Re-opening Pittsburgh’s Visual Art Sector in Phase Yellow

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“Once the faintest stirring of hope became possible, the dominion of the plague was ended.”  — Albert Camus, The Plague

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A YEAR AGO, Pittsburgh clothing designer Eva Dixon’s I Do Designs by Eva was busy fulfilling orders for weddings, proms and Pittsburgh Fashion Week. This spring, she’s joined a national network of designers hired to manufacture masks for healthcare workers. Despite having had to postpone her model bootcamp, she’s still planning a virtual show of her new designs amid the uncertain status of retail outlets and events.

It’s a typical example of the adaptation strategies area artists have deployed as Allegheny County moves into Phase Yellow, the first loosening of state-mandated closure protocols that for 61 days severely impacted public visitation of art galleries, art studios, art retailers, art exhibits and museums of all kinds.

A quick canvas by LOCALPittsburgh shows a broad range of local galleries are re-opening with new strategies for accommodating visitors. And, like Eva Dixon, several artists are still contemplating public exhibits with very flexible timelines.

(l-r) Cary D. Heard, Heather Heitzenrater, Eva Dixon

Pittsburgh Glass Center, which hosts a large number of hands-on workshops, does not have plans to reopen to the public until Allegheny County goes fully Phase Green. “We will continue to engage with our audiences online as much as we can via social media, videos, etc. over the coming weeks/months,” says executive director Heather McElwee.

BoxHeart Gallery plans to adjust gallery hours and try a new Schedule Your Visit system found on their website. “Our June 3-July 3 group exhibition, A Few of Our Favorite Things, will not have an art opening and guests will use Schedule Your Visit to view the show,” says director Nicole Capozzi. When BoxHeart’s solo exhibitions begin in July with artists Annie Heisey and Deanna Mance, Capozzi says the artists can choose if they are comfortable hosting a “visit with the artist” session during the exhibit. “Guests will be limited to four guests during a 20-30 minute duration in the gallery. Food and beverages will not be served, and this will be the standard procedure for all exhibitions through 2020.”

Over the years, Casey Droege Cultural Productions has had a consistently full event schedule with PGH Photo Fair, SIX x ATE gatherings, the Small Mall retail shop and a performance/gallery space. Currently, most programming has moved online, says Droege, and there no plans to have any large gatherings until the governor gives a Phase Green all clear. “We’re meeting with similar sized organizations to discuss how we move forward with openings and exhibits and general reopening. When we do reopen, we allow only small groups of people into our spaces.” CDCP has started a Zoom-hosted Tiny Talks: Living Room Sessions series featuring local artists and makers to give talks and workshops. “We’ve definitely felt our supporters during this time with online sales and attendance of our virtual talks,” says Droege. “It’s not as robust as usual, but people are definitely hanging in with us.”

(clockwise from top) BoxHeart Gallery, Casey Droege Cultural Productions, Irma Freeman Center for Imagination, ZYNKA Gallery

Christine Frechard Gallery has reopened this month with a full schedule of exhibits through the rest of the year starting with local abstract painter Michael Maskarinec and Indian portrait artist Manjushree Roy (May 30-July 10), artist/actor John Romualdi’s Grateful Dead photo exhibit (July 11-Aug. 14) and Virginia naturalist Jennifer Nagle Myers and Japanese painter Chihiro (Sept. 5-Oct. 9). “The gallery is spacious enough to allow physical distancing,” says owner Christine Frechard, “and I feel that it is a very safe environment. People will have to wear masks, as well as I will do, each time they come into the space.”

GalleriE CHIZ is open by appointment, with face masks and social distancing for visitors and for artist-owner Ellen Chisdes Neuberg. “Time will tell how this develops,” she says. “My work is on the walls and for sale. Since I’m a one-woman studio, my hours will be flexible.”

ZYNKA Gallery is reopening with painter Paul Mullins’ Everybody Is Here exhibit, interrupted in March but still enlivening the gallery walls with its blend of pit bulls and Star Wars; the extended show will have new work Mullins painted during the last two months — a series of album covers from his personal music collection. Sculptor/mixed media artist Brenda Stumpf’s solo exhibition Consecrated is set for June, followed by a show featuringpainter Zach Brown and embroidery artist Mary Mazziotti. Gallery director Jeffrey Jarzynka says he’s considering having guests sign up for scheduled viewing time slots for opening events. “We typically see 200-300 people come through the gallery during an opening. Part of the fun is being part of the crowd, rubbing elbows, literally. They’re also an integral part for generating revenue as they are heavily promoted and sales often happen just prior to an opening, during the excitement of the event, and many more afterward.” As for artist talks, Jarzynka says in-person attendance will be pre-arranged and possibly streamed live or recorded for future viewings.

