Local art galleries adapt under pressures of COVID-19 pandemic

When the COVID-19 pandemic emerged in 2020, it wasn’t only Henry Matthiessen’s art business that had to change.

The art itself needed to change as well.

Matthiessen, who owns Stoned Art Studio in Dubuque, found himself forced to close the doors of his gallery, removing the ability to show his pieces to customers in person. His custom-made stone oil lamps benefited the most from the in-person showings and were a high selling product for his business. With his store closed off from the public throughout the pandemic, Matthiessen said, interest in the lamps faded.

“If there were no showings, then I had to forget about selling a lot of stone lamps,” he said. “I had to totally rethink the plan for my business.”

The pandemic forced many local artists to adapt their art and business model in order to survive. For Matthiessen, that adaptation came from spending even more time on his photography and selling the prints online instead of through his store.

“I had to create a serious presence on social media,” he said. “I spent way more time capturing the Driftless Region with photography than I ever have before, and I made sure to drive that content through social media.”

The Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market Report found that global arts and antiques sales dropped by about 22% in 2020, compared to 2019. Art galleries throughout the tri-state area faced similar declines in sales, with many of them forced to close their physical locations.

River Bend Gallery in Galena, Ill., for years relied on its Main Street location as the primary gateway for connecting with customers and tourists to sell its photography pieces. Bu when the pandemic struck, co-owner Paul Mikol, said he was forced to closed the location to ensure the safety of his son, Geoffrey, the primary artist for the gallery, who is diagnosed with Down syndrome.

“For people like Geoffrey, there is like a four-times-worse outcome if they were to get the virus,” Mikol said. “We decided to close the gallery until things got better.”

He said the business initially struggled to operate solely online. While Geoffrey was able to take more photographs than ever, River Bend was unaccustomed to serving its customers through an online format.

“It was a completely different kind of business,” Mikol said. “Those first few months were difficult.”

However, River Bend Gallery eventually was able to find its footing by developing social media strategies to keep people interested in the gallery despite it being closed. Mikol said Geoffrey has remained a figure of interest for customers throughout the pandemic, so he often provided updates on his son’s activities for customers online.

“We were able to go on Facebook and let people know what Geoffrey was up to,” Mikol said. “It was a completely different kind of business, but it kept people interested in the work that Geoffrey was doing.”

River Bend Gallery will reopen in mid-May, Mikol said. A new store space, located at 300 S. Main St., recently was purchased.

For some art businesses, the pandemic led to adaptations that will provide long-term benefits.

Outside the Lines Art Gallery, located in Dubuque and Galena, closed its physical locations in March when the pandemic hit. While the business initially conducted local delivery and pickup sales through social media, co-owner Connie Twining said the decision eventually was made to invest in an official online storefront.

“It was a massive undertaking,” she said. “We had to take multiple photographs of every piece and write detailed descriptions. It made me really respect anyone that has a strong online business.”

Even now that both physical locations have reopened, Twining said the online storefront has become a notable part of the business.

“It has proven to be a good move for us,” she said. “Now that we put in that work to get it started, it’s not near as challenging to maintain.”

While many art galleries adapted in response to the pandemic, there was general agreement among local art studio and gallery owners that the traditional physical storefronts still serve their industry best.

“We’ll still never make up those lost months,” Twining said. “It was a rough time for us and the artists trying to make ends meet. “