Signs and Symbols gallery in Manhattan’s Lower East Side (courtesy the gallery)

While the coronavirus pandemic continues to devastate New York, small and mid-size galleries in the city are scrambling to meet their rent payments, which are due in just a few days. A last-minute petition to support a bill for rent forgiveness has yet to yield any results. Meanwhile, some galleries say they have received warning letters from unforgiving landlords, threatening them with late fees and legal measures should they skip their rent payment for this month.

Last week, the New Dealers Alliance (NADA) released a petition calling for series of reliefs — rent forgiveness, a freeze on mortgage payments, and utility and insurance bill forgiveness — for struggling small businesses in New York. The petition, signed by more than 15,000 signatures to date, says that the current relief initiatives offered by the city and the state exclude galleries, which operate under conditions different from those of regular small businesses.

This week, NADA followed up with an update to the petition, dubbed #CancelRent, calling on individuals to press their local representatives to support a New York Senate bill proposing a sweeping rent and mortgage forgiveness act.

Introduced by NY Senator Michael Gianaris and other local representatives on March 23, the bill proposes that residential or small business commercial tenants that have lost income or been forced to shutter due to the local government’s COVID-19 restrictions “shall have all rent payments suspended for ninety days following the effective date of this act.”

Meanwhile, April 1 is quickly approaching and small storefront gallery owners who spoke with Hyperallergic say they are feeling increasingly anxious and helpless.

Mitra Khorasheh of Signs and Symbols on Manhattan’s Lower East Side closed her gallery on March 14, just before opening a new exhibition. “I have been, like every other gallery, completely freaking out about how I’m going to pay my rent while the gallery remains closed,” she told Hyperallergic in an email. “I don’t qualify for any of the small business loans that are available as I don’t have any staff on payroll and I cant show a 25% decrease in revenue since my last sale was November (which is not even paid off yet), and that’s just the nature of the art business.”

Khorasheh said that when she tried to reach an agreement with the real estate company managing her building, she received no reply. After a few days, an email from the company arrived with April’s invoice attached and a “friendly reminder” that late fees would still be in effect as of April 5 for late rent payments.

“I’m not really sure how I am going to deal with this,” Khorasheh said. “This is very scary and real for a small gallery like mine. I’m hoping the city has a solution because if not, myself and a lot of other galleries won’t be able to survive.”

Not far from Signs and Symbols, the women-led gallery Assembly Room is going through a similar struggle. Paola Gallio, one of the gallery’s three curators, told Hyperallergic that while she hasn’t yet received any threatening letters from the landlord, she has heard “terrible stories” from neighboring galleries.

“More than one gallery in the LES have received letters from real-estate lawyers stating insane late fees, terms of eviction, and other threats,” Gallio said, adding that she’s awaiting an answer from her landlord to her request for rent relief.

Gallio, who works as a wine buyer for a restaurant chain to support herself and her gallery, says that the general public lacks an understanding of the financial conditions of small galleries. “Our regular jobs pay for the gallery,” she said. “We don’t make money out of it.”

Gallio agrees with Khorasheh that the threat of a mass shutdown of small galleries in the city is imminent.

“I think that many galleries will have to close,” she said. “The micro-climate of the LES is going to significantly change.”

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...