean, the other thing is that going to galleries is a very non-touching situation. You’re usually in a gallery by yourself when you visit it and you don’t have to touch anything except for the door. So I hope there’s a realization of that, and also that it’s good escapism for people.
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Ridley Howard, "Yellow Painting, Blue Room," 2020. Courtesy MARINARO Gallery.
Right, obviously huge openings won’t be able to happen for a while, but in the interim, are there ways you can tweak your space to make it more conducive to social distancing?
I think if we clean our door every hour, and we have takeaways, instead of people picking up [artwork] checklists and looking at them, and there are no guestbooks, and people can instead do it from their phone if they want — all of that keeps someone safe. For the most part, it’s rare that we have more than one group of people come into the gallery at a time. So as long as, if it becomes busy, we have a policy in place where there’s a wait, aside from that, the only thing we would have to change is wiping down surfaces more. But there’s really not that much people have to touch in a gallery.
A lot of selling art is predicated on very glamorous travel and socialization — parties and fairs and dinners and things. Do you think some of that will have to change permanently?
Two thoughts: One, it’s necessary to have socialization in the art world, because that’s what it’s about. Art exudes feeling and emotion and conversation and talks about contemporary issues and historical issues and social issues. So it's really important to socialize and talk about those things, and I would never want to lose that because it’s one of the main reasons I love being in the art world. So, it has to come back. A lot of people are talking about the slowdown in terms of going to less art fairs and traveling less, which I think is a more realistic long-term effect of this, where people realize maybe it’s not necessary to do eight art fairs a year. Aside from that, I can’t see there being that much difference [in the long term] in the regular dinner circuit, or when you are at an art fair, the level of socialization there. I definitely don’t think we’ll be able to have regular openings for a while, so that will be different. But then, it's kind of nice because hopefully, people come in one-on-one and then you have a longer time with people and you can have more real conversations.
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How are the artists that you represent doing right now and what are some of their concerns?
It kind of runs the gamut. The artists that have kids, they have to rebalance, doing the home-schooling. One of the artists we’re showing at Frieze has a daughter and a son, so he had to make time to teach them, and then get to the studio to finish the work. That’s a hard balancing act, as it is for many people. A few of my artists, their studio buildings have closed, so they can’t access them. That really affects their practice, and in turn, what they’re working on, and potentially, future shows, if they have to be pushed back because they can’t get their work done on the timeline that they are used to working on. It can be problematic. But I feel like artists, in general, have ingenuity and think of outside-the-box and alternative methods of working, so it’s been fun to see them do things that they probably wouldn’t have done otherwise.
Do you think this period could be potentially really fruitful for artists?
Yeah, I think so. Artists, the thing they always want, is time and isolation. One of my friends who's a writer, I'm like, this is like everything you could have asked for! I think just for everyone, in terms of prioritizing your life — you know, what do you want to be doing? What do you want to be looking at? What’s important? I think in some ways, it’s a nice pause, a nice time for reflection.
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Is there anything that you wish people knew or understood better about your situation and the situations of others in the arts and culture world right now?
Arts are not as day-to-day “necessary” as hospital workers or people working at grocery stores and restaurants, but, you know, art is such an escape and a joy for so many people, myself included. It’s hard and it’s sad when something that’s such an integral part of life, in terms of bringing joy and thought and questions to people, is totally taken out of the context of seeing it in person. I just think online is never quite the same. So you're missing out on the total experience, although I respect what people are doing online, I just think it’s not the same thing. It’s hard to not be having those experiences and having people come in to get those experiences. Also, at the heart of it, galleries are small businesses, and small businesses are struggling. It’s hard to figure out how you’re going to make it, not just for this period, but for the long run.
What are you most concerned about right now when it comes to your own career and personal finances?
I can get to 2020, 2021, and be okay. I totally believe in what we're doing a lot, but it is slightly nerve-racking, in the long term, to not know exactly what the art world's going to look like and how quickly it bounces back in terms of people buying art. Like, are we going to be able to participate in art fairs and have excitement around that? That’s a worry for me — what this will look like in two years’ time. I'm confident that it will bounce back. But you just never know. Even if we are getting to go back to work, normal life won’t be normal again for at least a year. So, for an industry that has so much socialization at the root of it, that’s daunting.
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This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
The coronavirus pandemic, and resulting economic downturn, has disproportionately affected some professions — doctors, nurses, teachers, small business owners, cashiers, and food industry workers are just some of the folks on the front lines. Checking In is an ongoing series where we pass the microphone to workers in industries most impacted, and ask them what they want us to know about their hopes, fears, and needs right now. Click here if you want to participate.
COVID-19 has been declared a global pandemic. Go to the CDC website for the latest information on symptoms, prevention, and other resources.

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