ON WEDNESDAY, Sept. 9, dealer David Zwirner inaugurated one of his major fall shows in New York, a presentation of new paintings by artist Harold Ancart.
Before the COVID-19 era, Mr. Zwirner would have thrown his gallery open to hundreds of people and then invited a slightly smaller group — often upward of 40 or 50 collectors, friends of the artist, curators, and critics — to dinner at a restaurant.
This time around, Mr. Zwirner hosted a dinner for Ancart’s show, “but it was Harold, just a couple of people who work in the gallery, and a few friends,” he says. “I think we were six people altogether at Altro Paradiso, outside on the street.”
Welcome to the reopened New York gallery world, where dealers, collectors, and artists are still figuring out how to exist in an ecosystem that previously relied on crowds, dinners, and constant travel to sell art.
Every gallery is now open by appointment. Most will accept drop-ins if the space is under capacity. Beyond that, the logistics of doing business varies from gallery to gallery.
“As far as New York goes, it’s a very opaque situation,” says dealer Marianne Boesky, whose namesake Chelsea gallery will reopen with a show of paintings by artist Gina Beavers on Sept. 15. “Everyone is doing their own thing. That’s the bottom line: There’s no consensus.”
NO MORE FRENZIED OPENINGS …
Along with everyone else, Ms. Boesky closed her gallery in March. Now, as she begins her fall program, one half of her gallery is open to the public, and visitors can book slots through online appointments. 10 people will be allowed in, through half-hour intervals. “We’re not going to be doing openings in the traditional sense,” she says. “It’s hard, because if you can’t get more than 10 to 20 people together, you’re not going to have that buzz — that energy and excitement.”
To compensate, Ms. Boesky says she’s working on a digital alternative that recreates the immediacy and personality of a live opening.
“You can enter the space, see the works in three dimensions, and can say, ‘Is Kelly around? Is Mary around? I want to chat with them,’ and a gallery director will be there and walk you through the show,” she says. “The tech isn’t quite there yet, but we’re working on it.”
Hauser & Wirth was set to inaugurate its new Annabelle Selldorf-designed 36,000-square-foot gallery on Manhattan’s 22nd Street in May. “Obviously, that couldn’t happen,” says gallery co-President Marc Payot.
For its delayed opening in its new space, the gallery has put together a benefit exhibition, Artists for New York, comprising art donated from artists. The proceeds will go to 14 not-for-profit arts organizations across the city. “We’re not doing a party, we’re not doing a press event — nothing,” Mr. Payot says. “It’s the opposite of an event-driven opening.”
The large gatherings that animated the art world will be missed, dealers say, but they stress that openings have a minimal impact on sales. “It’s a celebration of creativity and an artist having worked hard,” says Mr. Payot. “Does it generate energy, and does this maybe then lead to some sales? Possibly, but it’s not that linear.”
Lower East Side dealer Miguel Abreu is going even further. Dinners “lost their utility” long ago, he says. “Collectors didn’t want to go to them anymore. They were sick of them; they were invited to 60 a month. Any pleasure in it was stripped away,” he continues. “At our openings in the last few years, there were fewer and fewer collectors, it was all artists and friends.” (For pair of openings on Sept. 10, Mr. Abreu invited anyone who attended to go to a nearby park for tacos.)
… FOR NOW
“One of the most beautiful openings I can remember happened in January for Noah Davis, a young artist who passed away very early,” says Mr. Zwirner. “It was his first major show in New York, and it was endlessly exciting to the extent that the catalogue sold out, and we had to reprint it.”
Now, he says, “you do much better with artists where the audience is already strong. It’s hard to introduce brand-new work that people aren’t familiar with, because you have a limit on how [interest in] the work can spread at this moment.”
Mr. Zwirner says he hasn’t made any changes to his exhibition schedule, for which there’s already a significant, COVID-19-related backlog. “We haven’t adjusted our program, other than that we’re showing everyone we couldn’t show for the last six months,” he says. “The rescheduling has been a little bit of a nightmare to make sure you can get everyone on deck.”
The real issue, he says, is that “we’re primarily a brick-and-mortar business. I never like to say it, but we’re part of the world of retail, where you come in and you want to experience the object.” When collectors have come through the door, he says, “everyone is wearing masks, and we have safety protocols, but we’ve actually stood in front of the artworks with clients, and sold them.”
Openings, Mr. Zwirner continues, are part of that in-person experience. “It’s a beautiful tradition: You celebrate the artist, you see friends, you go gallery-hopping. It’s so New York, it’s so quintessential, and I want it to come back.”
Ms. Boesky, too, says she wants to return to a world of gallery dinners — but old-school dinners, like when I opened in 1996,” she says. “I would just cook them, and then it became this whole other animal: seated dinners that cost $50,000. I don’t enjoy going to a lot of those. It just feels obligatory.”
GOODBYE TO ALL THAT
Dealers uniformly agree that things shouldn’t go back to the way they were.
“Art was being absorbed by this relentless activity” of the art world circuit, Mr. Abreu says. “It was stripped of its power of expression — to reach people and engage people — and the result was that everybody had been forced into the position of shopping and not collecting anymore.”
Even Mr. Zwirner and Mr. Payot, each helming one of the largest galleries in the world, say galleries needed to change.
“We’ll all run our business differently,” says Mr. Zwirner. Everything from the obvious — a plexiglass divider at the reception desk, appointments scheduled in advance, and galleries leaning even more heavily than before on digital “previews” of shows sent out to clients — to how many art fairs Mr. Zwirner will attend every year is being reconsidered. “There was almost a hysteria in the art world to be everywhere at all times.” That, he says “needs to be rethought.”
Mr. Payot agrees that travel particularly needs to be scaled back. “This crisis has made us think of everything differently,” he says. “The relationship between digital and physical [sales], how much do we actually need in terms of events and openings, and how much do we actually need to travel?”
Ms. Boesky is reconfiguring about one-half of her gallery as semi-private exhibition spaces. “Does it make sense for me to have a 15,000-square-foot public exhibition space?” she asks rhetorically. “It doesn’t, because we can’t have a gathering of 500 people for an opening.”
The forced reset, Ms. Boesky continues, has compelled her to take a step back to reconsider what’s good for her, her artists, and her staff.
“The life we lived prior was not reasonable, it was insane,” she says. “I’m looking forward to a new normal — and not chasing my tail 24/7.” — Bloomberg