How COVID-19 is Impacting the Art Galleries in Toronto

Phil Anderson, Executive Director of Gallery 1313 (left) with gallery artist Erin Williamson (middle) and Emma White, the artist’s friend

At the last reception I attended at Gallery 1313 on March 7th I had no idea of how things would change in the coming weeks. An artist, Emily Huang, one of 40 students from York University in the graduation exhibit called NOISE, brought in a painting in the last minute to be hung. It had been left behind on campus and she drove back to get it. It was titled Whistlebower and portrayed Dr. Li Wenliang who first discovered the Coronavirus in China back in November 2019. He tried to warn the Chinese authorities of an upcoming pandemic. He was ignored and died in January 2020. I didn’t realize the significance of the art work at that time and how our world would soon change.

Emily Huang with her painting Whistlebower, portraying Dr. Li Wenliang

Change it did, and on March 15, 2020 Gallery 1313 closed as York University cancelled its next GRAD exhibition. Likewise, OCADU cancelled its April thesis exhibition for the sculpture and installation program. On March 11 an artist from Gallery 44 in the upcoming Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival exhibit was talking to me about details for their upcoming reception. Some participants wanted a table with food in the middle of the Gallery. I tried to discourage it as I like the focus to be on the art and not on bit size snacks. I also told him that with the upcoming situation of COVID-19 the food table might be the least of their problems. That Contact exhibit has been postponed till November 2020.

Darcy Killeen, Executive Director of Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival, at Gallery 44 members show at Gallery 1313, in front of a photograph by Janne Reuss, May 2019

On March 26 I received news that the building had been accessed by thieves and later I found out they had broken into the Gallery. Artscape, who manages the building, had repaired the damage to the doors where they had broken in. Later that evening, I came in to survey the damage and see what was stolen. The thieves must have been desperate as they broke into the donation box too and stole $5 plus a few pesos and an American dollar. They ran off with a few old laptops as well. It was good that I had taken my work laptop and some hard drives home when I closed the gallery prior to this. I took everything they missed home with me. They didn’t steal any artwork that was around; at least to my knowledge. The media covered it for their news of COVID-19 effects. When I posted the news of the break in many people were not just sad but angry that thieves had targeted a small not for profit art gallery during these times of vulnerability.

Break in at Gallery 1313. Courtesy of Artscape

The impact is felt by many art galleries as people can’t visit and sales for art would be difficult as the whole economy is now in tatters. The City Hall Outdoor exhibit, on which many artists depend on, will likely be cancelled or at least postponed from its annual July date. The AGO, MOCA and artist run centres are all closed. The Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival tried to adapt with online content but it is pretty much not happening, at least, as usual. Commercial galleries struggled to stay open but as people were encouraged to stay home it became more difficult. Galleries try and post works online along with artist profiles. Artists are usually poor to start with, making less than $29.000 annually and most of that come from some other jobs that allows them money to feed their art habit. Some artists stay at home making masks to donate to places that need them. Others are making art in the streets and trying to find outlets for their creations.

Random sculpture created near MOCA

It will be interesting to see what new art comes out of this COVID-19 world and see what kind of hopeful messages are being produced by the artists now. The art community is already looking at incentive packages that the government, both provincial and federal, will offer to bring the arts back from the COVID-19 oblivion. Will it ever be the same? The art community is very social. Every two weeks at Gallery 1313 there would be a reception for art exhibitions opening at the gallery. People came out to see the new works, support the artists and network with other artists. They were largely social events that are very much missed. Similar events also happened across the city in over 150 galleries. How will all this look like in a post COVID-19 world? What will later events like the Queen West Crawl and Art Toronto look like this Fall? Will we use social distancing out of habit or perhaps thinking of the next pandemic to strike?

Opening reception of NOISE at March 7, 2020

I am hopeful that the arts community will pull together and offer the public new insights to this new world and have something important to say. Art is usually described as a mirror of time and society so in time we will no doubt see how artists record these times through their art. Something to look forward to, indeed.  

Text and photo: Phil Anderson, Executive Director of Gallery 1313

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