On Thursday nights years ago, the streets of Chelsea were abuzz with critics, curators, artists, collectors, and young people in their trendiest outfits, all filing in and out of gallery openings. And then the COVID-19 pandemic happened.
As a former gallery assistant during the pandemic, across town on the Lower East Side, I helped orchestrate whatever shadow of these events still existed. Every few weeks, I would wipe down the ice bucket, buy bags of ice from a nearby bodega, order a delivery of San Pellegrino, and pull wine from the backroom.
Then I would walk to the Whole Foods on Bowery, following instructions from the gallery owner on what the artist might want (“He has a sweet tooth — maybe buy madeleines?”), and buy fancy cheeses. I would then pick up the white table cloth from the dry cleaners, set up a folding table, and arrange the food onto serving plates in the backroom.
At 6 o’clock in the afternoon, I would assume my post. Friends of the artist, friends of the gallery, and people-about-town would stroll through the doors and up to my table, where I would pour them water or wine into plastic cups.
The ritual felt archaic. During these pandemic openings, there were very few random visitors abusing the open bar, making my role as wine regulator feel even more pointless. As a recently graduated college student from what felt like a world away, Manhattan art openings were completely new to me, but everyone streaming through the gallery’s doors seemed to know exactly how these gatherings worked. My gallery continued to adhere to a traditional opening format, even during the pandemic, despite low attendance.
When COVID-19 became a reality, galleries shuttered and their blow-out openings came to a screeching halt. And while restaurants, bars, and concert venues opened back up, crowded, wine-fueled gallery openings remained a thing of the past.
Now, some galleries are reexamining how they structure their events, reflecting on the former “party atmosphere” and bucking the traditional opening format.
“Before COVID, there was always room for more and bigger,” said Marianne Boesky, looking back at her eponymous Chelsea gallery’s days of mega-parties and large seated dinners.
Since COVID, Boesky has held informal dinners for less than 30 people on the gallery’s rooftop, where people can come and go at will. “They can escape if they need to or want to. It’s just creating a more thoughtful and intimate way of getting together with people,” she said.
“If we do three smaller events around an opening, it’s just that much better for the artist and for my team to be able to reconnect with people and be able to talk, instead of the one big blow-out type of celebration. But there are going to be artists that want that,” Boesky continued, echoing a sentiment expressed by many gallery owners: Opening receptions, although conducive to networking and sales, are at their essence intended to celebrate the artists and let them have a good time.
Across town on Bowery, Angela Westwater, co-founder of Sperone Westwater, has also transitioned from the traditional format of a large opening reception from 5-7pm to scaled-down private gatherings “with or without the wine — which I don’t miss.”
Serving free wine — a standard practice at gallery openings — has traditionally attracted cash-strapped college students beginning a night out, but it has also posed a problem for the hosting galleries.
Iliya Fridman of Fridman Gallery on Bowery said that before COVID, the gallery held receptions that attracted crowds of 50 to 100 people. Since the onset of the pandemic, the gallery stopped serving wine to visitors.
“In years past, there would be a contingent of people who came just for the wine,” Fridman said. “Since we’ve stopped serving, they do not attend.” He added that aside from avoiding booze hunters, the presence of fewer people in the gallery creates room for more personal conversations.
“Normally during the openings, it’s a big scrum where there are a lot of people and it’s kind of tight,” said Susan Swenson, co-owner of Pierogi Gallery in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg.
Swenson said that her gallery has been planning to return to serving drinks and creating a more festive environment, but every time an event approaches, she and her gallery partner feel that it’s not yet the right time.
“I think we would like to go back to that, but we also like the more intimate setting when you have a smaller group of people that you can talk to and have a glass of wine,” Swenson said. (In breaking from tradition, the Brooklyn gallery started out serving vodka and pierogies, then beer.)
In August, Transmitter Gallery in Bushwick hosted its first big opening reception since the beginning of the pandemic.
“Pre-COVID there definitely could be a party atmosphere at the openings, which fit with the Bushwick art scene at the time,” said co-director Kate Greenberg. “The openings could draw some people who were clearly just out to get a cheap or free drink, which would contribute to overcrowding and lingering for far too long, making it hard for people to enter the space and see the show,” she continued, adding that her openings also drew a student crowd that made it difficult to tell if people were old enough to be served.
However, Greenberg said that artists could go to her openings and count on seeing old friends or making new ones. “In some sense, the gallery helped provide a space for the community, which has been impacted by the pandemic,” she added.
Other gallery owners agreed that the nature and purpose of opening receptions have shifted over the years.
“In the early days, we thought that an exhibition opening is a make or break event where sales would be important in terms of gauging the audience’s response to the work,” said Margarite Almeida, co-owner of Westwood Gallery in Nolita. “We learned over the years that it’s really not.”
In its early years, Westwood Gallery hired caterers, but the more informal events no longer justified the high costs. Now, staff members serve wine to visitors.
For an upcoming opening at Westwood, Almeida said that the interest level was so high that the gallery decided to require RSVPs.
“We’re trying understand, how far do we go in protections? We don’t want to have any super-spreader events and COVID is still out there,” she said, adding that the path forward is uncertain and that it’s difficult to determine the new norm with so little communication between galleries. That sentiment was echoed by other gallery owners who spoke with Hyperallergic.
According to Jill Newhouse, who runs an art gallery on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, openings have become events for “more serious people.”
“The party atmosphere has changed into sincere responses to the art and people who are really happy to be there,” Newhouse said. “I can’t say I’ve sold something to a new person who’s walked in for the first time at an opening.”
“People were so incredibly happy to get together,” Newhouse described a recent opening at her gallery. “There was a warmth and gratitude that I hadn’t necessarily noticed years in years before.”
Though reluctant to return to the old days of lavish receptions, Boesky said that her gallery still welcomes gallery hoppers.
“There’s always the next generation of interesting minds who are going to everything,” she said. “I want to provide access to them, listen, and be part of the conversation.”
“The energy that’s brought in energizes us — our team — and the artist that’s on view,” Boesky added. “You don’t know if it’s a student who gets inspiration or life-changing something from that event. It’s super-important overall and we still need to engage with visitors that way.”