Exhibitions in a Pandemic: How Gallerists are Making it Work

Selma Feriani, Founder and Director of Selma Feriani Gallery, reopened their space in Tunisia this May 

As the global art scene reawakens from months of lockdown, we speak to some of the galleries who have opened their doors.

After months of lockdown, London has joined the global art world in ticking gently back to life. From June 15 a handful of commercial galleries and auction houses reopened on an appointment-only basis, with museums scheduled to open from July 4. Following the footsteps of galleries across Europe, Africa and Asia, people are getting back to business. But what does this mean for galleries, and how will social distancing measures impact the experience of art viewing? We spoke to Cromwell Place Members who have already reopened their doors to discover what “the new normal” actually means for galleries across the world. 

One of the first to open their doors was Selma Feriani Gallery, Tunisia, with a solo exhibition by Tunisian artist Malek Gnaoui on May 10. Shortly after the government started relaxing a nationwide lockdown, the gallery reopened on an appointment only basis and adhering to official guidelines. “Following [government] measures, we were the first cultural venue to open in Tunisia,” said Director Selma Feriani, adding that “audiences were incredibly excited to have the opportunity to be able to visit.” The exhibition was welcomed with open arms and was even the first non-essential outing for the majority. “Many had broken their lockdown to engage directly with the artworks,” said Selma Feriani, who credits the gallery’s Instagram activity for bringing in new audiences. 

Installation shot of Essaìˆda-Carthage: Between the Past and the Future,  Selma Feriani's exhibition in Tunisa. Open now on an appointment only basis.

This shift to captivating audiences online has forced even the most traditional of art businesses to go digital, helping galleries engage with new clientele. “We have invested a lot on online platforms,” said Selma, “[like] building a new website and by having a presence on Artsy. Through this, we are meeting prospective clients and audiences alike.”

For Circle Art Gallery (Nairobi) who reopened this month, the pandemic created a catalyst to amplify their digital presence. “We never seemed to have enough time to put all of this in place before,” said Director Danda Jaroljmek. The gallery revamped its website to cater to online buyers, ran two successful online exhibitions, bumped up social media activity and re-signed up to Artsy. Unsurprisingly, these efforts were matched with an increased following, new interest and fruitful sales. They intend to continue this digital activity alongside physical programming once things return to normal. 

Circle Art Gallery, Nairobi, have re-opened their gallery with a two person capacity

After three months of lockdown in Nairobi, they decided to reopen this month with a soft launch to gauge visitors’ interest in returning. “People are bored of staying at home and are restless for something nice to do,” said Danda. They’re making it work by having a two-visitor capacity and rotating shifts for staff, which is proving successful so far. “It is great to be back in the gallery,” said Danda, noting that “artists and some of our regular collectors have started popping in to catch up.” While they are encouraging appointment-only visits, they’re intentionally leaving room for spontaneity. “We have gloves, a thermometer and a series of isolated rooms and viewing rooms where visitors can wait or browse.”

But no matter how engaging a gallery's digital presence is, nothing can replace the physicality of viewing art in person. As a result, reopened galleries are harnessing this time to create more meaningful viewing experiences. While a masked, visitor-controlled viewing experience could easily feel clinical, both Circle Art Gallery and Selma Feriani commented on its intimacy. “We’ve enjoyed the quality time spent with our visitors”, said Selma, whose gallery are creating custom experiences, like artist tours and educational programmes.

Aware that their 300-person opening nights won’t be desirable for some time, Circle Art Gallery are working intimate event formats. Whether that’s an opportunity to have “a chat over some good wine and food” with an artist, or a Q&A for small groups, Danda hopes to “keep the gallery as a meeting point where people can take time out of their lives to stand in front of a great work of art.”

Sundaram Tagore, who recently opened his New York gallery, believes the lockdown period has prompted “industry-wide soul searching.”

For gallerist Sundaram Tagore, the period has prompted “industry-wide soul searching.” In a recent statement, he called for a market-wide “reassessment,” questioning what artists and values will be promoted going forward. “Go big or go home” was the art world's mantra, embracing blockbuster themes, large crowds, and accumulating air-miles, but now he believes recent events will strengthen the art world with meaningful interactions and diversity. “In the last few months, we’ve all rushed to move online in a more expansive way,” he said. “...We will continue to explore meaningful strategies to connect with you digitally until we can gather for openings, fairs and events.”

As we watch the art world adapt to the foreseeable future, it’s encouraging to see how quickly and effectively our industry has adopted new practices. While exhibitions may not be as they once were, we welcome the creative ways in which gallerists are connecting with audiences, the new democratic nature of online viewing, and the space to pause and reconsider how to work towards a more meaningful future together.

Cromwell Place is a gallery hub and membership organisation for arts professionals. Opening in South Kensington this autumn, you can find out more here. 


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