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The public health crisis: Photo galleries in distress

The public health crisis: Photo galleries in distress

Exhibitions cancelled, art fairs postponed, sales stalled: with their activities paralyzed, photo galleries, already struggling over the past years, are tackling the future one day at a time.

View of the Binome gallery in Paris

The situation is unprecedented. After some 175 countries went into lockdown, most European and American galleries—the crème de la crème among photography dealers worldwide—have closed their doors over the course of just a few days. Photographers, stranded at home, have seen their commissions, exhibitions, and book launches cancelled, and now the finest showrooms are no longer able to sell their images. This spells lost income for the whole creative profession.

“We had been cleaning all surfaces for a week, as soon as we came into the Gallery, after diligently washing our hands. We were conscious of people touching anything in the gallery, and had provided checklists and press releases which could be taken away,” recalled the New York gallery owner, Parker Stephenson, who had put in place the necessary measures, thinking first and foremost of the visitors’ wellbeing. She did that even before the U.S. government declared lockdown on March 21.

Art fair cancellations

Two major photography fairs were slated for Spring 2020: Photo London, from May 14 to 17, and Paris Photo New York, from April 2 to 4, the first edition of the famous Parisian fair to take place on the East Coast of the United States. In addition to enjoying great popularity, these two events account for a considerable part of the annual turnover of the organizers and participating galleries. “We made the decision to postpone Paris Photo New York three weeks before the fair was due to take place,” explains the fair director Florence Bourgeois. “The event was highly anticipated by our exhibitors, local institutions, and collectors alike. 173 galleries and publishers from twenty-four countries had already been selected and registered. All the exhibitors, whom we contacted individually, were of course very understanding about this decision, which was inevitable, and we have felt a sense of community throughout this ordeal.”

Paris Photo New York 2020 street

For some galleries, these cancellations might even be synonymous with the cancellation of previously agreed sales. “Clearly, this will have a deep and lasting impact on the business and the art market as a whole,” Parker Stephenson adds. “At fairs, sales happen through  direct inquiries or by way of conversations which evolve with institutions over time and with new clients who visit the gallery afterwards and acquire work.”

To date, Paris Photo has not made an official announcement about a new date for its New York edition, organized in partnership with the AIPAD (Association of International Photography Art Dealers). The decision most likely hinges on the organization of this Parisian classic next November. As for Photo London, it will take place in the autumn of 2020, affirmed the founder Michael Benson. “Economically, it is unbelievably tough. This should be a period in which we see our strongest revenues yet there is nothing coming in. We are all finding out how to deal with this on a day- by- day basis. We are exploring ways in which elements of the Fair can be reproduced online, and we plan to accelerate the development of our online Academy which will feature talks, a digital magazine, and other activities.” (Find a part of this content here)

Galleries such as Galerie Binome in Paris are running into other problems: the production of a certain number of unique artworks for future exhibitions—which may not even be profitable—and the uncertainty as to whether the Spring 2020 fairs will happen at all: “If the Paris Art Fair and Paris Gallery Weekend were to be cancelled altogether, the costs of registration will be definitively lost,” explained director Valérie Cazin. Such realities naturally call for an overhaul of the entire organization, requiring human resources unavailable at the moment due to financial considerations: “We have put the gallery staff on part-time leave for the moment: luckily, some of the work can be done remotely. The gallery enjoyed a good first quarter. In the short term, we can cover the fixed costs, even without any money coming in in April. However, I am really concerned about the future. What financial shape and state of mind will our buyers be in once this is over?”

Love, Cape Cod, Massachusetts 1983 © Jane Evelyn ATWOOD, courtesy L. Parker Stephenson Photographs

Online production

It is well known that online sales of photographic prints have always failed to live up to physical transactions, where what matters is an affective connection with the object. The collapse of the American online auction site Paddle8, which filed for bankruptcy on March 25, is a case in point. Online activity of various actors in the world of photography boils down right now to staying in touch with the buyers, the community, the creators, and other actors.

Since March 22, Paris Photo has been posting on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter two photographs a day which would have been exhibited in New York. “We have shared every project by our 173 New York exhibitors,” noted Florence Bourgeois. “We are also streaming videos, with an artist and Antwaun Sargent, our curator (for the [RE]Emergence sector), bringing news updates from New York. “Viewers are thus able to see photos by Todd Webb, Edward Weston, and Joel Sternfeld, to name a few.”

