After running an art gallery for 16 years, Stefania Bortolami is a diehard optimist. Otherwise, she likes to say, in her brisk Italian accent, “you cannot be an art dealer, because if you really think about it, it’s suicide. You’re selling dreams that, a few years down the line, might be worth nothing.”
But even she was frustrated in January when Art Basel, citing international travel restrictions, announced that it would postpone its 2021 marquee fair—the world’s most prestigious marketplace for modern and contemporary art—from its usual time in June to September. By the time she went looking for a room after the announcement, all the hotels she called were already sold out. “It’s almost like someone knew,” she said, sounding a note of conspiracy.
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Aside from the omnipresent masks and hand sanitizer at her gallery in downtown New York, Bortolami could almost say things had gotten back to some version of normal after a year marked by crisis. She was welcoming visitors to the exhibitions she had just opened, and while New York was nowhere near its usual frenzy, the mood was better than it had been for far too long.
Nine months earlier, New York galleries were overtaken by a sense of dread as the city shut down, while hospitals filled with patients suffering from Covid-19, and unemployment claims skyrocketed. David Norr, a co-owner of James Cohan gallery, just across the street from Bortolami in Tribeca, remembered feeling frightened and concerned. Andrew Kreps, whose gallery is two blocks away, recalled the start of lockdown as “freefall.” As he laid off employees, he hoped to hang on. But Kreps feared “this could be a ‘going-out-of-business’ moment.”
How galleries in New York made it through one of the darkest years on record is a story of quick pivots and adaptations, and an acknowledgment that—pandemic or no pandemic—the fundamental way that galleries function in the high-flying art world was due for a change.
New York galleries still sit at the epicenter of the global art market. According to a recent report issued by the Independent art fair and the art shipping and storage firm Crozier, one-sixth of all art dealers nationwide are in New York, and at least half of the world’s top 3,000 collectors live in a city where they are still more likely to buy from galleries than at auctions or fairs.
On March 20, 2020, as New York officially entered an uncertain state of “pause,” many dealers were feeling buoyant in a buzzy market. That the coronavirus could effectively shut down the globe seemed unlikely. As they turned off their lights, dealers figured they’d work from home for a few weeks, maybe a month. Then, with the crisis contained, they would go back to business as usual.
The lockdown followed shortly after the city’s hometown fair, the Armory Show, the last fair on the international calendar to proceed as usual. Art Basel had called off its Hong Kong edition in March, but for Armory Week, even galleries from Italy—soon to become the grimmest of locales—traveled to New York, as did many from Asia, where the virus loomed larger. Dispensers of hand sanitizer littered the booths, and most attendees replaced handshakes with elbow bumps, but almost no one wore a mask. And sales were brisk despite previous stock market dips.
Then, the next week, TEFAF Maastricht in the Netherlands shut down after an exhibitor tested positive for the coronavirus, and the rest of the year’s fairs began to topple like dominoes. This was a major blow: Economist Clare McAndrew, in her 2019 Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market Report, found that fairs accounted for 45 percent of the revenue taken in by the galleries she surveyed.
“If you ever wanted to be philanthropic, now’s the time,” art adviser Wendy Cromwell remembers telling her clients in spring 2020. “There was a lot of panic in dealers’ voices,” said another adviser who declined to be named.
Galleries were stuck with shuttered spaces for which they still had to pay rent, which can account for as much as 40 percent of New York galleries’ expenses, and channels for selling art beyond conventional means were not clear. Fortunately, art fairs suffering the same fate didn’t go entirely dark. The work-from-home revolution came to them too, with the emergence of Art Basel’s “online viewing rooms” in place of its Hong Kong edition, allowing collectors to browse gallery offerings without having to wear a mask. And while it certainly didn’t replicate the revenue of in-person fairs, the online experiment—despite a few early tech glitches—threw galleries a lifeline. Mega-galleries moved works for six and seven figures (with prices out in the open, in a rare show of art market transparency).
