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  • Terra Beakers, Hiroshi Suzuki, 2020, shown by Adrian Sassoon

How galleries are adapting to a changed world

As lockdown squeezes the cultural sector, many are finding new ways to reach audiences

When lockdown took hold and the international fair circuit ground to a halt, galleries had to think fast, looking for new ways to support their artists and drive sales. We checked in with a handful of leading commercial galleries to find out how they have coped behind their laptops, and what will happen next.

Virtual exhibitions and fairs

Culture went digital quickly, with online exhibitions becoming the norm and fairs going virtual, offering ‘online viewing rooms’. Firstly, the gallerists had to recognise the limitations of what’s possible online: ‘None of the existing online platforms for galleries are perfect, and as the work we represent cannot be very well appreciated in a vacuum, we were already focusing on ways in which to make the online experience more visceral,’ says Juliet Burrows from Hostler Burrows, which has galleries in Los Angeles and New York. The range of images presented by the gallery are really varied: the atmospheric domestic image, the hero shot, exquisite textural details and a written commentary that gives a sense of the artist’s character and the team that supports them.

Peeper, John Shea, 2019, in the Hostler Burrows online viewing gallery

Choosing the right online sales platforms and auction sites takes work, reflects Francois Mellé of Officine Saffi in Milan, as does establishing the best ways to present objects virtually. One gift the lockdown offered, however, was time, and the opportunity to try new things. ‘Our world is very tied to events,’ says Francois. ‘The quarantine period has given us the opportunity to work better online, on sales platforms such as Artsy and on our website and social media.’ In addition to profiling more work digitally and offering virtual studio visits, the team at Officine Saffi realised they had to ‘change our language’, noting that artworld communication can sometimes be over complex.

Ting Ying – a gallery that specialises in unique and limited-edition Blanc de Chine porcelain in Dehua, China – participated in new fair Eye of the Collector’s online viewing room (its first physical event was due to take place in May at London’s Two Temple Place). Ting Ying’s co-founder Peter Ting is really positive about the curation of this event – which offers an ‘intimate artistic journey from ancient to contemporary’ – explaining that it generated new contacts and direct sales for the gallery. With so many online events and platforms vying for attention, Peter has been careful to choose strategically to ensure his artists gain the right exposure.    

Focusing on story-telling

Many galleries have been producing rich editorial content to tell the stories behind their artists’ work, in lieu of exhibitions. An inspiring example is the ‘From a Distance’ series produced by London-based Adrian Sassoon gallery, which delves deep into the practices of their artists based as far afield as Japan and Australia through specially commissioned photography, videos and interviews. The emphasis is more on helping people get to know their stable of artists, rather than a sales-heavy message. Building up layers of interpretation around an artist’s work to help audiences understand its value is vital work for galleries, with or without Covid-19. And for viewers, the privilege of glimpsing inside artists’ studios from the comfort of their home has been one of the joys of life in isolation.

Part of the story of a craft object, however, is how people interact with the final work – which is challenging to convey in the virtual space, especially when it comes to jewellery. Lizzie Atkins, of Holland-based Galerie Marzee, says their focus has been to offer more photography of jewellery worn on the body, which has been helpful in garnering interest, and sales. Galleries in Holland have been allowed to remain open during the pandemic but, like most organisations, Galerie Marzee has avoided events and group visits, instead providing virtual walk-throughs (below) of their (epic) 850m2 gallery space in Nijmegen on their Instagram and website.

Working with artists in isolation

A gallery is nothing without its artists. Supporting them through the pandemic has been the focus for all the galleries we spoke to, which has had the extra benefit of cementing bonds as they navigate through the crisis together. Much of the work for galleries has been overcoming logistical issues, contacting clients and ensuring objects have been shipped in reasonable time-frames, as well as helping the artists complete commissions in difficult circumstances.

While some artists have continued working throughout lockdown, many have been unable to reach their studios or access materials. Ting Ying gallery, whose artists are based in the UK and China, (among other regions), found that several of its makers had to pause their practice due to restrictions, such as a glass artist, who couldn’t work with their team in the hot shop due to the impossibility of social distancing. Peter Ting says a few of their artists were ‘trying out recipes from their mother’s kitchen for the first time’. This essential connection with family and food in a time of crisis resonates around the world.

Non Existent Existence, Zhao Jinya, 2019, shown by Ting Ying gallery at Eye of the Collector

Working together to change lives

Many galleries have worked with their artists to raise funds at this difficult time. Sarah Myerscough Gallery launched Objects to Mark Time – for which its stable of artists have created an object in response to the moment – raising over £8.5k for the NHS. Similarly, Cynthia Corbett Gallery initiated Carry on Creativity in support of the Trussell Trust (working to stop UK hunger and poverty via foodbanks).

The urgency of the need to foster a sense of community and reassess existing structures and ways of working has become all the more apparent since the Black Lives Matter protests erupted. It’s essential for organisations to rethink how they operate, and galleries around the world have swiftly expressed solidarity, unanimously agreeing on the need for action to fight racism. ‘Most galleries have stayed out of politics in the past but now is not the time to stay silent,’ says Juliet Burrows. ‘We are acutely aware of our positions of privilege.’ Galleries are working hard to make their stables of artists more representative and to tell new narratives about craft history – vital work that the Crafts Council will support them with as part of its own policies for bringing equality to the sector and for ensuring its art fair Collect is inclusive. Some galleries have also launched fundraising initiatives, such as London-based Gallery Fumi’s online auction called ‘In Solidarity with the Black Community’, which raised £7k for the Grassroots Law Project and Black Lives Matter.

What does autumn hold?

While a large proportion of commercial galleries across the globe have reopened and can operate with relative ease within the broadly similar guidelines of respective governments, most are now facing restrictions on visitors inside a gallery space. ‘By appointment’ visits are becoming the new normal and galleries are having to rethink their programmes and opening hours. While most are having to accept the reality of reduced audiences to their shows, some are discovering perks to the situation. Officine Saffi found reopening its Milan space by appointment a positive experience. ‘We can finally dedicate the right time to everyone… it is what we all wanted without knowing it,’ says Francois Mellé.

Potential vessel VIII, Johannes Nagel, 2018, Officine Saffi

Many exhibitions have been postponed until 2021, but autumn still promises a rich roster, if Covid-19 allows and travel restrictions ease. Coming up on the fair calendar is PAD London (5-11 October), the postponed TEFAF New York (now 31 Oct - 4 Nov 2020) and Salon Art and Design (19 – 23 November), also in New York. Adrian Sassoon Gallery plans to attend all three. The first physical edition of the postponed Eye of the Collector event is still scheduled to go ahead in London too (8-9 September by invitation-only; 10-11 September for the public), where Ting Ying will be showing its artists. While safety restrictions are likely to reduce visitor numbers, calmer environments allow for quality time with smaller groups of clients and better viewing experiences. Perhaps this change will give a much-needed boost to the market.

Although Galerie Marzee did not close during the peak, it took the hard decision to postpone its International Graduate show. A hugely important event in the calendar for emerging jewellers, the aim is to hold the live show towards the end of 2020 instead, giving graduates pivotal exposure they may have missed in their home country.

Looking ahead to 2021

Where many galleries have benefited from government support to help them weather the storm during the pandemic, there is work to do to rebuild the market and fairs are an essential ingredient in this. The live, visceral experience of standing in front of an object with a client and sharing a moment is unlikely to be replaced by an Instagram post. Isobel Dennis, director of the Crafts Council’s Collect, notes that the art fair’s February 2021 return to Somerset House will be an important milestone for 'the road to commercial recovery’ for galleries.

Apply to participate in Collect 2021