Galleries are following suit, simply to stay afloat. “We plan to show work from some of the Gallery’s early exhibitions, share videos of our artists, their darkrooms and their processes on the website and social media,” said Parker Stephenson. “Art and creativity in all forms is an incredible salve for what we are all experiencing. Sharing this makes it all the more valuable.” The same goes for Corinne Tapia, the founder of the gallery Sous les Etoiles in New York, who “explores the potential of online communication and e-commerce to keep in touch with customers and encourage creativity.”

View of the Miranda Gallery in Paris

Some are proposing bold alternatives. Australian gallery owner Miranda Salt is known for her energy, and her space near the Place de la République in Paris has already weathered massive strikes last winter. She insists on being proactive: “I have developed an online offer available by subscription only, which allows me to present works to interested clients without bothering all our contacts, since, I believe, many have other things on their mind right now. I propose works at reduced prices or include special offers, such as free delivery or framing, and I don’t take it out of the price of the work, because the artists need us, we must not be giving away their work.”

Valérie Cazin, director of Galerie Binome, strikes a more alarming note: “It would be premature to offer an analysis of the economic consequences of the crisis on our establishment. As the art market is closely linked to the dynamics of the economy, like everybody in our profession, I am worried we are heading for a slump. I am worried about a snowball effect, starting with the difficulties experienced by the artists, our suppliers, ourselves, and the private and public collectors. I fear that this period of closure is only the beginning of a deeper, prolonged crisis yet to come.”

Black and white gold

Even as everyone is apprehensive about the pandemic, some fear for the future of their gallery, while others remain very positive and are eagerly awaiting the return of their clients. This is clearly a time to take a step back and look at other ways of working. The paradox of this crisis is that people who are stuck at home had never devoured TV news, films, and cultural content so eagerly. Website traffic and digital subscriptions are going through the roof. People have unusual amounts of free time to think about refurbishing their homes or sprucing up their collections.

This moment in time invites comparison between photography, and art more generally, and precious materials. “Financial crises historically refocus influencers on ‘safe haven assets’ such as precious stones or gold,” remarked Claude Iverné, photographer and winner of the 2015 Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation award. “We might deplore the fact that art is subject to free market laws. Could we imagine that photography, which obeys the same rules, might become a safe haven asset? Invisible, unhampered by any country’s stakes or activities, photography faces an opportunity to become autonomous.” 

If they wish to take the helm, it is probably time that major collectors and public institutions affirm, through their art acquisitions, their support for galleries which champion artists all year round and, even as they struggle and take risks, enrich the French cultural landscape. It is time for the galleries to be able to count on the loyalty of their collectors. American gallery owner Tom Gitterman reported: “I was very moved last week by an email I got from a dear friend and client who, in response to the postponement of the fair, requested a list of what we had planned to bring to the fair and bought a piece from us. I hope others whose means to buy are not seriously changed will continue to buy as well.”

Born in 1934, 2019 © Klea McKenna, Courtesy Gitterman Gallery

Loyalty is also the credo of Miranda, who has deliberately positioned herself as a specialized, local Parisian gallery with revenues generated mainly by Parisian clients, rather than international fairs which, she believes, “are too risky for a small gallery like mine. In these difficult times, I intend to pursue this strategy and remain focused on my French and European clients.”

In France, when times are tough, the government comes to the rescue, as it has during this crisis. With the support of regional authorities and major enterprises, the State has set up a solidarity fund for small businesses and the self-employed with annual revenue under one million euros, as well as for the hardest-hit sectors, including the cultural sector. This fund is intended for those who were forced to shut down or whose turnover dropped by more than 70% in March 2020 as compared to March 2019. On March 18, the French Ministry of Culture allocated €22 million in aid to the cultural sector, including €2 million to the visual arts. The Centre National des Arts Plastiques (National Center for Visual Arts, CNAP) has further announced that it is going to relax aid eligibility requirements for galleries, and that the support awarded to defray the cost of participation in deferred art fairs will not need to be reimbursed. 

While awaiting the allocation of these emergency funds, Valérie Cazin of Galerie Binome has made one last appeal to collectors: “They are aware of the role they play in artists’ lives and in the economy of our showrooms. The crisis should not affect our relationship, and perhaps even strengthen it. Values, meaning, and awareness are the three keywords to help us face the future.”

Signals #1, 2019 © Richard Caldicott

By Coline Olsina and Jonas Cuénin

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