At the same time, David Zwirner saw an opportunity to help smaller galleries in New York. At the end of March, having already built up his own online presence, Zwirner launched Platform, which would allow colleagues like 47 Canal, Bridget Donahue, and Queer Thoughts to present shows on his site. And other galleries around town continued to sell on their own, to collectors in quarantine with plenty of time to peruse the web and pursue their passion. A survey of high-net-worth collectors issued by Art Basel/UBS months later found that almost a third were “significantly more” interested in collecting art than they had been before the pandemic.
Some galleries scrambled to secure Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans from the Small Business Administration meant to help them keep staff on board. A few of the wealthiest—like Pace, Gagosian, and Zwirner—raked in up to $7 million. “The richer the owner, the more they got!” Bortolami told me, ruefully. “It rains where it’s wet.”
For his gallery operations in Chelsea and the Upper East Side, Friedrich Petzel got a loan for much less (he declined to disclose how much). But while helpful, that money quickly vanished—“like a drop of water on a hot stone,” he said.
Some dealers found themselves in an ethical quandary. “We felt a great weight, constantly hearing sirens,” said Max Marshall of Deli Gallery in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick. “Am I going to email someone about art when 2,000 people died today? That was hard to figure out.” And others had new kinds of family responsibilities to take on. “I immediately went into homeschooling three children,” said gallery owner Nicelle Beauchene, “so everything became about getting through the day-to-day. I was late to apply for PPP loans. I couldn’t even pick up my head to fill out an application.” A survey by the Art Newspaper in April found North American dealers projecting a loss in revenue up to 71 percent, with about a third of galleries worldwide not expecting to survive. On average, galleries had only a two-month financial buffer, the survey suggested.
Some dealers got creative to avoid disaster. When lockdown came in March, Kate Werble, whose namesake gallery is on the Upper East Side, immediately initiated a subscription program through which collectors could acquire new, unique artworks from groups of three artists over four months for just $2,000, in a kind of high-concept book-of-the-month club. “It keeps me in close contact with artists and clients,” Werble said of the program. “It’s doing everything a gallery does, just at a small scale.” After 10 months, Werble had sold most of the 45 sets of works she put on offer. And she planned to continue the program with work by artists on her roster and other dealers’ as well. “The logistics have been a lot of work, since it’s just me doing it,” she said. “But it’s also been more fun than I expected.”
For every small sign of ingenuity, however, it seemed like nothing could stop the bleeding as the market remained at a standstill. To measure the damage, Clare McAndrew’s Art Basel/UBS research team issued a special midyear report in which galleries around the world said that revenue had plunged over the spring and summer by an average of 36 percent. Those with yearly revenue of $250,000 to $500,000 were hardest hit, with a drop of almost half.
In New York, it could be even worse. “We were down by 65 percent at one point,” said Sean Kelly, whose gallery is north of Chelsea amid the hauntingly empty Hudson Yards.
And like businesses in every sector, galleries were also forced to institute furloughs and layoffs. At the top of the market, Pace, Lévy Gorvy, and Gagosian both furloughed staffers and cut the pay of those who stayed on. Everyone at the midsize galleries Bortolami, Kreps, and P.P.O.W took substantial pay cuts during the dark days of April and May; Kreps cut his own salary to zero until his PPP loans came in.
While gallery spaces were dark, some workers retooled in urgent Zoom meetings. “Never let a crisis go untapped,” said Petzel, who reassigned staff from his bookstore and those who worked on fairs to design and create content for his online viewing rooms, catching up with larger galleries that already had them in place. And it paid off: “The return from our online activities was almost equivalent in profit—not revenue, but profit—to what we would have done in Basel,” Petzel said. “That was a surprise to us.”
In June, Petzel also shelled out $30,000 for a truck—a 2019 Nissan NV2500 High Roof he calls the Petzelmobile—so he could ferry works from local artists’ studios to his 67th Street venue, where he and his art handlers staged the gallery’s first in-person presentation to a client, of works by gallery artists including Derek Fordjour, Joyce Pensato, and Seth Price. After all, Petzel figured, he would have to move them on his own anyway, the companies he typically used to move art having cut back like everyone else.