A prime stop on Penn Avenue’s popular first Friday “Unblurred Art Tours”, Irma Freeman Center for Imagination has transitioned from a gallery to a community food pantry and temporary home for Greater Pittsburgh Restaurant & Service Workers Mutual Aid Group. “In the next couple of months we will begin using the workshop and home recordings of artists and teaching artists to reach out to our patrons who remain in full or partial quarantine,” says director Sheila Ali. A new Artist of the Month video documentary series starts in June, leading off with painter Sarah Zeffiro.

Silver Eye Center for Photography is set to reopen its doors in June, says executive director David Oresick. “We will require and provide masks, deep clean regularly and follow all the CDC and Health Department safety guidelines. There will be strict limits on how many people can be in the gallery at once.” The Center’s annual Auction Preview Exhibition will go on in June. “This is our biggest and most important fundraiser and we’ve never done it online before,” says Oresick. “It will be an interesting experiment.”

(l-r) Susan Wagner, Ellen Chisdes Neuberg, Rachel Mica Weiss

DIGITAL DO-OR-DIE

USING ONLINE CHANNELS to market and sell visual arts isn’t new, but for some artists and galleries the pandemic has transformed an occasional digital toe-in-the-water into an immediate plunge amidst the swirling currents of e-commerce and Zoomathons.

“We’ve been very active online with our social media posts,” notes ZYNKA Gallery’s Jeffrey Jarzynka. “It’s helped us stay inspired while inspiring others and feeling some sort of connection to our audience. Just a ‘like’ or a quick comment to one of our posts helps boost our spirits. Many artists have also reached out to check in and offer assistance. That’s the part that’s truly touching — when an artist, who’s struggling themself through all of this, asks what they can do to help. We’re blessed to be connected to so many great people, so many great artists.”

BoxHeart Gallery employs a YouTube channel, an exhibition archive and full gallery inventory on their website, while utilizing retail platforms like Artsy, Google Shopping and Facebook/Instagram Product Catalog.

Painter Heather Heitzenrater is preparing her first online portrait drawing class with Pittsburgh Center of Arts & Media and says April was her best month this year for sales. “A lot of people are looking at their walls right now and wanting to redecorate.”

Silver Eye Center Photography’s e-newsletter Works from Home and interview series Studio Visits w/ Silver Eye offer deep conversations with artists, says David Oresick, “something that can be hard in the gallery setting because there is so much going on at an opening.”

Christine Frechard Gallery has increased their online presence with professional videos of each exhibition focusing on strong visualisation of  the artwork, artist interview and a happy hour art talk via Zoom where artist and clients can interact.

Along with new online art class tutorials, Irma Freeman Center for Imagination’s summer art camps will shift to the internet; the bright side, says Sheila Ali, “is we can reach kids anywhere in the world.”

EPIPHANIES AND EUREKAS

Then there’s the creation of Art itself. What impact does a pandemic of this type have on an artist’s mindset as they move forward to create?

Heather Heitzenrater, painter. “Everyone during this time is looking towards the arts to stay entertained. I’ve been trying to figure out new ways or doing what I usually do.  I am working with a friend who is a photographer on a collaboration. I work from photos that I take myself but I can’t do photo shoots right now. So I told her my idea and she is putting her own spin on it and I will do a painting based on the photos she takes. I also took this time off to just relax. I have multiple jobs and I’m always running around. It’s nice to take the stress off and tell myself that I don’t have to make this time about painting as much as possible.”

Susan Wagner, sculptor. “After the pandemic was announced, some artists were in a creative frenzy but I was not. I wondered what was wrong with me. How could I create when the whole world was in such pain? It was a few weeks later that I read an article on how ‘shutting down’ was a survival technique people use to cope during disasters. Reading that article helped me tremendously. The one piece I did was an abstract that started out to be very angry (lots of red paint), but after a while I gained control and it turned out alright. I’d like to display at the BFG Café all artists’ works created during this stressful time just to see what they came up with. I do know of two artist friends who have created beautiful pieces continually. So who knows? It promises to be very interesting.”

