Galleries Are Taking Extraordinary Measures to Reopen during a Global Pandemic
Installation view of “Fred Wilson: Glass Works 2009 - 2018” at Pace Gallery Seoul, 2020. Photo by Sangtae Kim. Courtesy of Pace Gallery.
For those of us confined to Brooklyn apartments and avoiding public transit and crowded places, it’s difficult to imagine attending a gallery opening anytime soon. Yet galleries outside the United States are already organizing their reopenings and taking new measures to ensure visitors’ safety. In Seoul, Pace Gallery’s outpost never even closed.
These spaces’ procedures offer a glimpse of what U.S. openings might look like as soon as state restrictions lift. While cozy, carefree celebrations seem unlikely anytime soon, the in-person art viewing experiences many of us crave may be possible this summer. Gallery representatives from South Korea, Germany, Austria, and Hong Kong, at least, are providing some hope that visual culture—and business—can return to a happy, if socially distanced, new normal.
Though Pace Seoul never shuttered, gallery employees have been wearing masks in the space since COVID-19 hit South Korea in January. They put up a sign “urging visitors to do the same,” a gallery representative said. Hand sanitizer at the front desk has added an extra layer of safety, as has sanitizing the space throughout the day. The gallery has kept tours, which could crowd its space, “to a minimum.” While Pace canceled the mid-March opening reception for its Fred Wilson show (up through May 16th), the gallery is hoping to hold a celebration for “Bending Light,” an exhibition of Light and Space artists slated to open in June.
Pace’s representative said the gallery experienced a “significant drop in visitors” at first, but ultimately saw an increase in attendance in the long run, since it is one of the few galleries in Seoul to have remained open.
Across the city, Lehmann Maupin is taking additional precautions to ensure guests’ safety: As reported by the New York Times, the gallery is asking visitors to its Billy Childish exhibition to sign a guest book, in case the gallery needs a record for contact-tracing purposes in the future.
Kukje Gallery, which has locations in both Seoul and Busan, closed on February 8th and reopened on April 20th, as the daily tally of new COVID-19 cases in South Korea dropped below 20. In addition to its in-person plans, Kukje recently launched an online viewing room “to recalibrate the gallery’s means of outreach during these changing times,” according to Joorhee Kwon, the gallery’s deputy director. Kukje will maintain the platform, titled “kukje ON,” even after the crisis settles. Kwon said the gallery wants to complement physical viewing experiences “and chart an exciting path for the gallery to better engage audiences worldwide.” In other words, the crisis has incited the gallery to try new modes that might actually extend its reach in the long term.
Down in Hong Kong, Pace’s outpost has been open by appointment since just after the Chinese New Year. “It’s a step back to normalcy that we’ve all been waiting for,” said a gallery representative. Everyone who enters H Queen’s—the building where the gallery is located—must wear a mask and get their temperature taken. Employees wear masks and take shifts to ensure adequate distancing.
Some European galleries are operating on a timeline just behind their counterparts in Seoul and Hong Kong. Last week, on April 22nd, Berlin-based gallery GNYP reopened. It was a quiet affair: Four visitors arrived across the span of six hours. In compliance with social distancing and hygiene regulations, visitors must now keep one and a half meters from one another, or around five feet. They can also wash their hands in the gallery bathroom (which raises an intriguing question—will American galleries finally make their bathrooms available to all visitors now?).
Masks aren’t currently mandatory in Germany, so they’re not mandated at GNYP, either. “If this changes, we’d obviously control that as well,” said gallery co-partner Giovanni Springmeier. His team must be flexible as governmental recommendations change.
Perhaps the greatest inconvenience to GNYP—and many newly reopened galleries—is the slowdown of international travel. GNYP must be considerate of artists and collectors who live in countries that are experiencing different stages of the pandemic. On May 15th, the gallery will open an exhibition of work by Brooklyn-based artist Danica Lundy. Many international collectors have had to cancel their plans to attend the opening in person.
