Last year when the Pandemic hit, closed art institutions around the world were forced to switch to the internet – it was the only way to keep in touch with their audiences. Museums organized online curatorial discussions and tours, auction houses conducted live streaming sales. Art fairs set up exhibition spaces – and their customers, the galleries, sometimes collectively. Today, as the pandemic fades in some places and persists in others, questions remain about how commercial galleries will survive, especially small and medium-sized businesses that struggled to maintain their profitability prior to the global health crisis and its associated shutdown. The answer to long-term support for galleries and their local art scene may actually lie in these collective digital initiatives.
An early attempt to keep galleries running during Covid was made in Los Angeles in May 2020: The Gallery Platform LA, organized by a group of local dealers, throws a weekly spotlight on exhibitions in online viewing rooms and also offers editorial content, including videos Visits to LA artists, gallery owners, and collectors. That initiative served as inspiration for key members of an art scene more than 300 miles north – a smaller scene that arguably needed such a project even more urgently. Last October, a group of arts professionals launched 8 bridges in San Francisco, named after the eight structures that connect the land masses of the Bay Area. “The hope,” said retailer Jessica Silverman, one of the founders, “was to really expand what people know and understand about the Bay Area, both locally and outside.”
With less than a quarter the number of galleries in Los Angeles, San Francisco’s commercial scene has never been the same volume or attention as its southern neighbor. The goals of 8-bridges, said co-founder Kelly Huang, an art consultant and former co-director of the Gagosian Gallery in San Francisco, were not just to “find a way to support our community during an incredibly difficult time of uncertainty.” but also to “find a way to more formally support each other and the wider network of galleries in the Bay Area”. To that end, the website began running a rotation of eight different galleries each month, hosting exhibitions from Fraenkel Gallery, Anthony Meier Fine Arts, Robert Koch Gallery, and others.
“There is something about the pandemic that has led to a lot of collaboration, and something like this has never really happened before,” said gallery owner Claudia Altman-Siegel, another co-founder. “I’m friends with all of the other founding members, but we never got together like that. That’s a really positive thing that came out of the pandemic – that kind of urgent need to work together
for the common good. “
The group is also committed to helping local nonprofits like the Museum of the African Diaspora and the Headlands Center for the Arts, highlighting a different one each month. Alison Gass, director of the ICA San José, said her institution sees “a vast expanse within our reach” when she shared details about her ongoing Ebony G. Patterson exhibit, which is featured on the Bay Area lifestyle and culture website became 7 × 7 after an 8-bridge social media promotion for it. The non-profit Root Division for Art was able to “attract a huge audience that we normally would not have had in terms of a higher, more established collector base or perhaps a higher price interest” for their fundraising event in spring 2021 and the concurrent exhibition. Magic of the Senses, ”said Michelle Mansour, Executive Director of the Root Division.
“The gap between the for-profit and the non-profit art world is not that great,” said Gass. “We all work together – show us each other’s artists and work with collectors, regardless of whether they are buying the works or are philanthropic. It’s really something the art world needs to think more about. “
The members of 8-bridges have also thought about how they can bring the art world of the Bay Area closer to an international audience that, even in normal, non-pandemic times, makes it to San Francisco at most once a year, for the FOG Art Fair or a large museum exhibition . (Last February, 8-bridges stepped in to fill the void left by FOG’s cancellation by hosting a digital presentation “4 × 8-bridges” that included 36 galleries from Northern California, with accompanying lectures, Webinars and Zoom Walk-Throughs.) Since its inception, the platform has developed a podcast series that featured personalities such as Gass, art consultant Mary Zlot and collector Pamela Hornik. It has also staged a series of panels titled “Bridging the Bay Area Art World,” which, in one iteration, Neal Benezra, former director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Lori Fogarty, director of the Oakland Museum of California; and Mari Robles, executive director of the Headlands Center for the Arts.
There’s one more reason for people to come through the digital door: a website can be more welcoming and less intimidating than an IRL art gallery, and therefore can attract more young people. This can be seen in the numbers: Millennials make up the largest segment of 8-bridge users. “I think platforms like this make entry into the art community a bit more democratic,” said Huang. It helps that many of the artwork sold through the website is under $ 20,000, an area that both aspiring and seasoned collectors can shop comfortably without seeing the art in person.
The platform is also starting to experiment with curated formats. In May, on the occasion of the Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, it presented an exhibition with works by historical, medium-sized and emerging artists from the Asian diaspora. This exhibition was organized by Huang and Aleesa Pitchamarn Alexander, Assistant Curator of American Art and Co-Director of the Asian American Art Initiative (AAAI) at the Cantor Arts Center.
As cities all over the world to open up and loosen pandemic restrictions, the 8-bridges team has come up with new ways to reach its growing audience. Projects at the works include resource pages for local artists looking for scholarships or grants, and local dealers looking for art dealers, framers, photographers, or other services to support their businesses.
“I am very excited to lead the platform into this new phase of life,” said Silverman, adding that the other founding gallery owners “are excited to see how the platform can support this reopening. It will be very collaborative and the way we organize ourselves now is so much stronger than it was at the beginning. “
Gass believes the platform and its underlying ethos are already helping to cultivate a greater spirit of camaraderie. “It is starting to minimize the possibility of intense competition between institutions,” she said. “8-bridges helps us to see that we are all talking to each other and to the same people.” When it comes to the strengths of the program in the Bay Area arts scene, she said, “The tide is really lifting all ships.”