By June, Cristin Tierney had implemented a new digital strategy while her Lower East Side space remained vacant; she had previously sold almost nothing online. “We started presenting a lot more two-dimensional work, which people can absorb more easily than video or sculpture [on a screen],” Tierney said. “We put a heavy emphasis on less expensive work, to allow for more ‘opportunity purchases.’ ”
Tierney even learned some tricks of another trade. “I’ve never been good at iMovie,” she said, “but it has a function where you take a still photo and hit ‘Ken Burns effect,’ and it slowly pans across, which helps people see the artwork in a more meaningful way. I cannot tell you how much I love Ken Burns for this.”
Bortolami, meanwhile, asked far-flung artists represented by other galleries to record video of themselves asking questions of her own gallery artists, who then answered with their own homemade videos. She started off with Mary Weatherford, who at the time was in South Africa, posing questions to L.A. painter Rebecca Morris, whose show had opened at Bortolami in February. “If it’s quirky videos versus exhibitions, I would still much rather do exhibitions,” Bortolami said. “But it’s better to do these videos, which could be interesting to some hypothetical art history student one day, than another online viewing room.”
Bleak by any measure, the first half of the year ended with a June 29 online sale staged by Sotheby’s that counted as a confidence builder. “It made buyers think, This market is still going, and it’s real,” Tierney said, adding that the house’s technique of combining the theatrics of in-person sales with specialists taking bids by phone while other bids came in online was a hit. “Even though we were in our homes, it was still analogous enough to the real-life experience to gin up enough excitement that people dug deep.” In the headline-making sale, Sotheby’s sold upward of 90 percent of the modern and contemporary lots on offer—including an $84.5 million Francis Bacon—in a sale totaling $363.2 million.
Another sign of promise in the summer was a swell of action out East. Joel Mesler, who had moved his Lower East Side gallery to East Hampton in 2017, looked on as Upper East Side dealers like Per Skarstedt opened up shop, and started to show up at his local coffee shop on East Hampton’s Newtown Lane, grabbing breakfast before work. Most of the dealers already had vacation homes in the Hamptons, which in summers past had served as a seasonal refuge, with whatever business that transpired conducted in social settings. But with many of their collectors having escaped to their own Hamptons homes when lockdown started, the idea of opening new gallery spaces there was a no-brainer. “It was so seamless for them to go from New York to opening here when business stopped in the city,” Mesler said. “A year’s worth of rent here is cheaper than what they were paying for art fair booths.”
“It’s sort of a thing,” Gordon VeneKlasen, a Michael Werner Gallery partner, told ARTnews at the time, noting a sense of “real community” having popped up a hundred miles from the Upper East Side, where he’s operated since 1990. “I’m only good with the analog, not the digital,” VeneKlasen added. “I’m glad that Sotheby’s had their incredible sale, but, you know, our business is really talking about art and talking to artists, in front of art.”
It wasn’t long before New York galleries not capitalized enough to open a Hamptons branch could welcome visitors back to their spaces—with restrictions. The long-awaited Phase 3 of New York’s emergence from “pause” kicked in just after the Fourth of July weekend, and since the city had brought the coronavirus case numbers down to just a few hundred per day, the idea of gallery-going felt less fraught. Galleries threw their doors open to masked and distanced visitors, who set up appointments and gave contact-tracing information when they signed in.
“If there’s attrition, it’s going to be in the middle.”
“They were overjoyed to see art,” David Norr, from James Cohan gallery, recalled of the first visitors back. “We understand more now than ever how meaningful it is for people to experience objects in person. We’ve always valued the accessibility, in that we are free and open to the public, and though we’ve certainly seen a significant drop-off in attendance, we and other galleries were able to open safely. Museums faced much larger challenges and had to remain closed or limit their attendance dramatically.”
But grim news continued. Just before reopening, having waited out the second quarter in order to make a better informed revenue projection, David Zwirner announced an anticipated 30 percent drop and cut nearly 40 jobs, some 20 percent of the gallery’s workforce. Later in July came the news that Gavin Brown would shut down his gallery and sign on as a partner with veteran Barbara Gladstone. If Brown, a storied figure in the city’s art world for decades, couldn’t make it work, many wondered what fate awaited other galleries on the brink.
