East Bay art galleries struggle on the outskirts

East Bay art galleries are struggling to maintain their spaces and communities, while enjoying more global online exposure during the pandemic.

Although none of the factors involved – high rents, low foot traffic – are caused by the pandemic, they have been pushed to a breaking point at a time when many potential customers are still not ready to return to the crowds in nobody.

4th Street Fine Art, a gallery and collective studio that has been in West Berkeley since 2002, is closing completely when its lease expires in September. Treasurer Sherrod Blankner, who has been a painter-in-residence since it opened, is used to business difficulties, recalling that they “almost had to close” in March 2009, during the Great Recession.

The strategy that worked then – raising the rent for their 35 resident artists – won’t work now. Many artists aren’t looking for a shared space or don’t have the money to have one.

Before COVID,” Blankner said, “we could find 3 candidates right away; now it’s hard to find.

After its owner doubled the rent in 2012, the business moved south of the freeway to 4th Street, condensed to 18 members and operated as a co-op rather than a sole proprietor LLC. Blankner attested that in the winter of 2018, as issues of homelessness without improvement increased and an encampment was formed by the freeway, “people weren’t coming to the gallery anymore.” After the city emptied the camps, COVID hit.

While a city grant and another from the Small Business Administration kept 4th Street afloat, members eventually left (there are currently 16) and their online presence was sporadic.

“A big part of a successful arts business,” Blankner said, “is marketing. There were only three of us with sales skills, and no one could commit to the full-time work that the marketing.

While the original owner was an expert saleswoman, Blanker said “the burden was on her and she had no free time”, so 4th Street became a co-op. The Majority Consensus Model didn’t work either: “You’d be surprised what people disagree on, especially on small things, like a cleaning budget, getting tags better quality.”

After 20 years, Blankner has learned that a large part of selling art depends on its presentation. “If I were to advise anyone to get into the art industry, I’d say marketing is a big part of your budget,” he said.

That’s exactly what Kimberley Johansson of Johansson Projects in downtown Oakland did. “During the shutdowns,” she said, “we got to grips with online acquisitions and that still represents the bulk of our business. It’s quite a difference not to meet your clients.

Although she has maintained her local following, the in-person shows are still not as crowded as they used to be. She compensated by hiring a designer to help create a digital space for virtual studio tours, starting with a June 2020 online show set in her backyard.

After its success, Johansson realized that “we could create a virtual space anywhere”. For the Miami Art Fair in December 2021, she created a virtual tour and posted works of volleyball nets on the beach and a barge floating offshore.

As its success continued, the online exhibit was a double-edged sword; it drew more crowds at international hotspots and fewer at Johansson’s community base.

“People here are more cautious,” she said, “which is great, but it means we have less foot traffic in a city that’s already on the outskirts, unlike New York and Los Angeles. ” Even in-person art fairs aren’t an ideal way to showcase work — they’re short-term, small, and often shared spaces that require careful curatorial coordination and environmentally damaging shipping.

Nevertheless, noted Johansson, “there are advantages to being on the periphery.” Artists aren’t as focused on what sells as they would be at a fair. Johansson has remained in Oakland since establishing her gallery 15 years ago “because an artist can put more sincerity into a work when they are not motivated by what they are supposed to do.”

Lonnie Lee, founder of Vessel Gallery in Oakland, had a totally different experience of the periphery. Having been in Oakland since 2010 and Berkeley for six years prior, they lost their 25th Street space before the pandemic. Their next space on the 23rd was open for a month before the closings, and their landlord allowed them to break their lease in the summer after they were unable to upgrade the space and install the HVAC.

Since then, she has focused on site-specific installations, including exhibiting the interior works of sculptor Evan Holm’s gallery outdoors. “This ephemeral work, already fragile, took on new meaning in natural conditions, open to all passers-by. It became a shared documentary experience,” Lee said.

As she continues to search for a space, Lee has shifted her focus to online global exposure. “Someone said to me, ‘In my business, I learned not to plan more than 2.5 weeks in advance,'” she said. New variations (may) never go away, and I want to use this experience to reach people differently. »

Lee wants to use this uncertainty as an opportunity to represent the collective experience of the pandemic. “People say, ‘I want things to go back to normal,'” she said. “But haven’t we all changed? I want that reflected in what we do next.

Mildred D. Field