La Bodega on the edge of Sunset Park wasn’t just an art gallery: it held art classes, exhibit openings, and even birthday parties. The motto of the space was to create art by and for the community. On the gallery’s website, owner Miguel Ayuso, an artist himself, emphasized, “La Bodega seeks to build bridges (not walls!) and we hope it will bring people together in our Brooklyn community and beyond.”
The pandemic halted all events over the past year, and Ayuso, who opened the space in 2017, closed the gallery’s doors last summer. The reason for the closure wasn’t financial, he said.
“One of my main reasons to have this space was the personal connections. It feels very different in Zoom meetings, and when things looked bad, people were scared of going outside or being close to anyone. ” Ayuso said the hardest part about closing was saying goodbyes.
“One of my goals of the space was to create a non-pretentious space for the arts—for people to feel like they were surrounded by family. Not to be able to give people a hug when saying goodbye was sad.”
Permanent closures were not uncommon among museums and galleries during 2020. Galleries were ordered to close along with other nonessential businesses at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and many didn’t reopen until Phase 3 in July.
Because of the economic impact, Lesley Heller Gallery, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, and Ground Floor Gallery permanently closed in 2020. A survey done by Dr. Clare McAndrew, founder of Arts Economic, found that modern and contemporary gallery sales decreased by 36% in the first six months of the pandemic.
Wayfarers Gallery, a non-profit space in the heart of Bushwick, stayed open until December of 2020. The gallery, a volunteer-led center, had no paid employees and was run by artists in exchange for a discount on studio space for 10 years.
But because of COVID-19, artists had trouble paying their fees. The gallery’s landlord also increased the rent, forcing George Ferrandi, the director of Wayfarers, to consider moving the gallery to another location, she said.
Ferrandi held a fundraiser in September to keep the gallery open through winter. The fundraiser was called Ransom 2, an Instagram-based exhibition that allowed people to pay a fee to participate in a virtual show. The fundraiser had nearly 450 participants, and the money raised kept the gallery open for a few more months.
But when the lease expired at the end of December, Ferrandi permanently closed Wayfarers’ doors. Even with Ransom 2, she couldn’t keep the gallery open with the second wave of COVID-19 hitting the city.
“With COVID kicking in, it seemed we couldn’t move to another location. Once we found out our rent was doubling, we knew we couldn’t stay. It was decided by COVID.”
Ferrandi said the gallery was for artists who wanted a safe-haven from mainstream spaces. The gallery was a non-commercial hub and allowed artists to produce work without worrying about sales.
“It was sad, and there were definitely some tears on the last day. Normally, we would’ve had a closing party, but COVID didn’t let us do that.”
While many galleries have permanently closed their doors, for the ones that remain, the pandemic has changed the way they display art for the foreseeable future. For some that means allowing a few people into the gallery at a time, requiring masks, and focusing on private showings.
Established Gallery, a small gallery bordering Gowanus and Prospect Heights that opened in 2019, has been changing the way people see art in a safe, relaxed style, allowing just four people into the gallery at a time. They have been fortunate enough to stay open the entirety of 2020, despite closing briefly at the beginning of the pandemic.
Johnny Thornton, the director of Established Gallery and Arts Gowanus, and the former art director of La Bodega, said that people who aren’t comfortable going inside the gallery even with just three other people can book private appointments.
Thornton, an artist himself who showed his work at La Bodega, said that despite the restrictions, people seem more excited than ever to be visiting a gallery.
“It is strange, but it’s nice to see that people are enjoying art so much. People have missed this during the pandemic.”
Thornton also uses a new approach for Arts Gowanus, a non-profit organization, where artists have showcased their work for over 25 years. Arts Gowanus showcases artists at public events throughout Brooklyn. They have had to change the way they share art by moving exhibits outdoors.
Gowanus Open Studios, organized by Arts Gowanus every October, was canceled due to the pandemic. Instead, Thornton organized Art Walk, a large exhibit on Atlantic Avenue showcasing local artists. Art was displayed in the windows of over 65 businesses along Atlantic Avenue.
The exhibit, which was up for two weeks, allowed people to enjoy art outdoors as they walked through the neighborhoods of Boerum Hill, Brooklyn Heights, Gowanus, and Cobble Hill.
One piece, created by La Bodega’s Miguel Ayuso, featured photographs of New Yorkers wearing masks side by side with images of them without masks and smiling. This series was called “Eye Smile.”
“The pandemic has made it so you need to pivot,” Thornton said. “A lot of smaller organizations have been able to test the waters in creative ways. We used to do giant shows where there was a line outside the door. We can’t do these blowout shows anymore. This has changed our business model.”
Looking to the future, Arts Gowanus is working on a large outdoor exhibition that will be held from May 15-June 25 at J.J. Byrne Playground. The exhibit, titled “We’re Still Here: Portraits of our resilient Brooklyn community,” will be held as a collaboration with the Old Stone House. Artists are invited to contribute portraiture work before the April 14 deadline and submissions are open to people who live and/or work in Brooklyn. Portraits must be of Brooklynites.
This story has been updated to accurately identify Clemence Mailly as the photographer of the Art Walk images and to correct that it was not 65 art pieces exhibited, but that there was art exhibited at 65 locations.