Some saw lessons to be learned from the fact that Brown had sunk considerable resources into rehabilitating a big Harlem building that he did not own. “This reinforces what we knew—you have to stop spending on space,” said Tierney. “What needed to happen in 2019 was a reining-in of costs. There are very real consequences if you don’t.”
In Sean Kelly’s view, the current moment may be even more difficult for midsize galleries than the mega-galleries or smaller mom-and-pop shops. “If there’s attrition, it’s going to be in the middle—that’s where things are toughest,” he said. Whereas for smaller galleries, “if you’re the sole proprietor, your [expenses] are small and identifiable, and if you can get your landlord to be flexible, that takes care of part of the problem.”
Drawing a distinction between mega-galleries that can cut entire departments without traumatic aftereffects, Kelly continued, “in the middle, where you aren’t earning megabucks, your staff is your best resource and you want to protect it. In that zone, your overhead is significant, and if your landlord isn’t going to play ball and you don’t have sought-after artists, what are you going to do? Where do you cut? It gets very painful very quickly.”
It hasn’t helped that the challenges midsize galleries face had already evolved and deepened before the pandemic, said Norr. “Fifteen years ago galleries were less focused on growth—there was more stability, as artists didn’t move between programs as much as they do today. The situation is much more fluid now, and that has put an emphasis on expansion. As the largest galleries continue to build multinational platforms, their growth is largely fed from the middle. Our intention is to grow thoughtfully and to continue to meaningfully support and build careers, and therefore to retain our artists. What most mid-tier galleries want to avoid, as an outcome of the larger industry pattern, is the sense that we are in many ways supporting the growth of the largest galleries.”
Over the summer and into fall, some signs of progress could be seen. The largest galleries garnered attention with September shows of big young guns, like Zwirner offering paintings by Josh Smith, and Gagosian showing Titus Kaphar, a 2018 MacArthur “genius” grantee who was also in the news at the time for opening NXTHVN, a nonprofit arts hub in New Haven, Connecticut. Lower down in the pecking order, James Cohan followed a sold-out summer show of paintings by Firelei Báez with a presentation of work by Grace Weaver spread across Cohan’s two downtown spaces that likewise sold out. “Grace delivered a very strong body of work, and also, the exhibition’s focus—on the experience of the city itself and the way we all move through it—felt especially resonant,” said Norr. “She was still working on the paintings when the lockdown began, and the sense of isolation she was feeling heightened her attention to qualities of the city that we had all been missing: the possibility of movement and chance and kinetic energy.”
Casey Kaplan gallery—on the outskirts of Chelsea on 27th Street in the Flower District—had a similar success. “Things started to change in September, when we opened the season with Kevin Beasley,” Casey Kaplan said. “He put on a proper New York September show, and the audience responded. Curators, critics, and collectors all came, and the show sold out. It’s hard to say it was joyous when there’s so much hardship and loss, but it was undeniably rewarding—and the following show, of Sarah Crowner, also had fantastic [attendance] and sold out as well.”
But then the virus numbers started to shoot up again. The day that Beasley’s show opened, the city marked just 335 new cases; by the time Crowner’s show closed in January, it was a terrifying 6,268.
Will New York lose its place at the apex of the art market? It’s unlikely, given the extensive industry infrastructure in place, and, as some dealers pointed out, there isn’t another contender. “Remember when it was supposed to be Berlin?” said Bortolami. Consider too that one of the strongest candidates, London, has suffered self-inflicted wounds from Brexit.
If emergencies can present opportunities to forge a new and better normal, what kinds of change could the crisis bring to the city’s art dealers? One is possible in terms of real estate, at least in the short term. Jonathan Travis, a partner at New York’s Redwood Property Group, counts many galleries among his clients. He’s seen some Tribeca rents drop by 15 percent, and another real estate pro reported drops in SoHo as high as 25 percent for spaces that remain vacant. “There may be opportunities for heavily discounted rents for the next 12 to 24 months,” Travis said—with the caveat that every landlord is unique and some might offer discounts on only the early years of a long-term lease.
