How Galleries Are Supporting and Signing New Artists during the Pandemic
Portrait of Ian Mwesiga. Courtesy of the artist.
The economic fallout from COVID-19 has had much of the art world bracing for the worst. According to a survey conducted by the Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA) in May, U.S. galleries projected a 73 percent loss this quarter due to the pandemic. “Such immediate and devastating revenue losses will undoubtedly have a ripple effect on these small businesses and the broader arts community for the next 12 to 18 months if not longer,” said ADAA president Andrew Schoelkopf and executive director Maureen Bray in a joint statement. “It is still uncertain how long such losses may continue.”
Despite this daunting and potentially paralyzing landscape, many galleries have mustered the courage (and the bandwidth) to soldier on and even sign new artists. Since the start of the pandemic, major galleries have snapped up famous artists—like Gagosian taking over representation of Titus Kaphar, and Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac signing the sculptor Ron Mueck—and smaller spaces have committed to nurturing emerging artists: Detroit’s Library Street Collective took on painter Jammie Holmes, and Los Angeles’s Roberts Projects signed Wangari Mathenge. A few galleries have brought multiple artists onto their rosters in recent months, like London’s Stephen Friedman Gallery and Hollis Taggart in New York.
For larger, more established galleries like Xavier Hufkens, the ability to sign on new artists presents far fewer risks. Since quarantine started, the Belgian gallery announced it would be representing the renowned sculptor Lynda Benglis. “I have always been a great admirer of Lynda Benglis’s work,” said Hufkens. “I remember seeing her exhibitions in New York and Los Angeles, and more recently in Italy. We met and now that word is out, we are both looking forward to start our collaboration.” Though her first solo presentation with the gallery was canceled (along with the entirety of the 2020 edition of Art Brussels) due to COVID-19, Benglis’s exhibition has been rescheduled for the fall of 2021.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., the financial rollercoaster of the past few decades has offered a kind of reassurance for dealers like Hollis Taggart. “I’ve weathered a lot of ups and downs and I’ve seen a lot of crises,” said Taggart. “This one is particularly stinging but I’ve just approached it the same way I always have, which is to assume we’ll get through this.” His eponymous gallery has signed on three new artists since quarantine began—Kenichi Hoshine, Hollis Heichemer, and Leah Guadagnoli.
Founded in 1979, Taggart’s gallery has the privilege of experience and, with that, reputation. Hoshine, Heichemer, and Guadagnoli are the most recent additions to Hollis Taggart’s year-old contemporary program, which puts artists like them within the same cultural conversation and market standing as, say, Romare Bearden, Helen Frankenthaler, or Jackson Pollock. “We have been enthusiastic about their work for quite some time and are very much looking forward to having them as part of our program,” said Paul Efstathiou, the gallery’s director of contemporary art, in an official statement.
The fact that Hollis Taggart already had a working relationship with all three artists has also helped assuage any trepidations about onboarding new talent. Guadagnoli had participated in the gallery’s 2019 group show “Breaking the Frame” and was also featured in its debut presentation at the fair Untitled, Art in Miami Beach in December. Hoshine and Heichemer, meanwhile, both had recent solo shows with the gallery.
“We reached out to all three of these artists during the pandemic because we knew we wanted to represent them and we thought it’d be a very powerful statement to go forward during uncertain times,” said Taggart. “I also think it was really helpful for them; we were able to provide some sense of security.”
Some galleries didn’t even need the assurance of a prior rapport. “We have not met in person yet,” said Mariane Ibrahim, whose namesake Chicago gallery recently announced it will represent Ugandan artist Ian Mwesiga. “I planned to visit Ian at this time of the year. But as we all know, due to traveling restrictions I have postponed.”
Ian Mwesiga, Man Standing by the Pool, 2020. Courtesy of Mariane Ibrahim.
In lieu of conducting physical studio visits, Ibrahim has been having weekly in-depth conversations and Facetime sessions with the artist. Though she admits that not being able to see the work in person is far from ideal, her enthusiasm for Mwesiga’s work is unbridled. “What kind of risk can you possibly encounter when you undertake an artist like Ian?” she asked. “He is a genius. I am surprised he has waited this long to be represented.” Mariane Ibrahim is the first gallery to represent Mwesiga’s work.
That confidence, particularly in an emerging artist, speaks volumes and is a powerful testament to the gallery’s mission to present new talents. For Mwesiga, the opportunity to be represented among the likes of Amoako Boafo, Maïmouna Guerresi, and Peter Uka is a major one. “I had been keenly following the gallery programs and the other artists they represent, and felt this was the kind of program I wanted to be a part of for my work and career moving forward,” said Mwesiga. “I was only waiting for the right time and moment.”
For both artists and galleries alike, the forward momentum of culture stops for no one—not even a global pandemic. “I remain and have remained hopeful that there will be a post-COVID moment, and for me, that means I need to be prepared,” said Mwesiga. “This is the spirit I have used to work and to focus on my studio practice, everyday. I have never felt unhopeful and I will continue to diligently commit to my studio practice.”
Those who have been in the industry long enough have been driven by a sleepless passion for art from the beginning. For Taggart, putting a pause on supporting the artists he loves equates to giving up entirely. “There’s only two options,” he said. “Fold your chips or move forward. We’re all in this together—we support our artists and our artists support us. It’s not a time to withdraw, it’s a time to move forward.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated the Lynda Benglis show at Xavier Hufkens was rescheduled for later this year; the show will open in fall of 2021.