Inspiration From The Arts This Week, Responding to COVID-19

Posted on April 13, 2020, 10:24 am
12 mins


In the midst of the COVID crisis, there is plenty of speculation and concern about the future of culture and economies. This crisis will sink a lot of small businesses, giving massive corporations an even larger market share. The same seems to hold true in the art market, with the “blue-chip” galleries carrying on, and countless others falling away.

Galleries and arts institutions, large and small, face an uncertain future. Long-time art critic Jerry Saltz published an elegiac piece in Vulture about the gutting of the art world underway. The essay sheds a nostalgic light on the scrappiness of the New York art scene of his youth and praises the adaptability of artists that seems to have dwindled in the pursuit of a more corporate art market. It’s cautiously hopeful, as we ought to be at times like this.

It also beats back that rarefied view of the art world that conceals and erases a simple fact: The majority of artists AND gallerists are working-class. A lot of artists and professionals attached to the art world have other day jobs and side hustles throughout their careers. They are feeling this crisis as hard as anyone, but they are also doing something about it.

These three highlights are more than just feel-good stories. Artists doing right by others in their communities, and institutions working to support them are hopefully a portent of similar actions and strategies during and after the COVID crisis.

The Port of Seattle’s Open Call For New Artwork Acquisitions at SeaTac Airport

The collection of art SeaTac Airport is pretty impressive, and only getting better, as displays of existing work are updated and new buildings are under construction. The urgency of the COVID crisis has led the Port to expedite its search to place art in some of these newer locations. They have allocated a total budget of $76,000 for some immediate acquisitions.

The two locations at SeaTac are A Nursing Suite and the brand new Employee Services Center. The submission deadline is Thursday, April 16. This is short notice for an open call…but that is the point. The Port wants to pay artists and galleries for existing work ASAP. That isn’t possible with a lengthy commission process, decided by committee.

Tommy Gregory, the Senior Project manager at Port of Seattle, says via email, “I’m thankful that the Airport’s art program is opening up opportunities when so many people truly need them. To me it is not an abstract idea to buy artwork that artists have made and possibly previously exhibited; these works are just waiting on a great space to permanently display them.”

A space in search of art: one corner of the nursing room at SeaTac Airport.

What we hope this inspires: Buying Art When Grants Don’t Cut It

Independent artists and galleries have seen scarce emergency grant opportunities pop up, whose funders are figuring out their allocation priorities as they go. Established granting organizations are still determining how to be best allocate funds in the COVID crisis. Neither will sustain the arts long-term, but it’s what folks need at the beginning of a crisis. Artists and galleries are still figuring out the long-term, where they can keep creating and selling.

Going forward, it would be exciting to see more donor pools forming to acquire art on behalf of communities, institutions, or public collections. It doesn’t have to be a budget as large as the Port’s either. What matters is that by acquiring works, the value of art will hopefully be made more concrete than merit-based grant processes allow.

Electric Coffin’s Projections and Limited Prints, Supporting Musang

The arts collective Electric Coffin first made a name for itself with huge, colorful, imaginative installations. In the wake of the COVID crisis, they have hit the streets. You may have spotted their Rise Above Project on the side of buildings around town, or on social media. The project’s aim is simple: To bring a little extra positivity to places that have felt especially emptied during the crisis.

The projection boxes themselves are modestly priced and may find homes with institutions and businesses with spaces to use them. But Electric Coffin is also offering a limited edition screenprint with Roq La Rue Gallery. Sales began Friday (and only run through April 15), and each print in the edition is uniquely embellished by hand.

Best of all, 30 percent of profits go to Musang, a Filipinx Restaurant that opened just before the crisis hit and responded by becoming a community restaurant, feeding those in need regardless of the ability to pay. Electric Coffin is a team of creative craftspeople, whose ambitious projects keep a lot of folks at work. Buying a feel-good print such as their latest edition really does feel good.

What we hope this inspires: More True Working Class Artist Solidarity

That aforementioned rarefied, exclusive view of the art world is no accident. It has been cultivated by galleries and auction houses, whose model is more “money talks” more than “art speaks.” Larger institutions are often caught in the middle, ostensibly serving everyone but maintaining an elite status necessary to court big donors. How sustainable that model is has been a question for decades now, even before the COVID crisis struck.

All of this alienates many potential art lovers when it comes to collecting or even visiting an art gallery that gladly welcomes visitors. Meanwhile, hybrid art spaces that eschew pretension may be stigmatized as being “less than” a white cube gallery. Only a small number at “the top” benefit from such divisiveness.

Artists and their advocates may have big ideas and dreams, and many have hearts to match. Now that big questions loom regarding the future of economies and societies after the COVID crisis, arts solidarity within working-class communities will be more crucial than ever. Hopefully, we’ll see more curiosity and engagement between artists and entrepreneurs of every stripe, both in collaboration and in charitable support, such as with Musang and Electric Coffin.

Side note: Speaking of hybrid art spaces with an aversion to pretension and accessible price points, Vermillion Art Gallery and Bar is a perfect example. Consider buying art or gift certificates if you want to support it. Ghost Gallery is another: Buy some new jewels or art there.

Muralists Beautifying Local Businesses Under Lockdown

If you live in one of Seattle’s denser neighborhoods, you’ve likely seen the boarded-up storefronts, some of which have become surfaces for local muralists. The epicenter of this effort has been Capitol Hill, especially along Pike St and 10th Ave. This effort to beautify shuttered local businesses began quite spontaneously, with artists volunteering their talents.

No one wants to see their favorite places (or their own livelihoods) entombed in plywood, but it’s a necessary precaution. Most businesses are already struggling under quarantine, and can’t really afford to commission new works. Hence, most artists have been donating their work using supplies they had from previous projects.

But it’s not as if artists aren’t hurting, too. To help facilitate the process and suss out support for artists, enter Overall Creative, founded in 2019 by Kathleen Warren and Lina Cholewinski. Warren has overseen countless mural projects throughout the city, especially during her tenure at Urban Artworks, which curated the SoDo Busway Mural project, the city’s largest concentration of mural art which is an open gallery of international talent. Cholewinski is herself a muralist, and the two had already proposed a project for Pioneer Square before the lockdown began. Cholewinksi has since completed murals at Casco Antiguo and Rudy’s in that neighborhood.

Meanwhile, Warren has been playing Project Manager for others. For the project sat Lost Lake, Comet Tavern, Neumos, and The Runaway, the team of artists used a spreadsheet to list the materials they could share and managed to pull off ten murals with what they had on hand plus a bucket of black paint. (And also a bunch of tacos that Warren brought to feed the artists on one busy day.) She’s keeping a roster of businesses and artists that reach out.

What we hope this inspires: More Arts Appreciation, Plain and Simple

By “arts appreciation,” I don’t just mean “liking pretty things.” An often-memed sentiment in the last month is how the creative work of others is sustaining people in quarantine. It isn’t just about escapism; it’s about reconnecting with our own imagination, empathy, and curiosity.

On the other side of this crisis, we hope to see a broader recognition of the actual work that goes into making art, especially in the public square. The physical labor, the strategy, the planning, the training, etc. There have been many complaints about how dull public spaces have become as Seattle has grown. Maybe this will also trigger more demand for public works in communities around town, so when we can gather again in familiar places, their potential and ours will be more evident than ever.

Ars longa, COVID-brevis.

Featured image: A still from the Rise Above project video

T.s. Flock is a writer and arts critic based in Seattle and co-founder of Vanguard Seattle.