Can The Short North Arts District Survive Coronavirus?

Apr 10, 2020

Even when Michelle Brandt was battling Stage IV colon cancer in 2018, her contemporary art gallery, the Short North’s Brandt-Roberts Galleries, stayed open. But in the wake of Gov. Mike DeWine’s mandated closure of non-essential businesses, Brandt’s gallery has now been closed for three weeks – and no one can say when it will reopen.

“We never had to close our doors,” said Brandt in a recent phone interview, referring to her fight with cancer. “We limited our hours, but nothing like this.”

All 11 of the Short North’s art galleries – businesses that have helped define the Short North as an arts and commercial district – are now temporarily closed.

At the same time, most of the Short North's other businesses – including restaurants, coffee shops, boutiques and theaters – have shuttered too, all but halting foot traffic in what's usually the city's most popular destination.

The closures threaten the livelihoods not just of gallery owners, but of the artists those galleries represent.

“I Worry About The Artists”

Owners of art galleries cultivate relationships with two groups of people: the artists they represent and the patrons who purchase their artists’ work, sometimes over decades of collecting. The relationships a gallery owner forges help determine a gallery’s commercial viability and are crucial to an artist’s ability to get his work into the hands of art patrons.

“When you enter into a relationship with an artist, it’s a two-way street, and I take that responsibility very seriously,” said Duff Lindsay, owner of Lindsay Gallery.

Sinc eopening in 1999, Lindsay has specialized in contemporary, self-taught, folk and outsider art.

Credit publicity photo / Courtesy of the Lindsay Gallery

The mandated closure of art galleries and other non-essential establishments presents concerns for the galleries – and even bigger concerns, Lindsay says, for the artists who need those galleries to make a living from their artwork.

“An artist has only one artist’s work to sell. I have dozens of artist’s works to sell. So, you can almost look at it as lots of revenue streams. An individual artist only has one revenue stream,” Lindsay said. “I’ve been doing this a long time. I’m going to weather this storm. But I worry about the artists who have only one artist’s work to sell.”

For an artist who makes a living from creating and selling art, there is no financial substitute for an exhibition in a brick-and-mortar gallery. Even just the opening reception of a gallery show can bring in substantial income.

“Most of the sales will be done at the opening reception, where people have the opportunity to meet the artist,” Lindsay said. “We have several times throughout the years sold out the entire show on opening night. And it’s not unusual at all to sell half an exhibit on opening night. But there’s a certain amount of follow-up, where people will come to the opening, then go home and think about it, and get back in touch again about a piece they might want to acquire.”

The closure of non-essential businesses was issued after the March 7 opening reception of Lindsay’s current exhibition. The artwork by Adam Hernandez is still displayed on the Lindsay gallery’s walls, with nobody to see or purchase it.

Lindsay posted photographs of the artwork in Hernandez’s show on the Lindsay Gallery’s website, where people can also buy the actual artworks. But the internet is no substitute for face-to-face sales. Online purchases normally amount to a “very, very small portion” of his gallery’s business, Lindsay says.

“Rarely do we ever get just, out of the blue, someone that we don’t already know who has been in contact with us in the past, say, ‘I was cruising the internet and I ran across your gallery, and I’m interested in buying this,’” Lindsay said.

Online Is No Replacement

Michelle Brandt, of Brandt-Roberts Galleries, says that most of her gallery’s business comes from opening receptions and other sales from the gallery’s brick-and-mortar space, and that online sales normally account for only about 15% of her business.

Brandt and her staff are now mounting virtual art exhibitions on the gallery’s website. But Brandt says online exhibitions can’t take the place of experiencing the art in person.

“I always have believed that people, when they’re able, are much more moved by a piece of art when they’re able to see it in person," she says. "There’s just a response to it that you can’t experience necessarily online."

Still, Brandt is now directing more attention than ever to creating content – including virtual Instagram tours of her artists’ studios – for her website and social media platforms, and to posting online content more frequently, in an effort to keep connecting her artists with her patrons while the doors to her gallery remain locked.

“We’re turning over the Instagram platform to our artists every Friday so that they can share what they’re doing,” Brandt said. “I think it’s important that folks that follow us see our artists working in their studio. It gives them a little bit of a window into what our artists are doing at this time.”