The reception itself will be spread throughout the day, from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., to accommodate social distancing regulations. GNYP is asking guests to RSVP and select a time slot, so the gallery can coordinate the flow of attendees. Because the artist won’t be able to fly across the Atlantic, she’s making a film for the event, with help from her boyfriend. “You will see the artist in her everyday studio telling the public about her work and exhibition,” said Springmeier. “We like very much the spontaneity and casualness of such a video.”
When asked if anything has changed since GNYP was forced to shutter, Springmeier noted only that the gallery had launched an online viewing room. Now that in-person interactions are again possible, the gallery will keep the digital platform. “It is an interesting addition to the communication with our collectors,” Springmeier said, echoing Kwon’s comments.
Across the border in Vienna, Lisa Kandlhofer has been operating her eponymous gallery on an appointment-only basis since April 16th. She’s done the social distancing math, figuring that for her main exhibition space of 160 square meters (about 1,700 square feet), the maximum number of visitors she can allow is eight, which will give everyone a safe 20 square meters (around 215 square feet)—certainly a wider berth than one might expect at a Lower East Side gallery. To drop by Kandlhofer’s gallery, would-be visitors must email her to set up a time. The gallery provides disinfectant and, said Kandlhofer, “it is essential to bring a mask.” About six people have sent messages expressing interest so far.
The Austrian government has implemented new employment measures due to the coronavirus pandemic, which Kandlhofer is following: Her employees now work 10 percent of their typical hours and receive 80 to 90 percent of their typical salaries. A number of gallery workers in the U.S. haven’t been so lucky. Several American galleries, including Pace and Gagosian, have already made the tough decisions to furlough many members of their staff.
Yet Esther Kim Varet, who runs Various Small Fires in Los Angeles and a Seoul outpost, is keeping her employees busy and doesn’t sound worried about how her gallery will survive COVID-19. She got out ahead of the crisis, she said, by anticipating its spread long before much of the country did.
Back in February, after Frieze Los Angeles opened, Kim Varet began imagining a confinement scenario at her L.A. outpost when she heard what was happening in Korea. “I knew this was inevitable with the rate [COVID-19] was spreading,” she said. She began building out an online reservation booking system, with 30-minute slots—socially distanced gallery visits would be safer for both collectors and for her staff.
Kim Varet launched these processes a week before California governor Gavin Newsom ordered the state into confinement. “People loved the idea of having 30 minutes by themselves in the gallery. Can you imagine being guaranteed a private viewing experience? It’s not a burden,” said Kim Varet. She’s also installed a remote locking system, so she and her staff can open and close the gallery from afar—giving collectors even more room to themselves.
Installation view of “Josh Kline: Alternative Facts” at VSF Seoul, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Various Small Fires, Los Angeles/Seoul.
While the gallery has now been shuttered for over a month, the booking system will still be in place to ensure safety when Various Small Fires is permitted to reopen. In the meantime, Kim Varet has carved a place for herself at the forefront of digital initiatives in the art world. She recently hired Hilde Lynn Helphenstein, originator of the spoof Instagram account Jerry Gogosian, as her digital director. In early April, both Helphenstein and Kim Varet were on Zoom for a virtual media walkthrough of the gallery’s Josh Kline show in its Seoul space. The gallery had opened up this event to curators and the international art press—extending its reach into apartments in Los Angeles and New York, at least.
Kim Varet believes her nimble, tech-forward model will allow her to emerge from the pandemic in a particularly strong position. “We’ve always been ahead and tricked out,” she said. “We’re 100 percent solar. We went solar two years ago.” At the same time, she’s had to find inventive ways to ship art, now that major art handling companies are closed.
The Josh Kline exhibition in Seoul opened over the course of six hours on April 11th, so people could space out their attendance. Visitors wore masks. Some brought dogs. No one hugged. The gallery’s assistant director in South Korea, Somin Jeon, sent Kim Varet pictures from the opening. Looking through them allowed her to peek, she said, around four months “into the future” for her Los Angeles space. The exhibition sold out.