When Katya Grokhovsky received the news that she would have a solo exhibition at Smack Mellon, a Brooklyn art gallery, in 2018, she was ecstatic. She began preparing for the show, collecting and installing a variety of unique objects, including giant plush toys, inflatable beach balls and deconstructed mannequins. Then the pandemic hit. Her exhibition was postponed, she lost the studio space she was working from, and soon had to scramble for work virtually.
Grokhovsky is an artist, curator and founder of The Immigrant Artist Biennial. Clouded with uncertainty after being forced to postpone her solo exhibition, she began looking for creative outlets online. For almost a year, live streaming performances and organizing virtual exhibits became the norm.
"I remember getting up every day and thinking, ‘How do we do this? What are we doing?’ It was really scary," Grokhovsky said in an interview with The Org. "That cut off in 2020 was quite shocking and abrupt. My work is installation-based, it's sculpture and you have to go around it, so it's been tough to have everything online."
According to a report by the New York State Comptroller's Office, employment in New York City's arts, entertainment, and recreation sectors declined by 66% as many of the city's museums and art galleries saw layoffs and furloughs. It was the most significant decline amongst all sectors in New York City. An annual global art market analysis saw that global art sales in 2020 declined by 22% from 2019 and 27% from 2018.
There have been some positive developments as a direct result of the pandemic. Annabel Keenan is an art advisor who moved from Los Angeles to New York City during the pandemic to start her own advisory business, AFK Fine Art. She noticed that the pandemic had spurred growth in the online market for artwork, providing aspiring artists and curators with opportunities to showcase their work to a broader audience.
Non-fungible token’s (NFT), a digital art asset on the blockchain, has made it easier for artists to profit from their work. Recently, artist Mike Winkelmann, otherwise known as Beeple, sold a collection of his NFTs at Christie’s for $69M.
"A lot of galleries were not interested in online sales before," Keenan said in an interview with The Org. "The pandemic made us realize that the demographic of clients has expanded. If somebody on the other side of the world receives an email invite to a viewing room, they will have access to art they wouldn't have been able to see otherwise."
As New York City slowly lifts its social distancing restrictions, Keenan has noticed that there has been a shift in people's perception of galleries as well.
"People are less intimidated, there's a classic idea of a gallery with white walls that you don't even know if you're allowed to go inside. There's this psychological barrier you have to cross to even enter a gallery," Keenan said in an interview with The Org. "I think the pandemic really helped chip that away, there's a shift to more inclusivity."
With commercial rent prices steadily dropping in New York City boroughs, some curators have jumped at the opportunity to open their own galleries and starting businesses. Co-Founder of Trotter&Sholer, Angie Phrasavath, is one of them. Phrasavath has always had a passion for curating artwork. Before the pandemic, she often attended and organized pop-up exhibitions in her apartment. Currently, she is running her gallery whilst working full time as a global account manager for immersive social art-education network and marketing platform, Eazel.
"There are so many vacant spaces, so many galleries, that unfortunately shut down or pursued grander opportunities because the rent went down," Phrasavath said. "And so the space that Trotter&Sholer ended up getting, we got a nice COVID rent deal."
Trotter&Sholer began welcoming guests in September 2020 after New York City eased restrictions on August 24th, allowing museums and other cultural institutions to operate at 25% capacity. The newly opened gallery is currently exhibiting artwork by Farideh Sakhaeifar, addressing the impact of war and the repercussions of displacement.
Similarly, Anna Mikaela Ekstrand, an Independent curator and Editor in Chief of Cultbytes, an online publishing platform covering insider perspectives on contemporary art and culture, saw an opportunity to create an open project space for freelance curators to learn about digital art during this time.
"A lot of artists and performers who are working in the digital sphere haven't done it before, they're experimenting with an unfamiliar medium," Ekstrand said. "I want to open my curatorial intensive with a theme that investigates what happens when performance art goes into the digital sphere."
Ekstrand believes that virtual performance art is here to stay and thinks it is crucial for the art world to adapt to these changes.
"Digital had already started to enter the art world before the pandemic, but it has pushed a lot of galleries to formalize this and put it into a different form," Ekstrand said. "I don't think that the digital and virtual sphere should replace physical viewing, but it can be a substitute or an addition."
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