In a normal year, art galleries would be winding down their busy spring exhibition schedules as they get ready for a slow summer of group shows and vacation days. But we are not in a normal year, we are in the Upside Down, and so in Los Angeles, we have seen many galleries take the first tentative steps toward reopening after four months spent in a COVID-19 shutdown.
In-person visits and chats with a handful of these galleries reveal a fascinating range of perspectives and prospects. The most elite among them are of course in the most comfortable positions, while smaller and mid-range galleries face more precarious situations that require them to be nimble and frugal in their strategies. All of them, however, have a few key sentiments in common: no one knows what the future holds, and everyone misses the social aspects of art.
Shoshana Wayne, a mid-size gallery now located in the West Adams district, was the first one out of the gate. Its early announcement of opening to the public on May 15 raised some eyebrows in the local art community; it was back in the days before everyone’s cabin fever reached critical mass and before L.A. County officially allowed museums and galleries to reopen June 12. When asked why the gallery chose to open when it did, co-owner Shoshana Blank is effusively philosophical.
“Because life has to go on,” she says, as we sit with our masks on amidst a group show called “The Art of Collecting.” “I’m an Israeli, so I’ve dealt with situations like this before. You simply have to adjust to a new mode of living. We are human, and we have passion — for relationships, for dining, for art. We can’t just stop doing all of those things for a year or more. For me personally, I can’t live without this gallery — it’s my energy and it’s my life.”
In business since 1986 and host to influential shows like “West Coast Duchamp” (1989), Blank and her husband and partner Wayne Blank have weathered many storms over the years. She sees the current crises in a positive light, citing the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, which translates to “repair of the world.” The gallery is cutting back on expenses like lavish artist dinners, but is still proceeding with construction on its new, 7,000-square-foot permanent space, located next door to the building it currently occupies. If all goes according to plan, a showing of Kathy Butterly’s ceramic sculptures will inaugurate the new space in November.
Responses to all the gallery reopenings have been positive, according to the proprietors I spoke with. People seem happy to get back to live art viewing and social interaction with their peers and are quickly snapping up appointments. In actuality, L.A. galleries are not difficult spaces to keep safe; unlike the New York scene, for example, our galleries are typically not cramped closely together, nor do they typically see throngs of crowds during normal open hours. And unlike museums, which were shut back down by Gov. Gavin Newsom shortly before this piece went to press, galleries are generally not complex spaces that require multiple layers of crowd and sanitation control.
At galleries, safety protocols are fairly straightforward. Masks are always required; hand sanitizer is made available; Plexiglas is sometimes placed in front of receptionists; and the number of people in the galleries at one time is limited, whether through an appointment system or simply not letting in more than a certain number at a time. Interactive installations and videos that require headphones are on hold for the time being, and paper handouts are usually replaced by QR codes that deliver documents straight to the viewer’s phone.
Another person who is eager to get back to the business of art is Danny Bowman, now the sole proprietor of BOZOMAG, a small and nimble outfit for emerging artists that he co-founded in 2017 with his friend Max Schwartz, who has since moved on to a different profession. Energetic and curious, Bowman describes himself as a “go-go kind of guy” who thrives on social interaction and the hustle and bustle of the art world. He kept himself busy during the lockdown by creating digital content for his website and poring through the art world media to find inspiration and keep tabs on what other galleries were thinking and doing.
BOZOMAG has always shown more experimental work, and its exhibitions were nomadic for the first two years of its existence. Now, Bowman is settling happily into a new low-cost space arrangement at the house of a friend in Highland Park. Still in the earlier stages of building his business, Bowman supports himself through a flexible day job selling watches. The current crises don’t seem to have put any damper on his spirits; the artists he works with are still producing plenty of work, and he is as enthusiastic as ever about supporting and showcasing them. On June 28, he reopened a haunting show of mixed-media imagery by Akina Cox, which had only a one-day run in March before being abruptly cut short by the pandemic.
Two other tiny experimental galleries, located at opposite ends of the city, are also defying the odds by continuing to thrive. Odd Ark L.A., a two-year-old operation not far from BOZOMAG, is the brainchild of accomplished painter and musician Dani Tull and his wife Yvonne Bas-Tull, a nonprofit administrator with a diverse artistic background. Much farther south in Inglewood, Rick Garzon’s Residency Art has been doing business since 2016. Both of these spaces, remarkably, are the sole sources of income for their respective proprietors.