Cary D. Heard, clothing designer. “Over the last 2 months, I took the time out to refocus my Zen by developing more optimistic energy in my household through decorating, organization and flow. Still being considered an essential worker through my primary source of income, I needed to find a way to best cope through uncertain times that would be creative and a mood booster as well. Interior design has always been a artistic go-to outlet for me whenever I’m not sewing, so I used this time that the world was closed to evolve into a Designer with a Designer pad once the world opens back up.”

Rachel Mica Weiss, sculptor and installation artist. “I have surprised myself in my willingness to simply buckle down and use this time to develop my work rather than share it. Instagram has already set a precedent for seeing too much work through screens rather than in person, and I worry that the art world’s rather nimble shift to online platforms will only cement that problem. I’ve been having an amazing time working. The ability to focus on new work has been the silver lining of this for me, and without the studio, I think I would be distraught. For artists, we are doing as we’ve always done, and it’s hard to do it differently. Those who don’t have access to their studios are finding innovative ways to create work. So many painters have turned to drawing; so many artists have turned their living rooms or bedrooms into studios. Forced to quarantine, artists are looking inward, which is what we’ve always done.”

(clockwise from top) Pittsburgh Glass Center, Christine Frechard Gallery, Silver Eye Center for Photography

David Oresick, executive director, Silver Eye Center for Photography. “This has been a time where I am reminded how important art is to me on a very personal level, which is something I can lose sight of sometimes doing the day-to-day things that need to be done to keep a gallery running. The Studio Visits series of conversations in particular leaves me feeling so energized and filled with hope. I am reminded of why I love this work so much. I get to go deep with people who are so passionate, creative, thoughtful and smart; that’s my job and it is pure joy.”

Casey Droege, poet and painter. “I’ve loved seeing people supporting artists, even if it’s just sharing pictures of their artist-made mugs on Instagram. I’ve been seeing a ton of artists doing interesting auctions and sales of their work to get some kind of income. It’s all pretty inspiring, especially considering how difficult it is for everyone during this time.”

Eva Dixon, clothing designer. “Over the last few months I have been challenged to create more things. Finding the energy or the joy to create my designs has been hard. When you set out to do it, you fight the thoughts of why? Emotional stress is a very big factor in the role of your daily life, when you have sacrified everything to follow your passion to make a brand for yourself. Supporting others helps get you through it, finding ways to be encouraged by it. I know it will all work out in the end. Cheering others on can make a big difference.”

Jeff Jarzynka, director, ZYNKA Gallery. “I’m not sure people have really understood the importance and power of art in its various forms until now. While stuck at home people have been watching movies and performances, listening to music (and watching live streams), reading books, building puzzles, coloring or painting by number – they’ve been engaged with art and artists, with creatives and makers in more purposeful ways than before. It has become a critical component to ‘getting though this’. I hope it sticks. As an avid art collector, spending this time at home has afforded me the luxury to spend time physically with the art I’ve collected. I see how pieces look different throughout the changing light of the day. I’ve seen new things in old pieces and feel reconnected to pieces that were important enough for me to want to make my own. There’s nothing like how a piece makes you feel when you’re in its physical presence.”

AS THE SLOGAN says, Art isn’t cancelled. But it certainly has been re-defined in its public presentation.

One thing is for sure: art always finds a way to exist, no matter what obstacles are arrayed against its creation and dissemination. In the Fully Pandemic Era, there will be no paucity of art being made.

In fact, circumstances are inspiring an even greater volume and diversity of artmaking in all genres — more boundaries crossed, more in-depth explorations and innovations, especially vis-à-vis cutting-edge technology.

But how, in the FPE’s “new normal”, will that art surge connect with its audience? Any audience?

And will those audiences place the same value on that connection as before? Will they feel any connection at all, as in-person participation is replaced by digital delivery?

The physical experience of live art — be it in a theatre, concert, festival, gallery, dance floor, wherever — produces a self-induced psychological state the Japanese call ukiyo, literally a “floating world” where we exist completely in-the-moment and make that transitory experience the full anchor of our consciousness.

Keeping our floating worlds gliding along in the turbulent seas of change through the coming months and beyond will be a challenge for artists and audiences alike.

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“Life beats down and crushes the soul, and Art reminds you that you have one.”
— Stella Adler