The New Normal

Galleries closing, artwork behind shuttered doors, drawing classes, and critiques online. No visitors to your studio. A solitary life: not by choice but by necessity (though perhaps not that different from before).

A year ago, the Mid-Coast Salon would meet in the studio of one of the participants; there might be wine and comestibles, artists would bring their work, and vigorous discussion would ensue. A year later, that all happens on Zoom, often with fewer artists attending—and no food or wine. The participants still find it a valuable grounding, a modicum of community, and a means to get out of your own studio and head, albeit virtually.

Conard 1 David Estey in His Studio

Karen Estey, David Estey in His Studio, photograph, 2021.

How does this affect the artists in the Salon? And are the changes as much about a pandemic as about technology? It seems that discussion often turns towards technology and social media—Zoom, Instagram, Patreon—and their impacts on the art world. During the February Salon, we talked about “the new normal”—as well as the likelihood of an exhibit of Salon artists this summer. Here are four different perspectives on what that means in the art world:

David Estey, like many artists, finds that life in the studio has not changed much during the coronavirus. He worked away each day with fewer distractions and created his four largest paintings ever, while following our distressful politics, reading, or writing as diversions. Several planned exhibits became virtual or a hybrid of actual and virtual shows, ironically garnering more exposure than usual.

Conard 2 David Estey COVID 19

David Estey, COVID-19, oil on panel, 24 x 36 in., 2020.

While Estey’s improvisational paintings typically do not originate from a narrative idea, a half dozen of them last year ended up with a pandemic reference. He was reworking an unresolved piece from 2008 when, lo and behold, there appeared an abstract interpretation of a frightened, critical-care nurse in scary, personal-protective equipment on the right, facing ubiquitous patients caught up in a tainted fog of contaminated water droplets on the left. COVID-19 definitely has had an impact (see the image of COVID-19).

Waterfall Arts, the community arts center in Belfast, closed their bright green doors to the public in March 2020, and—except for a successful but socially distanced Harold Garde show in the fall—we do not know when those doors will fully open again. The artists’ studios have stayed open, but all the classes and events quickly went either online or (in better weather) outdoors. This has created a whole new approach to teaching—how and what is taught—and the sharing of creative energies in new ways. While everyone is anxious to get those doors opened again, we know nothing will be the same again. The changes necessitated by the pandemic have opened virtual doors and new directions we might not have found. That is a silver lining to a very dark cloud.

Conard 4 Zooming with Bridget

Zooming with Bridget, Waterfall Arts, screenshot, 2021 (photo: courtesy of Waterfall Arts).

Greg Mason Burns postulated that some of the changes to the art world—especially in how to market work—have been a long time coming but have been accelerated by the pandemic. He has been thinking about the increasing number of artists and available works of art, compared to the number of galleries. Add in that materials are more archival today, and suddenly you find more art available not just from more living artists, but also from dead artists. There is more art being made, more art being preserved, and thus, there’s a glut of art available.

Now we are in the pandemic. Galleries are closing, so there is even less wall space than before. Many more artists are going online. Wall space may not be an issue online, but getting attention is, and artist-led galleries are a new trend. Imagine what the next generation of artists will have to be trained to do. Today, you must be a marketing genius, a business leader, and savvy in the world of social media. It has been a long time since the artist was purely an actor for creating art. No wall space on the commercial gallery wall? Create your own space. Sales are slow at the commercial gallery? Bring collectors to your studio (except during a pandemic) and sell online to subscribers via platforms such as Patreon. This is the future, and the pandemic is leading the way.

Kerstin (Kris) Engman writes about how much the pandemic—and technology—has changed the way she teaches her studio classes at the University of Maine. While the personal learning curve was steep, she has been pleasantly surprised by the opportunities it provides both her and her students. While she began as a skeptic, she says that the biggest and best surprise of all is the quality of her students’ work. She has discovered that the little Zoom boxes provide more independence and autonomy in allowing for well-thought-out problem solving and critical thinking and that the students are more outspoken during critiques because they feel more relaxed in this less formal setting. For more about Kris’s experience in the Zoom studio setting, read her entire article, which follows.

These four perspectives offer both personal and organizational insights into the current and future impacts of the pandemic. Galleries (and artists) will survive, and their clients and audiences will work through a new norm. We have seen a growth of online classes, websites, virtual exhibits, and museum tours, strengthening outreach tools and expanded markets. What will it all mean going forward for artists and their creations, exposure, marketing, prices, sales, and venues? We have seen transformation and creative adaptation, and this will continue. There are still many issues to resolve. For instance: issues of ownership and image authenticity versus an enhanced product of Photoshop may take on a whole new significance. One thing is certain: we will not go back. At least for the foreseeable future, people will want to see—and own—the real thing (as suggested by the growing number of museum visitors before the pandemic), but can we also see a world in which the artist works alone, the student studies at home alone (in pajamas), and the audience views from home, clicking on an image and projecting it on the wall? Whatever that future may bring, the pandemic has shown an art world that can adapt to and embrace the shifting landscape, whether the result of technology or a pandemic.

Gianne P. Conard, FAIA, for the Mid-Coast Salon, Board President, Waterfall Arts.

Mid-Coast Salon Says “Art Matters!” (see note in UMVA Portland Chapter report)



Image at top: Chris Battaglia, Art Together Mornings, Waterfall Arts, photograph montage, 2021 (photos: Chris Battaglia and Bridget Matros; courtesy of Waterfall Arts).