Gallery Wendi Norris is a San Francisco based space which features contemporary and surrealist art across a variety of mediums. During a nationwide lockdown earlier this year, they persevered to engage with their audience through innovative measures.
With education and accessibility at the forefront of the initiative, Wendi and her team put a simple idea into action: every week, the gallery would give away dozens of copies of their select publications – for free. The unique initiative coined, With Compliments accessed collectors and gallery visitors who were unable to visit the gallery from home.
Here, founder Wendi Norris, tells us more about how With Compliments worked, and discusses how literature can have an increasingly important role during turbulent times for the art world.
Hi Wendi. Can you tell us a little about how the pandemic affected your gallery?
The pandemic severely restricted normal gallery hours and operations, so we made use of the time to become more focused, organised, and nimble. My first priority was seeing to the physical safety and job security of my employees and artists. We then developed some economic goals with the intention of getting back to basics – placing artworks with the best possible collectors. Lastly, we focused on communicating with our artists, maintaining close contact with our top private and institutional collectors, and tackling projects that we had previously shelved due to conflicts with exhibitions, art fairs, or travel.
Where did the idea for With Compliments come from?
At the outset of the pandemic, I took some time to revisit my values and the reasons I chose to work in the art world in the first place. I also paid attention to the people around me and realised that I wanted to use the power of art to assist in the healing process. On a practical level, I wanted to connect with the gallery’s thousands of followers in a way that was authentic, values-based, and distinctive.
Literature can open art up and, at the same time, make it relevant and specific to one’s private experienceGallery Wendi Norris
One afternoon, I went to the gallery’s storage facility that I hadn’t visited for years. Looking around, standing in the midst of exhibition furnishings, boxes of gallery publications, and art I’ve collected over the years, I knew I wanted to give back. To make people happy, and to share with them art’s power, especially at a time like this. I recalled those days when I had received via mail a book from a colleague with a kind note tucked into it. Those were always good days, days that felt warm and true and special – and that’s when the idea for “With Compliments” came to me.
How did With Compliments work?
Every week for six straight weeks we sent an email about one of our publications to our subscribers. We chose random times because we could see that a few people were gaming the system – I love their enthusiasm! We followed up with announcements on social media about an hour later. We promoted a different book each week, usually with a video (shot on an iPhone) from an essayist such as Catriona McAra, the artist whose work the book covered, or me. We revisited the intent of the book and the exhibition or artist – it allowed us to showcase the strengths of our program based on “assets” we already had. We were trying to encourage people to sign up for our mailing list, and the first 50-100 people who signed up received a free book.
Was it difficult to orchestrate?
I’m a self-made person, and from the age of 14 have supported myself with all kinds of jobs. One of those included mail fulfillment. I have an odd love for mailings, while I recognise we live on a planet where producing paper is not earth-friendly. My 15 and 13-year-old children and I set up a “fulfillment center” in our garage, on our ping-pong table, and personally printed and signed each cover letter mailed with the book. We printed labels and addressed the packages then took them to our local post office or UPS store.
Has the reception of With Compliments surprised you?
The reaction really lifted my spirits and my team’s spirits. We received hundreds of responses from grateful students, world-renowned curators and artists, and people who were struggling emotionally during such a tough time.
What, in your eyes, is literature’s place in art – especially in times such as these?
Literature helps to contextualise art on both a universal and an individual level. Literature can open art up and, at the same time, make it relevant and specific to one’s private experience. Great writing about art is a gift to the public, and to the artwork’s or artist’s legacy. When one of my contemporary artists receives a review or an essay, it lights them up in immeasurable ways.
There’s a ritualistic element to sitting down with a book, something to drink at one’s elbow, touching and turning the pages. I think we could all use a calming ritual these days. Reading provides one.Gallery Wendi Norris
The last few months have seen a rapid rise in online viewing rooms, digital discussions and virtual events. As technology advances, do you ever think it could come close to replacing the experience of learning about art in person?
I do not. I was working in tech 18 years ago, so I tend to be an early adopter. But the reason I gravitate towards art is the power it holds – the power to communicate, to evoke emotion. I have felt my body covered in goosebumps while standing in front of great works of art or during a studio visit. I have never had that experience looking at art online.
What challenges do you think the art world is going to face in the coming months? And what do you think we can learn from the last few that may help?
There is a long overdue reckoning in the art market for the mega galleries, art fairs, and the top tier living artists. The issues we need to address have been exacerbated by this crisis. I think we can learn by looking outside of our industry, to organisations like the NBA, for example (full disclosure: I love basketball and the NBA). If only four teams or so set the rules of the game, the organisation and everyone in it would perish. So the NBA created a fair and equitable way of distributing ad revenues, draft picks, and other items in order to ensure robust competition and creativity. We can learn from that. Looking at the Chinese contemporary market implosion from its 2012 peak as well as the 2008 economic crisis in the US, I think we can also learn that great art prevails. And that means that people who are in it for the art and for those artists making the art will also prevail.
Have you been impressed with how the art world has come together during the pandemic?
The Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA) has shepherded its members through government assistance programs, landlord negotiations, and programs designed to help galleries with creative marketing and messaging ideas. One of the ADAA seminars provided a reminder of what makes a marketing initiative successful and was a catalyst for With Compliments.
Great art prevails, and that means that people who are in it for the art and the artists will also prevail.Gallery Wendi Norris
How will your gallery be approaching things as we return to normality?
We will continue to publish and collaborate with scholars, institutions, and our artists. We don’t imagine a return to art fairs any time soon. Instead, we will likely explore new online options, once we determine what seems to be working best for artists, collectors, and the gallery’s bottom line. We have also planned some amazing solo and group exhibitions that we are thrilled to present – I cannot wait to return to London and open our inaugural group exhibition at Cromwell Place!
What can art lovers do to help during the coming uncertainty?
Acquire art. It’s a great time to buy! Support artists. Purchase an art book and spend some time with it. Subscribe to Art Forum, Frieze, Brooklyn Rail, Hyperallergic and others. Take advantage of all the free online viewing opportunities.
And do you think literature will play a more important part in art, going forwards?
For my gallery, it most certainly will.
Gallery Wendi Norris are part of Cromwell Place, a first-of-its-kind Membership organisation and exhibition space for arts professionals. You cean find out more about our Membership here.