Some galleries have found real estate conditions advantageous. Proxyco, founded on the Lower East Side in 2017, moved around the corner during the pandemic, opening in a larger space on Orchard Street in January. “We were already thinking about moving before the pandemic because the gallery was growing and our space was a little small after three-and-a-half years, but the pandemic was definitely a push to find a larger space and better prices,” said gallery cofounder Laura Saenz. There were steep discounts on offer in the neighborhood on the first couple years of a ten-year lease. “We didn’t see prices drop a lot, but we did see that landlords who had empty spaces were giving better offers,” Saenz continued. “We definitely found more for our money.”
In Tribeca, Bortolami found an upside too. “The landlord lost the tenant in a loft upstairs, and I needed more office space for social-distancing purposes, so now I have an extra exhibition space,” she said. She started using it in earnest in January, with a group show organized by critic-curator David Rimanelli for a space now known as The Upstairs.
In Chelsea, Marianne Boesky made the most of the real estate she already had by turning her second gallery space into a combination of storage and viewing rooms. The goal, she said, was to cut costs on what she was paying to store art offsite in Long Island City. “I’d rather be able to keep and use my on-staff art handlers rather than outsources,” Boesky said, adding that the change would also cut down on her carbon footprint without all those trucks going back and forth.
Others are working for more long-term solutions on behalf of commercial renters. The New Art Dealers Alliance (NADA) has advocated for a proposed Commercial Rent Stabilization Act that would offer some control on spaces like galleries akin to those at some residential buildings. “This act could help avoid an overheated market that was so damaging,” Stephen Levin, the New York City Council member who authored the act, told me. “I don’t want us to find in February 2025 that we’re in the same position we were in in February 2020.”
While sources of revenue are down, dealers have been saving on all those expenditures that suddenly went away, like dining and entertaining, airfare, hotels, and shipping crates of artworks to fairs hither and yon. Petzel said that over the first nine months of the pandemic, his travel costs were just $7,000. And his worry at the start of the pandemic about needing to dole out 30-percent discounts to sell art hasn’t borne out.
As for P.P.O.W, which closed for part of the year while moving from Chelsea to Tribeca, gallery cofounder Wendy Olsoff said, “We made less in 2020, but our expenses were so much less that we were profitable. We initiated pay cuts in March but restored full salaries by May. I’ve been through crises like 9/11, [Hurricane] Sandy, and the dot-com bust, and even I am amazed at how quickly our industry has adapted, with everything going online. There was an infrastructure in place such that we were able to graduate to this new way of doing things. I don’t know how long we can survive like this, but we’ve developed new ways of working.”
Meanwhile, the wealthiest collectors got wealthier over the year as the stock market surged, and those collectors were also spending less on travel, hotels, and entertaining. But while some of their money has kept the art market moving, how long can an industry that has relied on in-person encounters sustain itself in a world that has changed so drastically? When will collectors feel comfortable jetting off to the art fairs that have been an integral part of the industry’s engine? And when will dealers be able to afford to go back to business as it was before?
The question remained open for Sean Kelly, who has survived numerous crises during his 30 years as a dealer. “We’ve weathered the worst of the pandemic,” he said, but “I don’t think we’ve weathered the worst of the financial fallout yet.”
Nonetheless, there are signs of optimism. In the dark of winter, Nicola Vassell, a veteran of Deitch Projects and Pace who later started her own consultancy and curatorial agency called Concept NV, announced plans to open a gallery under her own name in the city she calls home. She was still working out the details when she spoke with ARTnews, but she said she plans to show both emerging and established artists of diverse backgrounds, starting out with a solo by photographer Ming Smith—and with a clear sense of what she’s in for.
Is it a counterintuitive time to open a gallery in New York? Yes, Vassell conceded. “Much is fragile,” she said, “yet anything is possible.”
And in a city that has persevered as much as it has in the past, she added, “counter-intuition is the name of the game.”
A version of this article appears in the April/May 2021 issue of ARTnews, under the title “The Spring of Our Discontent.”