The arrival of the novel coronavirus has not only affected human life, but businesses as well in South Africa and globally.
With countries implementing lockdowns to effect social distancing in order to slow the rate of infections, businesses have found themselves affected negatively and some will find it hard to survive the current lockdown. The art business has not been spared. Depending largely on foot traffic, art businesses such as art galleries, theatres, art fairs, art auctions, concerts and arts festivals have been significant affected.
However with its capacity for creativity, the sector is finding new innovative ways of doing business with different degrees of success and failures, irrespective of the onslaught by the coronavirus.
Citylife Arts has started a series that focuses on art business leaders and how the art businesses they run are responding to the challenges posed by the coronavirus, especially during the lockdown, by adapting new models of running businesses, for example using new technologies.
In this instalment of the series, CityLife Arts editor EDWARD TSUMELE chats to CANDICE BERMAN, director of Candice Berman Gallery and Berman Contemporary Gallery.
ET. Candice Berman Galleryhas been around the South African contemporary art scene for a while now, and you have recently launched Berman Contemporary. Can you tell us how different this new initiative is from Candice Berman Gallery?
CB: Hi Edward, firstly thank you for reaching out. What Berman Contemporary (BC) strives to do is establish itself as a leading contemporary art gallery and project space that promotes South African contemporary artists. Candice Berman Gallery focuses on Fine Art by working with emerging artists in order to launch them into the art world. You will see that the focus for BC is on curated, conceptually-rich and unique art experiences. We work with South African artists, primarily women, who have both academic credentials as well a well-developed concept regarding their artist’s position. Berman Contemporary strives to take this talent abroad in order to show the world what diversity, novelty and originality our artists have to offer.
ET: Candice Berman gallery has long been active on digital platforms long before the current situation, which has been precipitated by Covid-19. How has that kind of background and infrastructure helped the gallery to seamlessly adapt to the new situation that calls for the use of technology to continue doing business?
CB: We have a strong team consisting of Morgan Kunhardt the gallery assistant, who has been working remotely form her home in KZN, myself and the Senior Curator of BC, Els van Mourik.We make a pretty strong team. What the epidemic has forced us to do is to digitize all exhibitions. It was quite a whirlwind before nationwide Lockdown was announced as we and our excellent installation team Isaac, Thulani & Neo, managed to rehang the gallery three times within a week in order to digitally capture the content! This was absolutely exhausting but exhilarating at the same time and we managed to document Juan Stockenstroom’sGold, Guns & Paradise’ A group Exhibition titled Learning to Breathe Differently (with artists Ingrid Bolton, Marian Hester, Stefan Blom and Natalie field); and the upcoming exhibition of John-Michael Metelerkamp titled Janus-Faced. It was really owing to the team that this was even possible.
ET: The advent of the coronavirus has come with its challenges of how businesses are run? How has this affected both Candice Berman gallery and Berman Contemporary?
CB: Well, both galleries had to be immediately shut down. I had a sneaky suspicion that the Lockdown would extend the originally proposed 21 days and so I took all the relevant measures in preparation for the Lockdown. The most traumatic part for me was that I would not be seeing my staff, clients and artists for a long time. There is a magic that happens when you meet with someone face-to-face and no amount of Zoom streaming can fully capture that experience.
ET: Without the advantage of hosting special events such as exhibition openingsand art fairs. whereby clients are invited and are able to view art as well as interacting with the artists and the curator, how does Candice Berman Gallery make sure that during the lockdown and social distancing, the gallery is still able to engage and interact with its clients in particular and art collectors in general?
CB: With platforms like Zoom the “virtual meeting-space” has become somewhat a household function for many. We have used this tool to host “virtual exhibitions” where a limited number of collectors can attend the live sessions and engage with the content, artists and curator. Paired with the 360 degree virtual tours documented, this provides enough content for the viewer to get a feel for the essence and content of an exhibition. By no means is this the same as an opening, but it is exciting that we have had to learn new ways of communicating during this time. It has certainly pushed us out of our comfort zones!
ET: With the arrival of the coronavirus on the scene, this also means that businesses such as galleries that depend on foot traffic to do their business have to adopt new innovative ways of making sales? What innovative ways is Candice Berman Gallery using to achieve this?
CB: My main concern when lockdown was announced was my staff and artists. How was I supposed to get through an indefinite period of no-business and insure these livelihoods remained. I was a complete wreck knowing what this would mean for them. I then launched the ASAP (Artists Solidarity Assistance Project) whereby 24 of the gallery artists, represented and associated, could participate. The idea is that 24 images by 24 artists would be printed and sold for an affordable price. Each image is an edition of 50 and there are 10 Collectors Sets of all 24 images available. With this project all the art proceeds will be equally split between the 24 artists. The artists were so grateful for this and the support we have received from clients and collectors locally and abroad is truly astounding. I would like to personally thank all those who have supported this initiative.
ET: What are the current projects that Candice Berman Gallery is running? Any exhibitions that are on and until when?
CB: Candice Berman Gallery is now registered as an essential service providing Plexiglas protective screens for use in medical facilities, corporates and public work areas. Candice Berman Gallery in Riverside, Bryanston and Berman Contemporary, Rand Steam, Johannesburg will both be providing these essential services. This has fortunately kept us on our toes and has allowed the return of a few staff to work. We are open for manufacturing of framing at 30% capacity and have also launched an e-commerce portal on Berman Contemporary’s website for the ASAP prints.
Rand Steam is currently exhibitingLearning to Breathe Differently, and when we officially open doors beginning June 2020 this exhibition will be available for viewing. Needless to say, relevant precautions will be taken: limiting people in the gallery at all times; masks as obligatory; hand sanitizers ready to be dispensed and of course our protective screens hanging and desk-mounted. Now that the appetizer of the virtual launch has been enjoyed, the full beauty and story of the exhibition can be assimilated in person.
During the uncertainty it has been difficult for me to stay motivated and I have had extreme ups and downs including a return of debilitating migraines which I have not experienced for years. Coupled with this Els, the Senior Curator was stuck in SA for the first two weeks of Lockdown and was not able to return to the Netherlands where she is based. Fortunately, she has been successfully repatriated since then. I needed to be a leader for my team as provide some sort of solution to the occurrences which is a great amount of pressure when things are beyond my control.
For me, the uncertainly was the most terrifying. What would all of this mean for my business, my staff and artists? What new“normal” would we have to work with once things eventually resume? These questions really tore at me as I felt out of control and at the complete mercy of uncertainty.
On the bright side, returning to work with the essential services and ASAP project has allowed a new-found motivation to flourish. I am so grateful for the support from small businesses and collectors. Most importantly is to keep the wheels turning. Isaac and myself spent the whole month of May installing these screens all around JHB and now I am able to bring Linda back to Riverside and Morgan back to Rand Steam. We will continue to operate as essential until the levels allow otherwise. Thank you once again for affording me the opportunity to speak freely and openly on what has happened.
To support the ASAP project please logon to www.bermancontemporary.co.za