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Art

How Artists with Large Studios Are Supporting Their Assistants and Making New Work

Christmas photo of Marilyn Minter’s studio and their families. Courtesy of the artist.

Christmas photo of Marilyn Minter’s studio and their families. Courtesy of the artist.

From workshops to contemporary fabrication studios, artmaking has always been a team effort. Photographers, painters, glassblowers, and sculptors often hire assistants to help them transform their ideas into aesthetic objects—in time for the next gallery or museum show. But how do these typically collaborative, consolidated efforts happen when we’re all social distancing? Amid COVID-19, artists—particularly those who run large studios—are having to get inventive.
, for example, has been coordinating with her two full-time employees and six freelance painters by phone and on Facetime or Zoom. Using photographs Minter made just before quarantine, the team creates reference images for future paintings. Once a week, Minter travels down from her studio in upstate New York to her apartment in New York City to print images and water her plants. “We have been working at a different pace and we’re all being flexible,” she told me. “We are all in uncharted territory.”
Marilyn Minter, untitled work in progress. Courtesy of the artist.

Marilyn Minter, untitled work in progress. Courtesy of the artist.

Marilyn Minter, untitled work in progress. Courtesy of the artist.

Marilyn Minter, untitled work in progress. Courtesy of the artist.

These days, artists managing bigger studios must address challenges that many businesses are now facing: paying rent and wages, with reduced income. For Minter, that’s meant trying to negotiate a rent reduction on her studio in Midtown Manhattan, which has been shuttered for the foreseeable future. “The good news is that I was able to deliver paint and smaller panels to my painting assistants that help start my paintings, so they are able to continue working and have a wage,” she said.
Minter is one of many artists who have had to reconsider the administrative roles they play as employers. For , this has meant upping the communication between his multiple teams in Paris and around New York City. “We now have more regular team check-ins online, and somehow even achieve better communication,” said JR’s New York studio director, Marc Azoulay. The artist was still able to put his studio to work on creating the cover for Time magazine’s annual Time 100 edition, which comes out on April 27th.
Portrait of JR. Courtesy of the artist.

Portrait of JR. Courtesy of the artist.

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Azoulay also noted that the studio has been able to use the “fantastic tools that we built for large public art installations” and apply them towards COVID-19 related programming and relief. Known for creating monumental, composite photographs that often require hundreds of subjects, JR and his studio employees are now using that infrastructure to work on three socially oriented projects. They’ve transformed Casa Amarela—JR’s cultural center in Rio de Janeiro—into a distribution center for food and hygiene projects; the center is also offering online courses. Meanwhile, in Paris, the film school École Kourtrajmé (founded by JR’s friend Ladj Ly) has similarly moved online, with courses organized by JR’s team. Employees at the artist’s Paris studio have also pivoted their resources to create their own food distribution program called Action Refettorio. The program, which gathers food surpluses and distributes cooked meals to people in need, aims to reach 5,000 people a night.
With all these efforts, JR’s studio has been able to keep all 20 global team members working full time, with benefits. Azoulay said the studio hasn’t had to apply for any economic relief measures just yet, and expressed a desire to hold out as long as possible.
James Mongrain and Chihuly in The Boathouse hotshop, Seattle, 2019. © Chihuly Studio. All Rights Reserved. Photo by Scott Mitchell Leen. Courtesy of Chihuly Studio.

James Mongrain and Chihuly in The Boathouse hotshop, Seattle, 2019. © Chihuly Studio. All Rights Reserved. Photo by Scott Mitchell Leen. Courtesy of Chihuly Studio.

Still, not all practices are so easily adaptive to remote working conditions—for instance, renowned glassblower had to close his Seattle hotshop. But even then, artists like Chihuly find new ways to work. “Even while Dale is physically removed from the hotshop, the creative process is always going in his mind and on paper,” said Leslie Jackson Chihuly, the artist’s wife and the CEO of his studio. In addition to his beloved glass objects, Chihuly has also sold lithographs, prints, and drawings. Many of these works on paper are now on sale in a virtual exhibition hosted by London gallery Sims Reed. “Silver linings of this new way of life continue to surprise us,” said Jackson Chihuly. The studio is also sharing digital catalogs of the artist’s most recent works, as well as videos that allow viewers to participate, vicariously, in the glassblowing process.
Like all of us adjusting to the new normal brought on by this pandemic, artists have been able to find moments of respite and connectivity. As her studio recalibrates, Minter described an atmosphere of positivity and unity: “We check progress and check on each other through WhatsApp every week. We exchange memes and pics of kids and pets. I have a great team and we’re doing the best we can.”
Alina Cohen