Michelle Brandt, owner of Brandt Roberts Galleries
Credit Brad Van Tilburgh / Courtesy of Brandt Roberts Galleries

Even with the gallery closed, Brandt can continue offering art appraisal, corporate art consulting, art restoration and framing services. But these income streams can’t replace the income from a successful art exhibition, and they can’t directly help support the working artists on the Brandt-Roberts Galleries roster – 75% of whom, Brandt says, are based in Ohio.

“It’s mostly our artists that we’re concerned about," she says. "We’re trying to figure out, how do we keep putting their work in the hands of collectors when those collectors, a lot of them are struggling as well?”

“I Want People To Feel Good”

Gallery owner Sherrie Hawk says she has seen no new sales in the weeks that Sherrie Gallerie has been closed. Rather than for sales, Hawk is using the internet to keep her relationships with her artists and patrons strong.

“For me the gallery is about relationships in the end, with artists and with the customer," Hawk says.

Hawk says online sales can account for as much as 30% of the sales from a show in her gallery, which specializes in 3D artwork created from a range of materials, including ceramics, glass and fiber. However, Hawk’s focus right now is online content.

“I have been focusing the content on bringing joy and beauty to people’s lives right now, not focusing on sales,” Hawk said. “I don’t want to focus on sales at all. It just doesn’t seem appropriate, and I want people to feel good.”

Sherrie Gallerie’s website boasts video tours of two of the gallery’s recent exhibitions, and the window of her gallery features a display Hawk created right after she learned she’d have to close her gallery temporarily.

“I put a crazy window display of art on the street, so people that are walking can just look in the window and see something fun. Simple things like that are what I’m focusing on, feeling that it will just build nice relationships for the future,” Hawk said.

While keeping her eye on the day when her gallery can reopen, Hawk says she doesn’t need to pay herself a salary for a little while. But as with any other type of business, there is a limit to how much lost revenue an art gallery can withstand and remain fiscally sustainable.

Hawk says six months is the maximum length of time Sherrie Gallerie can endure without any sales whatsoever.

“I’m never in the mood to lose that much money, but I told myself that I’m willing to go that long,” Hawk said. “I had to just be really honest with myself and put that money there for the gallery.”

Lindsay says he’s measuring his gallery's viability during the shut-down against his prospects for a secure retirement.

“I’m older than a lot of people that own businesses in the Short North," Lindsay said. "I’ve been in business a long time. Do I want to pay the rent for my gallery out of my retirement? No, I don’t, but I have that option that I think a lot of people don’t."

Brandt says she thinks the Brandt-Roberts Galleries can hold on until summer, assuming business starts back up then. But whenever she can reopen, Brandt says she’s concerned that it will take time for business to ramp up again, which would mean more of a strain on her business.

“Just because we’re closed doesn’t mean we don’t have operational costs – we still have insurance, we still have rent costs, I’m trying to keep my employees employed to some extent,” Brandt said. “Let’s say hypothetically we’re opening again in June or July, I don’t think we’re going to see all our patrons come back immediately.”

And the mandated closures mean that all types of Short North businesses aren’t bringing each other business like they usually do.

“(Normally), folks will come down to visit galleries and they stop and grab something to eat," Brandt said. "And they may be walking past our brick-and-mortar space in the window and they pop in. So being in the neighborhood where there are interesting small businesses has been a benefit for all of us, and I think the galleries have been a benefit to the boutiques."

Beyond the concerns of sustaining an art gallery and helping artists earn a living during the current crisis, Lindsay says he is concerned about what a longer-than-expected closure of the businesses that make up the Short North’s economy might mean for that district.

“On a larger scale, I worry about, if this goes on for long, will there be a Short North Arts District anymore?” said Lindsay

Meanwhile, Brandt says she’s been relying on wisdom she gained during her health crisis to try to stay focused on the present and take things as they come.

“When I had cancer, one of my therapists said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t get stuck in your illness,’” Brandt said. “I’m trying not to get stuck in the doomsday mentality. I’m trying not to get stuck in the ‘what ifs.’ One thing you learn in cancer is you take it one day at a time, because everything’s out of your control. I think we’ll pull through this.”