Among the New York art organizations affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, artist-run and small and mid-size galleries are being hit the hardest. These galleries, which usually operate on thin profit margins or volunteer-based models, now fear a financial collapse as they struggle to pay their rent or send salaries to their employees. This led the New Dealers Alliance (NADA), a New York-based nonprofit supporting small and mid-size galleries, to release a petition yesterday, March 19, calling on the local government to provide relief programs that would consider the circumstances and needs of such businesses.
“The continued loss of revenue due to the unfolding pandemic will make it increasingly difficult for these businesses to support their full-time, part-time, and contract employees as well as their artists,” the petition, which has garnered over 4,300 signatures as of this writing, reads. “Without the financial support of the local, state, and federal government, these businesses will not be able to pay their employees, support the artists that they represent, pay their bills, and pay their rents and/or mortgages on the spaces in which they operate. If no action is taken, these businesses will not survive and many artists and art workers will be left without a system of support.”
The COVID-19 relief programs that NYC is currently offering to small businesses exclude most small and mid-size galleries, the petition says: “These initiatives, called the NYC Employee Retention Grant Program and NYC Small Business Continuity Fund have very specific eligibility requirements that restrict many small businesses, and as a result, the networks of laborers they support, from qualifying for assistance.”
To city’s programs require applicants to demonstrate at least a 25% decrease in revenue caused by the COVID-19 outbreak. That’s a major hurdle for galleries, whose profits are not immediately visible as they usually collect their income through long-term invoices. The city also requires a minimum of payroll employees — up to four for NYC Employee Retention Grant Program and up to 99 for NYC Small Business Continuity Fund — but many small galleries rely on freelancers who cannot be counted as registered employees.
“The way our businesses work is very different from a sales point or a bookstore or a restaurant,” Gabrielle Giattino, director of BUREAU gallery on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and one of the organizers of the petition, told Hyperallergic in an interview.
“The optics of that art world is that everybody is super-rich, but the reality is that small and mid-size galleries are operating on a tiny margin,” she continued. “We’re trying to explain in the petition that what the city and the state are offering is not going to work for many small arts organizations.”
To help small arts organizations survive this difficult period, the petition calls for an exemption for small art galleries to qualify for city’s programs without having to prove 25% sales decreases. It also calls for emergency medicare for all, rent forgiveness, a freeze on mortgage payments for relevant galleries, and utility and insurance bill forgiveness.
Thomas Ahlgren, NADA’s membership and events manager, told Hyperallergic that a mass closure of small galleries due to the developing economic crisis is a “very real possibility.”
“The gallery business is so tough as it is,” Ahlgren said. “People are scared and don’t know what’s going to happen. Galleries are trying to sell art via email but the economy and the stock market are so down and not as many collectors are willing to buy art right now.”
Giattino’s gallery, which pays two full-time employees, will soon celebrate its 10th anniversary. Since March 8, the gallery has been open by appointments only. But with Governor Andrew Cuomo’s announcement today that all nonessential businesses in the State of New York must shut down, these appointments will also be impossible. Today, the gallery was supposed to open a new exhibition by the artist Brandon Ndife. The exhibition was installed and photographed, but now it will be launched online.
“We’re just worried about staying in business,” said Giattino, adding that a Works Progress Administration (WPA)-style program is needed to rescue artists and small galleries from this crisis. “We need that level of support from the government.”