Artists in South County have tapped into their greatest asset — their creativity — to bring the works in their closed galleries to the public and figure out how to eventually draw patrons back despite COVID-19 restrictions.
Galleries have been closed ever since Gov. Gina Raimondo ordered all but “essential” services shut to try to limit the spread of the illness.
That’s meant moving their exhibitions online, along with offering new streaming-based classes, and canceling or postponing in-gallery shows.
And the galleries are now looking at adjustments they’ll need to make to reopen, such as limiting crowd sizes and offering more outdoor exhibits.
The Wickford Art Association closed its doors in mid-March and last week announced it wouldn’t hold the annual Wickford Art Festival, which draws thousands of people, this summer.
But the nonprofit association reopened its doors Wednesday, with modified hours and limits on the number of people that can be inside at any given time.
The gallery will be opened from noon to 3 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, Gallery Director Catherine Gagnon said, to test the waters.
“We had hoped, based on what we were seeing and hearing from the governor’s updates, that we would be able to have up to 10 people in the gallery at a time, but it’s not looking like that’s the case,” Gagnon said.
Occupancy will be limited to four visitors and an employee until the restrictions are further loosened. Signs will direct visitors to wear face masks and observe a six-foot distance between other people, except for anyone they arrived with to the gallery.
The last month has been anything but quiet for the staff in Wickford.
“We’ve been active even though we’ve been closed,” Gagnon said.
The association transferred its current show, the March Into Art springtime paint exhibit, online at wickfordart.org.
“We moved images of all the artwork to our website and then promoted it actively through social media,” Gagnon said.
It also pushed its April show, Feathers and Friends, back by a couple of weeks. It launched as a totally virtual show and it’s been extended through the end of May.
Gagnon also described the “tremendous learning curve” they’ve faced in getting virtual galleries up and running online.
“We have to photograph them all at high quality to put them online,” she said. “But it’s what’s necessary and what’s going to keep the work accessible to the public.”
The association’s schedule of exhibits will return to normal by June 6 with its Juried Artist Member Invitational.
“The exhibits will continue, and we’ve made a commitment to the virtual exhibits for the foreseeable future,” Gagnon said.
However the gallery has hit the pause button on all its in-gallery classes for May and June and instead launched a half-dozen online classes via Zoom.
“Our instructors have been very flexible not only in learning the platform, but in re-imagining how they teach, to make it the best scenario for the students and ensure there’s an adequate level of interaction,” Gagnon said.
The association is planning to re-evaluate in mid-July whether it will be able to hold in-gallery and plein air courses.
“We’re in a holding pattern at the moment,” Gagnon said.
Opening receptions, which typically can draw large crowds, have been scrubbed. And when the gallery gets the OK to hold in-person classes they will consist of about nine or 10 people rather than 40 or 50, Gagnon said.
“Our gallery space is multi-functional, it’s also a classroom space, so we’ve had to go to a plan C or D on classes,” she said.
One idea they’re exploring is to offer hybrid classes that combine in-person instruction with an online component that can be accessed from home.
“That allows us to also control the flow of how many people are coming in,” Gagnon said.
The gallery also devised what it calls a “Fun Raiser,” enlisting 12 artists to draw portraits or caricatures from photos, for a $20 donation to the association. The focus of the portraits is children.
“It’s been very successful and completely socially distanced,” Gagnon said. The idea came from the Potter League, which started a similar fundraiser called “Poorly Drawn Pets.”
Gagnon also has been in touch with the South County Art Association, which has also moved to an online exhibit by its members at southcountyart.org.
“The most important thing for us was to maintain our connection with the community and the artists,” SCAA Executive Director Kathleen Carland said.
The exhibit, “Giving Art a Voice,” features 40 different works by member artists, along with a short explanation by each creator about why the piece has meaning to them.
“It’s very important for people to have a creative outlet at this time,” Carland said.
The SCAA gallery in Kingston, well known for its pottery works, has postponed a June show, as well as its R.I. State Council on the Arts Statewide Fellowship Recipient’s Exhibition, until the fall.
Instead, the gallery will host an exhibit by its board members and staff in June. The gallery plans to open once the state enters the so-called “Phase 3” of reopening public spaces, which would allow for greater attendance than a dozen people.
The South county nonprofit continues to “fund raise like mad” and received a Small Business Association loan to support it during the closure, Carland said.
“We were started in 1929, another year of great upheaval in the country, and we have an amazing amount of support in the community,” Carland said.
The gallery is offering online classes and also plans to hold outdoor courses in its backyard garden, Carland said.
“We will be doing the social distance and the classes there,” she said. Normally, about 25 classes are available, such as workshops on glazing, watercolor and oil painting.
Carland said the association also is creating online demonstrations of different kinds of art produced in the classes.
When the gallery reopens, Carland said, it will be well stocked with hand sanitizer from Sons of Liberty. Surfaces will be regularly cleaned according to CDC protocols.
“We’re very well stocked and very well prepared,” she said.
Nearby at the Hera Gallery in Wakefield, the doors are closed and planned events have been canceled or rescheduled, but the gallery is regularly featuring works from artists on a “Food For Thought Creative Quarantine Blog” at heragallery.org.
“People often look to the arts for mental and spiritual sustenance in times of crisis to find peace of mind, and creative inspiration,” the gallery said on its website. “It is our hope that we at Hera can respond to that need. Artists are regularly using anxiety, grief, confusion, boredom, etc. as inspiration for their work and creative outlets. It is our decision to share what Hera artists will be doing with their time in refuge.”
Hera is also hosting an online “Art in Nature challenge, now in its second week. It’s challenging people to create a weaving that includes found nature materials such as grass, leaves, sticks and flowers and submit a photo to be featured on its social media and web sites.
The gallery also is offering Zoom-based weekly portfolio reviews for art students in grades 8-12.
As the weather warms, other organizations are moving to more outdoor exhibitions. The Jamestown Arts Center, jamestownartcenter.org, features the Outdoor Arts Experience, with information at outdoorartsexperience.org.
It showcases 11 different art installations that are placed outside in various public locations throughout town, Executive Director Maureen Coleman said.
“We’ve really tried to prioritize being creative about being able to engage our community with the arts, even if they can’t actually walk into the building just yet,” she said.
Inside the gallery, “A Mythic Pause,” an exhibit by Molly Kaderka and Kit Howland and described as “an immersive environment with large-scale, site-specific paintings laminated directly to the walls” that opened just days before the center had to close, has been extended so that it will still be on view when the building reopens, Coleman said. The center also is offering online weekly drawing classes for both children and adults.
Coleman said the center is still working out when it will reopen, perhaps offering reservation-style bookings for small groups.
“We’re in touch with the governor’s directions, and the R.I. State Council on the Arts has been extremely helpful,” she said. “We will need to be really rigorous about hygiene and safety.”
Like other galleries, the nonprofit arts center has felt the financial hit of the closure.
“We had to cancel our major Summer Soiree fundraising gala, which funds a large part of our operations for the year,” Coleman said. “We were lucky to get an SBA loan, which is really helpful.”
They’ve also gotten some help from donors, but hurdles remain.
“This is going to be a really challenging time for us, financially,” she said.
As a morale booster, the gallery also recently installed a new large yellow sculpture on its outdoor sculpture pad.
“We feel our community needs that, needs to have that access,” Coleman said.