Amid a citywide shutdown, all Nyssa Frank can do is wait. The Living Gallery, a Bushwick music and art venue that Frank founded eight years ago, has never looked so empty.
“No one’s using the studio space. That door is locked. So, it’s kind of purgatory,” Frank said.
Under typical circumstances, the gallery generates income by hosting a mix of art and music events that support emerging artists in the neighborhood. It also rents its space for outside events like kids’ birthday parties, which, aside from bringing in revenue, helps expose the wider community to local art and music.
Now, the venue is quiet, and Frank is getting creative with how to keep things going in the downtime.
From do-it-yourself spaces like the Living Gallery to venues with institutional legacies such as Roulette Intermedium, New York’s experimental art and music spaces are fighting to survive during the coronavirus shutdown. For decades, the city has been a springboard for artists and musicians on the fringes. As New York shuts its doors, the usual strategies for keeping art and music alive have disintegrated.
Experimental spaces of all sizes are working with what they’ve got. Besides the now ubiquitous GoFundMe campaigns and live-streamed performances that can be found on most venues’ social-media feeds, spaces large and small are devising new strategies to make ends meet until they can resume regular programming.
Without the name recognition, government backing and foundational support that larger institutions rely on, small, independent venues have been hit especially hard by coronavirus closures. To fill the void, venues are curating online performances. This allows local artists, having lost the ability to sell their work or perform in-person, to maintain a modest level of income. But it’s not a perfect substitute.
The Living Gallery, for one, celebrates in-person connections that can’t be fully replicated online. It’s a non-competitive environment where artists and musicians interact with each other as well as the audiences they’re performing for. Before the crisis, Frank was less concerned with digital marketing strategies because she was invested in creating a friendly and inviting neighborhood destination. Transitioning to online-only campaigns has been an adjustment.
“I post things too fast and I do probably weird hashtags that no one knows, and don’t really know what I’m doing,” Frank said.
Some of the gallery’s experiments have caught on. It’s hosting online flash sales as well as digital “drink and draw” sessions where participants donate money to sketch a live figure drawing model.
The venue has also created a competition which asks artists to give $10 in exchange for a chance to take over the Living Gallery’s social media pages for a week. The artist who wins is encouraged to conduct workshops and discussions to help promote their work. And even those who aren’t selected receive special promotions and spotlights through the Living Gallery’s social media sites.
As the director of development at Roulette Intermedium, an experimental performance space in Brooklyn, Emily Bookwalter has been scrambling to secure grant money from private donors and nonprofits in the wake of the coronavirus crisis. Roulette is one of only a few experimental art venues in New York that has survived since the 1970’s. But because Roulette can no longer rent out its space or sell tickets, it’s losing its biggest sources of revenue.
“We’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars of lost earned income, so I have to find that somewhere through contributed income,” Bookwalter said.
Despite the grim picture, Bookwalter added, there are reasons to be hopeful. New York has one of the best-funded city cultural agencies in the country, and the New York Community Trust, a consortium of large-scale donors, has vowed to give $75 million in emergency funding to small and mid-sized social and cultural institutions. That’s the same amount of money that the federal government has allocated for the entire country’s cultural organizations in the latest stimulus package.
Besides traditional fundraising techniques, Bookwalter and her partners are writing letters to senators and representatives to request more federal and state funding for the arts. Additionally, they’re asking philanthropists who donated funds for a particular project to allow venue operators to reallocate those donations. That way, funds can be used for unexpected emergency expenses instead.
Artists and musicians
As venue operators race to find alternative ways to keep the lights on, many artists and musicians who were already having a hard time making ends meet are finding themselves in dire financial situations.
New Yorkers for Culture and Arts, a citywide advocacy group, found that 70 New York artists who responded to a survey from March 13-17 were anticipating to lose more than $7,000 due to cancelled events. That number is likely to rise dramatically in the coming weeks and months.
A more recent study by the Brooklyn Arts Council found that nearly half of respondents expected to lose performance or gig opportunities. About a third said they would lose opportunities to show their work at art fairs, festivals or gallery shows.
Experimental composer Amirtha Kidambi said venue owners can help by paying artists and musicians for postponed events and renegotiating fees once those events have been scheduled for later dates. In an open letter, Kidambi and other organizers called on venue owners with extra resources to help out in whatever way they could.
“In this time of crisis, artists cannot survive solely on limited emergency grants, crowdfunding, merchandise sales, and government funds, which may take months to receive, and many are ineligible for,” the letter read.
Despite the daring online initiatives and ingenuity shown by venue owners and organizers across the city, some operators say there’s nothing better than going to a concert or gallery opening in person. That’s going to take time and patience.
“We’re New Yorkers. We’re used to being out,” said Bookwalter, Roulette’s development director. “We’re all sitting at home in one of the most interesting cities in the world.”