Local art galleries are weighing the risks and benefits of reopening

Museums were recently given the green light to reopen in Massachusetts, and some have done so, while others plan to open a few months later with limited visits.

Now, art galleries are also testing the waters and grappling with similar questions: how to keep visitors coming back, exhibit artwork and give artists a chance to sell their work, all while keeping everyone safe. .

Locally, most galleries remain closed, although some, such as the APE gallery in Northampton, are planning to open in September. From virtual exhibits and other online content to artwork showcases, venues such as the APE and the A3 Gallery in Amherst have tried to give artists some exposure while also providing the public with access to works of art. ‘art.

But another Northampton gallery, Anchor House of Artists, has just opened its doors to live exhibitions, albeit with visiting restrictions and heightened security protocols. The reopening marks the start of “Work Related,” an exhibition by Holyoke sculptor and cabinetmaker Peter Dellert that includes a number of unusual sculptures based on ancient tools, as well as themed installations.

Also in Northampton, William Baczek Fine Arts opened for a limited number of tours last month and is currently exhibiting paintings by New York artist Travis Louie. But owner William Baczek says the effects of the pandemic have continued to linger, affecting everything from shipping to showing art to customers.

Michael Tillyer, the founding director of Anchor House, said he and co-director Susan Foley have stayed in touch with some of their previously scheduled artists via Zoom, phone and email — and have held a few virtual exhibits — over the past few years. months, while keeping an eye on the state’s reopening plans.

“It looked like we were finally able to go live again as long as we did it very carefully,” Tillyer said. “There was definitely interest from artists, and we wanted to reconnect with people.”

But there was another critical element at play, notes Tillyer. He founded the gallery and organization over 20 years ago to help support artists struggling with mental illness, including providing subsidized studio space where they could work; he also exhibited their art. Anchor had to close that space with the advent of COVID-19, Tillyer said.

“It was really hard for a lot of our artists to suddenly be cut off from a place where they can work without any stigma, and cut off from each other,” he noted. Staying in touch with most of them via Zoom hadn’t really been possible, Tillyer added, “so we were concerned about the isolation people felt.”

Now the workspace has reopened, while gallery tours are by prior appointment, with a limit of six visitors every half hour. Face masks and social distancing mandatory for all.

Tillyer says he’s delighted to host Dellert’s show, originally scheduled for June, as it offers insightful commentary on the job loss so many have suffered since the pandemic began, as well as the general drift of many sectors of manufacturing and specialized trade of automation workers.

Dellert, who has seen other exhibits closed or postponed this spring, said he grew up in a home where he and his siblings “always had a broom or paintbrush in their hands and had to help around the house.” . A former carpenter and cabinet maker, he says “Work Related” is about celebrating the dignity of work, especially with tools, and respecting workers “who are often quite low in the pecking order”.

Part of his exhibit includes sculptures that Dellert fashioned from ancient tools, such as two paired rakes that were molded into a giant circle, with the rakes’ blades practically entwined. A symbol of the beauty of craft tools and the work they do? Or a commentary on the steady decline of manual and skilled labor and the push towards automation in the workplace?

“I maintain that in our society, individuals need meaningful work, using good tools, whether it is a fountain pen or an axe, and that these tools must be part of our culture,” Dellert wrote in a statement about his work.

“Work Related” runs through August 20 at Anchor House. Tillyer says he is planning additional exhibits for the fall, including a display of unusual paintings by longtime Valley artist Scott Prior.

“With a bit of luck [reopening] can go forward without big problems,” said Tillyer, who noted that “going back is a cautious but exciting thing.”

Face masks required

At William Baczek Fine Arts, Baczek has limited visits to eight people at a time, and face masks and social distancing are required. Hand sanitizer is also available, Baczek noted in an email. Foot traffic is light enough that people haven’t had to be turned away since the gallery reopened in June, he said, although people can also visit via FaceTime or Zoom if they prefer not to. enter.

The exhibition of Travis Louie’s work, ‘Imaginary Friends’, which runs until at least the end of July, features surreal portraits that reference Victorian photographic portraiture, with animals and semi-human creatures wearing formal outfits. Consider “Eight Ounce,” a teacup with a feminine face and hair, dressed in a high-necked white blouse.

Baczek says it’s been a struggle since March, with only a few people buying work online first; it’s normally a big part of his business, he says, and “it’s taken a while for people to even start adjusting to the new (a)normal.”

Shipping artwork or bringing it in has also sometimes been a problem, Baczek says. The gallery’s next exhibition is by a Latvian artist, he notes, “and shipping is more complicated because of the pandemic.”

That said, online sales have now started to pick up, and he hopes more people will start visiting the gallery. Another encouraging sign, Baczek noted, is that visitors wore masks very well and kept several feet apart.

The collectives that run the Oxbow Gallery in Northampton and the A3 Gallery in Amherst are sticking to art showcases for now, given the small size of the venues. At APE, director Lisa Thompson said last month that the gallery was considering reopening in September and was carefully considering how many people would be allowed in and how the artworks would be displayed. A series of window art exhibitions, “normal pop-ups”, run until August 17.

Next to the APE, at the R. Michelson galleries, visits are by appointment only, masks required. Owner Richard Michelson said the gallery had held a number of Zoom and Facebook live interviews with artists, but was still not ready for a full opening.

“I left the opening decisions to my staff, because they are the ones on the front line, and I don’t want to put anyone at risk,” Michelson said in an email, noting that the gallery prefers to sin “ on the cautionary side.”

In Easthampton, meanwhile, galleries are still closed. Jean-Pierre Pasche, who runs the Elusie gallery in town, currently uses this space to interact with customers at his adjacent frame shop, Big Red Frame. In a recent client newsletter, he said he had discussed the possibilities of reopening with owners and managers of other galleries, but had decided not to do so himself at this time.

The reason? Even if galleries can reopen with a limited number of visits, he thinks it is still not safe to hold opening receptions for artists.

“That’s when artists can interact with the public, talk about their work, socialize over art and a glass of wine, and make sales,” Pasche said. If that’s not yet possible, he added, most people he spoke to “agreed that it wasn’t worth the creative and financial investment that went into an exhibition.”

“We are working on alternative solutions for artists to present their work,” Pasche added.

Steve Pfarrer can be contacted at [email protected] For more information on Anchor House of Artists, William Baczek Fine Arts and their current exhibits, visit anchorhouseartists.org and wbfinearts.com.

Mildred D. Field