Tull says he welcomed the first month of quarantine, which allowed him to take deep and satisfying dives back into his gardening and painting practices. More of an old-fashioned artist, he at first resisted the pressure to create online viewing rooms, feeling that the in-person experience of art was crucial. Eventually, however, they became a necessity — for showing works too large to fit into their tiny space, and for showing pieces too expensive to ship from elsewhere.
Odd Ark’s exhibition schedule had been postponed until September, but then an opportunity arose to show some paintings by Michelle Blade. A collector had requested a viewing, so the Tulls installed several paintings in their space. While the work was up, the Tulls figured they may as well open it to the public for a few weeks on an informal basis.
So far, they are getting a steady stream of appointments to see the show and have been able to generate just enough sales to sustain them. An application for a small business loan was rejected for inexplicable reasons. Still, working hard and keeping to a shoestring budget, the Tulls are hopeful that if they keep going, everything will work out somehow.
In Inglewood, savvy proprietor Rick Garzon saw the current economic and health crises coming sooner than most people. He already knew that the election year would mean slow sales for galleries, whose clients often pour money into political causes, and his memory of the havoc wreaked by SARS told him not to take COVID-19 lightly. He began saving money and collecting supplies way back in December, and when the opportunity arose to secure a PPP loan, he applied and got it. As a result, his current situation is stable.
With some help from Gallery Platform LA, a cooperative promotional and resource vehicle for L.A. art galleries, Garzon has worked out safety protocols for Residency and will open a show by Devin Reynolds July 18. When asked what his goals are for the future, Garzon talks about continuing with his space and possibly expanding it when the time is right. Most of all, he emphasizes the importance of the gallery’s mission of centering works by and for people of color in the communities where they are meant to be seen.
“I went to see a show by Aaron Fowler once in Hollywood,” he recalls. “The Michael Brown shooting was still fresh in people’s minds, and Aaron is from St. Louis, so some of the works were intense and addressed the incident directly. I was at the opening, looked around, and saw no one that this work was meant for. More people of color should have been able to see it.”
Far from these newer ventures, the venerable L.A. Louver gallery still holds court in its prime spot right on Venice Beach. A storied operation that’s been around since 1976 and boasts popular blue-chip artists like David Hockney and Gajin Fujita, L.A. Louver is in a privileged position and has not had to lay off any of its staff. However, senior staff have taken major pay cuts, according to gallery director Kimberly Davis. Like Shoshana Wayne, L.A. Louver is also proceeding with capital plans: the gallery will close in July and August for renovation, during which its large warehouse space in West Adams will be used for private viewings.
In September, there will be a large group exhibition commemorating the gallery’s 45th anniversary. Originally titled “45 at 45,” the show is being expanded and reconceived to better address the times; its new title will be “What the World Needs Now.” Alongside stars like Hockney and Fujita, the show will feature newer artists, including some drawn from the gallery’s legendary Rogue Wave exhibition series, a precursor to today’s Made in L.A. biennials.
Prior to commencing renovations, L.A. Louver reopened for a few short weeks to give the public what they wanted: a chance to view shows by Tom Wudl and his close friend, the late Don Suggs, both of which had been put on hold by the pandemic. The two artists delivered strong works, but Wudl’s in particular, with its delicate handiwork and subtle use of surprising materials, handily demonstrated the necessity of experiencing works of art in person. Photography simply can’t capture the many fine details of his pieces.
The same must be said of M+B’s show of recent works by the spectacular photo artist Matthew Brandt, also opened for a brief window in June before the gallery had to proceed with the rest of its postponed exhibition schedule. Probably the most innovative artist working in photography today, Brandt began his career with a series of highly personal portraits that utilized the bodily fluids of his subjects in the development process, shown while he was still in graduate school at UCLA. His works since then have continued to be highly charged and highly textural. In the now-closed solo exhibition titled “Vatnajökull,” Brandt took stunning chromogenic prints of the glacial Icelandic landscape and enhanced them by applying heat, creating blistered layers of dramatic color that became their own landscape. The resulting multisensorial visual experience was one that could only be had in person.
All the gallerists I spoke with emphasized the importance of the social scene around art — for building and maintaining relationships and for amplifying an artist’s brand. For truly committed art lovers, however, there is still one central relationship that drives all the rest: that between the viewer and the art.
Top Image: Matthew Brandt, “Vatnajökull MYC8,” detail | Photo: Ed Mumford, Courtesy the artist and M+B, Los Angeles