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The Coronavirus Hits Hudson Valley Art Galleries Hard

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Photo by Paolo NIgris

With in-person experiences on hold, local galleries from New Paltz to Rosendale suffer from a lack of foot traffic and restricted funds.

With art sales increasingly moving to online venues and high-priced art fairs, several Mid-Hudson Valley gallery owners created business models they thought would ensure the galleries’ survival whether or not they sold art.

Although the region is home to a large number of artists, many of whom have fled New York City in search of more affordable living and studio space, traditional retail galleries have dwindled over the years here.

The new business plans capitalized on artists’ eagerness to exhibit amid a finite amount of exhibition space by requiring the artists to pay membership dues or rent wall space. What they didn’t account for was the coronavirus. Now, two of three local galleries with alternative models are closing their doors. Queen City 15 in Poughkeepsie, which plans to reopen this month under New York’s Phase 2 reopening plan, apparently hit upon just the right formula to weather the pandemic: low carrying costs combined with a co-op model so its members share the financial burden and risks.

 

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Art JuXtapose in Rosendale, a small town a few miles north of New Paltz, wasn’t as fortunate. In June 2019, Sylvia Diaz, who has a marketing and arts-organizing background, opened Art JuXtapose. Determined not to be “out of here in two months if things didn’t sell,” she came up with an unconventional business plan: renting her wall space to artists.

Diaz thought she might have trouble filling the space, but it was fully rented by 15 shifting artists since the 600-square-foot gallery opened. The artists, who she recruited through social media and word of mouth, committed to pay a monthly fee of between $85 and $135 for six months. In return, Diaz would market their work, hold a monthly opening, and forego a commission on art sales.

The model had exceeded her expectations to the point that she was shopping for additional gallery space in Poughkeepsie and Saugerties before the coronavirus hit. But now, after just a year in business, Diaz has closed the gallery and is planning to move her art-marketing operation online. “Not knowing when I could open again, if people would feel safe visiting a small gallery, or if artists would rent wall space after such an economic hit, I couldn’t take the risk,” she says.

Art JuXtapose is one of more than 100,000 small businesses that have been forced to close by the economic downturn linked to the coronavirus lockdown, while 7.5 million are at risk of closing, according to recent research.

Main Streets are losing out. Before the lockdown, Art JuXtapose and another gallery that is slated to close, the nonprofit Roost Studios & Art Gallery in New Paltz, had brought buzz and foot traffic to quiet main drags that needed more of both through their monthly openings and art programming.

 

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“The health crisis and economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic have altered the landscape for galleries and arts organizations whose bread and butter has traditionally been in engaging audiences and collectors in the gallery space,” says Joanna Frang, executive director of the Barrett Art Center in Poughkeepsie. “Arts organizations will need to channel our collective creative energies to create new business models of physical and technological engagement that encourage broad community support.”

Like Art JuXtapose, the four-year-old Roost had a gallery-sitting requirement for its artists that allowed it to keep staffing costs to the bare minimum. But the annual carrying costs for its 1,400-square-foot gallery and gift shop were a comparatively hefty $28,000. Still, Roost, an art co-op with 16 full members who paid annual dues of $1,500 in exchange for a month-long solo show every two years, thought it would survive because the dues covered 75 percent of its expenses. The gallery made up the rest by renting space to local arts groups for classes and events, charging a 20 percent to 40 percent commission on art sales, and donations.

Roost was profitable until the pandemic hit and had become a community hub for the arts, just as its founders envisioned. But along with its packed art shows, which generated most of its sales, the coronavirus killed Roost’s space-rental sideline, and sales on its website were just a tiny fraction of gallery sales.

Then some artists stopped paying dues, others resigned their memberships, and Roost gave notice to its landlord that it would close at the end of June. Roost hopes to continue its mission through online classes and workshops and will sell and market art through its website. “The impact of the coronavirus on the use of physical space to bring art and community together has been significant,” says David Wilkes, president of Roost’s board of directors.

Longtime local artist Matt Maley (www.mattmaley.com) had found a predictable source of income through his Roost membership. “Most of the local galleries I was involved with sadly had closed,” Maley says. “I was selling sculpture in four retail gallery spaces in New Paltz, Woodstock, and Saugerties that are gone now. I’ll definitely be switching to more online sales.”

Photo by Paola Bari

Meanwhile, although things are “tight” at Queen City 15, according to co-founder Paola Bari, the gallery is preparing to reopen this month. “Art is a point of comfort in these trying times,” Bari says.

Pandemic or no pandemic, Queen City’s 12 members so far have indicated willingness to continue to pay to be part of a communal art experience. Also, at $12,000, the gallery’s yearly expenses are relatively low, allowing it to keep membership dues low, which in turn puts less financial pressure on its members.

Founded by six artists, Queen City 15 opened in late 2018. The gallery’s monthly dues range from $40 to $200 and cover its $800 rent – a must because Queen City hasn’t sold any art since the coronavirus struck. “We wanted a place where we can connect to the local community, share our love for art, and provide a space where local artists can show their work,” says Bari (www.paolabari.com), a ceramicist. “We wanted to be in downtown Poughkeepsie, but we knew we couldn’t rely on gallery sales to keep the business going.”

The 1,800-square-foot gallery takes a 10 percent to 30 percent commission on sales, and its gallery-sitting requirement enables it to be fully staffed by its members. “We’re keeping the membership dues as low as possible to allow more artists to be able to join us,” Bari says. “Our goal is to promote the artist and be able to give back to the artist as much as possible.”

Normally, the gallery promotes the artists through monthly openings that had been drawing up to 150 attendees as well as moderated talks in which the artists describe their creative path and process. Works range from $100 to $10,000, and the gallery sold about $20,000 worth of art in the six-month period ending last December.

One recent Queen City recruit said his work hadn’t been selling before the pandemic either, but he’s glad he joined the co-op anyway. “Sometimes it felt like it was mostly artists just going to each other’s shows, and no one was buying or selling,” says Tom Ellman (www.tomellman.com), a computer science professor at Vassar College and computational artist who joined the co-op last September. “But for someone like me, who has no track record, this is really the only way I can show my work in a public space. I can talk to people about my work, which is very helpful, and I had to come up with something each month, which kept me focused.”