Art Shows Struggle to Reopen During Pandemic

With a light now visible — if barely — at the end of the pandemic tunnel, society finds itself torn between a healthy desire for social distancing and a not-so-healthy case of cabin fever. In response, the art world is taking a few hesitant steps toward resuming the physical art shows and fairs that play a critical role in creating relationships between artists, collectors, galleries and communities.

April has seen the reopening of Spain’s Estampa Contemporary Art Fair, originally scheduled for last November, and Art Dubai, postponed from March 2020. Art Basel Hong Kong, arguably the first major show to cancel during the early stages of the pandemic, will reappear in May. So will Frieze New York, plus its London version opens in October.

However, Frieze cancelled its summer event in Los Angeles, focusing instead on a 2022 revival. In the Unites States, the Indianapolis Art Center canceled its huge Broad Ripple Art Fair for the second year in a row, temporarily replacing it with a smaller Locally Made festival in May.

Art Basel Hong Kong in 2019.
Art Basel Hong Kong in 2019. Image © Art Basel. Image courtesy Art Basel.

A pent-up demand also exists for urban street fairs and similar events, which attract customers to retail districts and give local residents a chance to browse the latest offerings from local creatives. Medford, Oregon’s Pear Blossom Festival decided to reopen, while New Jersey’s Bordentown Street Fair is postponed until 2022.

Understandably, this year’s events report fewer exhibitors and attendees than in past years, not least because of stringent quarantine requirements for attendees traveling from other countries. Some shows are accommodating health-conscious art collectors with virtual exhibits and online screening rooms running alongside the in-person event.

While the concept of virtual galleries and exhibits look good on paper (pun intended), many art collectors and casual buyers still need the intimate, look-and-feel experience of a physical encounter with art and artist, the ability to examine the quality of the paper, touch the sheen on a ceramic bowl, or chat with the gallery director over a glass of wine, instead of a plastic computer screen.

For the sake of our collective creative spirit, not to mention our physical health, this pandemic needs to end soon. Until then, stay safe, wear a mask, and give each other some space when viewing that great work of art at the next show.