What These 6 Galleries Learned while Starting Out during the COVID-19 Pandemic
View of Valentina Vaccarella’s solo exhibition “Bless This Life” at No Gallery. Photo by Kristine Eudey. Courtesy No Gallery.
The large-scale contradictions at the height of COVID-19—streets ghost-town quiet and roiling with discontent, feelings of staggering loss and numbing stasis—were reflected in the smaller-scale instability of the art world, full of mournful doomsaying and mass furloughs, as well as strained optimism and demands for a democratized future. Chaos and hope, “new normal” and business as usual—these were the poles that art seemed to be perpetually moving between.
But amid this oft-recounted era of seismic uncertainty, a number of galleries opened, finding a fertile new beginning, with cratered rents and upended expectations providing the perfect opportunity to launch new spaces. The challenges—and successes—of these new galleries are full of their own contradictions, and illustrate how gallerists might grapple with the long tail of the pandemic.
When New York City entered lockdown in March 2020, Kristen Thomas and John Nickles, owners of Thomas Nickles Project, were in the middle of planning the debut show at their new gallery on Orchard Street. The pair, who had put on pop-ups and trunk shows across the city for years, had secured a lease for their first brick-and-mortar space, and were about to start renovations when the city handed down orders to shelter in place.
“You can imagine the disappointment as one thing after another was shutting down,” Thomas said. “It felt like we were in a holding pattern during lockdown, but we never considered throwing in the towel.” Instead, Thomas and Nickles set up TVs in the windows of the space to display work by the artist Alejandra Glez while they waited for the all clear to continue their build-out, and eventually opened their space in late summer 2020. Their perseverance has paid off, though, with well-received shows of Cuban artists—such as William Acosta, Dionnys Matos, and Yamilys Brito Jorge—and acquisitions by high-profile clients, including the Bank of America Collection.
Leila Greiche, founder of the gallery L’Inconnue, found herself in a similar holding pattern when attempting to set up her new space in New York in early 2020 after operating in Montreal for years. “I was just getting revved up,” Greiche said. “I had made the announcement, released a press release about the opening, had lined up contractors. And then I headed back to Montreal and had to wait.”
Greiche’s lease stipulated that she didn’t have to pay rent until the landlord had finished renovations, so while she wasn’t losing money during lockdown, she also couldn’t make any forward progress, and L’Inconnue’s new space wouldn’t open until April of 2021. During that long pause, though, Greiche said she reconsidered her approach to showing art.
“It helped me to downsize, and to take growth at my own pace, to make it more personal and directional,” she said. “I had come to realize how much more is at stake, and so I had to make a recommitment. It was like a refining, a trimming of the fat.” Her inaugural show, with work by Emily Ludwig Shaffer and Françoise Grossen, set the tone for the program, and she’s continued by showing the likes of Birke Gorm, Clémence de La Tour du Pin, and Jane Margarette.
Jordan Barse, who opened the Tribeca-based gallery Theta in April 2021, felt a similar comfort in the room the pandemic afforded her in preparing her new space, comparing the process to a sort of pregnancy where all the natural struggles and growing pains can be attended to in private without the obligations of normal social life. For Barse (who had previously been co-director of the Ridgewood-based, artist-run gallery Kimberly-Klark and worked at the gallery Kai Matsumiya), the idea of opening a commercial gallery in Manhattan, especially a moneyed neighborhood like Tribeca, had long seemed like a pipe dream—until it suddenly wasn’t.
After finding a basement space for lease in a co-op on Franklin Street in early 2021 and securing a favorable lease with her landlord (the poet and artist Jill Hoffman), Barse set about building out the gallery with a target opening date that spring. And while she says she appreciated the more measured pace that the pandemic allowed, she still attacked the renovation process with a seeming sense of urgency.
“I was doing back-and-forth trips to a lighting store in Williamsburg in an Uber XL with eight-foot-long halogens throughout February,” Barse said. “My contractor could only start main construction in March, I wanted to open in April. With the rate of vaccines, I figured everyone would be out and about in April.” The gallery’s current exhibition—a solo show by Canadian painter Alexa Hawksworth—is typical for a space that’s been recognized for its displays of rising young talent, especially its group show earlier this year “You’re Finally Awake!”
A sense of eagerness to seize upon the perceived terra nova of the pandemic age was a common factor among many of those who opened over the past two years. On Henry Street on New York’s Lower East Side, a rash of gallerists that started during the pandemic did so with the intention of carving out a new corner in an art world that they saw as stagnant or inaccessible.
“I was like, I want to have a gallery for all these kids that have nowhere to go,” said Leo Fitzpatrick, whose Public Access Gallery opened on St. Marks Place during the first year of the pandemic before moving to its current residence at 105 Henry Street. Fitzpatrick focuses on cultivating a sense of approachability at Public Access, showing exhibitions by canonical artists like Christopher Wool and cult favorites such as Larry Clark, as well as zine releases and pop-ups. “As scrappy young people, these are the times you need to take advantage of,” he said.
Exterior of No Gallery exhibiting the work of L. Courtesy of the artist and No Gallery.
Installation view of Jenyu Jenyu’s solo show at No Gallery. Courtesy of the artist and No Gallery.
Casey Gleghorn’s No Gallery, meanwhile, which opened in a neighboring unit at 105 Henry in June 2021, took the pandemic as an opportunity to show more challenging art—think live eels on a plinth, as in the work of Jenyu Jenyu, or a ritual splattering of pigs blood on the pavement, as in the work of the artist and alchemist L—and to move away from notions of commercialism. “During the pandemic, I was like, why am I doing this?” Gleghorn said. “Is it for money? Because there’s other things I could do for money that are a lot easier.…My goal here is to have a certain type of collector buy my artists, and a certain type of person come here to have more of a dialogue that’s less about a pretty picture and more about an idea.”
Still others looked to become embedded within the flexing social fabric of the day. “The [Black Lives Matter] protests were happening right around the corner, down the street, all around us,” said Joseph Ian Henrikson, whose Anonymous Gallery had previously been based in Mexico City before opening in New York in October 2020. “Knowing that the gallery could be a part of that in a different way was important to me,” he continued. “The gallery for me has always been this place for exhibition, but also dialogue.” Anonymous Gallery now organizes a number of performances, readings, and other public-facing events in addition to exhibitions.
Installation view of “The Ecology of Visibility,” curated by K.O. Nnamdie at Anonymous Gallery. Photo by Shark Senesac. Courtesy of Anonymous Gallery and the artists.
The build-out of Anonymous Gallery before its October 2020 opening. Courtesy of Anonymous Gallery.
Despite these visions of the radical and the new, however, most of the gallerists who opened during COVID-19 agree that day-to-day realities of running a gallery have not changed all that much. Online sales may play a larger role, and the virus may require a more nimble approach to public events, but the effects that these things have on daily operations are ultimately miniscule. The boredom of administrative tasks, the continuous courting of collectors, the anxiety of cultivating sustained interest after a buzzy debut: These are all still a part of business as usual, even in the brave new pandemic-era art world.
The slide back towards pre-pandemic procedures— namely rent prices—has made the long-term viability of these new spaces difficult to gauge. Most of the gallerists interviewed for this piece said that they are feeling comfortable for the moment, either due to being in the middle of long-term lease agreements or having favorable relationships with their landlords, but what happens after those terms expire is anyone’s guess.
And yet still, optimism abounds. “I honestly thought that we would see a lot of turnover once people weren’t getting rent breaks anymore, and we still haven’t seen a lot of galleries close,” said Henrikson. “In fact I feel like we’ve seen even more openings than we have closings. And so I think people will continue to hold on.”