How Online Art Fairs Help Galleries Like Springsteen Support Artists During COVID-19

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Springsteen Gallery was supposed to head to Chicago later this year, with works by Devin N. Morris and Ryan Syrell in tow, for the second edition of the NADA Chicago fair (a satellite to the annual Expo Chicago) but, like so many other things, this trip was cancelled in early April due to the threat of COVID-19. As a nonprofit arts organization dedicated to fostering an open and constructive network of independent galleries and curators, NADA, the New Art Dealers Association, sought an alternative for its members. To try to lessen the financial blow of that fair’s cancellation, NADA partnered with Artnet for an online exhibition featuring member galleries and nonprofits that had to close. 

The NADAxArtnet sale continues through June 20, and meanwhile Springsteen is participating in another NADA online initiative called FAIR, featuring artwork by Syrell, Sydney Shen, and Keith J. Varadi. More than a hundred gallery-members of NADA, as well as 81 other galleries financially impacted by the COVID-19 crisis, are exhibiting with this platform, with works available until June 21.

In alignment with NADA’s mission, FAIR was designed for the internet and functions with a profit-sharing model with percentages going directly to artists and their galleries, a cooperative gallery sales pool, and a cooperative artists sales pool, with a smaller percentage going back to NADA. Springsteen, along with the other participating galleries, will get to present a series of artworks over four weeks, with the opportunity to share new works each week. The gallery has also announced it will donate a portion of its FAIR sales “to organizations working to better the lives of BIPOC communities” including Baltimore Action Legal Team and BEAM (Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective).

I emailed Amelia Szpiech, who co-directs Springsteen along with her partner Hunter Bradley, when the gallery first announced that it would be a part of the NADAxArtnet sale, shortly after stay-at-home orders were announced across the country and galleries had shut their physical doors. We talked about how the Highlandtown-based gallery has adapted to virtual platforms, how to continue supporting artists, and what the art world might look like in the future. Our conversation evolved as time has both rapidly and slowly passed in isolation. I also spoke with artists Devin N. Morris and Ryan Syrell about their experiences participating in these NADA initiatives.

Keith J. Varadi, Baltimore Suite No. 2, 2015, Ink on cover on panel, 7 x 40 inches
Seemingly uncomplicated presentations can take quite a bit of labor to put together, much of which depends on artists’ readiness and access to their studios, work needing to be documented, galleries having the bandwidth to organize and conceptualize an online presentation, and many more aspects that involve many art workers’ efforts. 
Amelia Szpiech

Teri Henderson: Earlier this year, before all of the COVID-19 madness, I noticed Springsteen was going to have a show with Devin N. Morris. Once the shelter-in-place orders were implemented,  I was disappointed that Devin’s show wouldn’t happen this spring and wondered about the future of the show, so it was exciting to learn about the NADAxArtnet sale. Can you tell me about how this came about? 

Amelia Szpiech: We’ve been closed the last few months because we were awarded a renovation grant from the Southeast CDC (to further renovate our space) and have been working towards completing the scope of work within this time. We’d been planning on reopening with a solo exhibition by Devin N. Morris this spring, but due to complications with the construction, compounded by the effects of COVID-19, and we’ve had to indefinitely postpone reopening and associated programming.

We’ve been looking forward to Devin’s show for quite some time. We’ve watched his work develop over the years and we were so excited to plan an exhibition with him. We’re uncertain about when and how any exhibitions will take place in the near future, but we are in the midst of tackling these questions with solutions that are feasible for us and the artists. 

In early March, when COVID-19 began to hint at dramatic shifts ahead and the realities started trickling in, the New Art Dealers Alliance and member galleries were already in conversation and sharing information in support of one another, from rental agreements to virtual exhibition platforms to SBA grants to local and state petitions—the group immediately sprang to each other’s support. Despite how alienating this all can feel, connecting with others who are experiencing the unique challenges facing art galleries and art workers has provided small comforts here and there.

NADA has implemented several initiatives these past few weeks. They organized a New York state petition on behalf of galleries to suspend rents, they held a benefit sale of Thomas Kinkade prints of a “never-before-seen artwork” depicting toilet paper to fund an emergency relief grant they are building, and they launched the NADAxArtnet sale to promote member galleries’ cancelled exhibitions and available works. All of these initiatives were in response to the conversations between members that were occurring, and because they are so interwoven with the community, they were able quickly to identify needs and mobilize their efforts.

Devin N. Morris, Behind A Long Line (Chair 2), 2018, Acrylic, oil pastel, charcoal, paper, leather, wood rod & silk on paper, 22 x 30 inches

In what ways have you had to adapt the traditional gallery/art selling model over these past months?

Time and changing events are so distorted—one day, the idea of the general public wearing protective masks in public spaces, in the United States, in solidarity, seems unthinkable. 24-48 hours later, the country is making no-sew masks out of old socks and we’re flooded with influencers alongside government agencies showing us how-to. It’s a strange fast-forward, rewind, replay, and it’s been a challenge to distinguish how rapidly attitudes and social norms are evolving and still feel grounded. 

Perhaps, in the last month, Hunter and I have already internalized much of what we need to in order to adapt to what’s next, and we’re still untangling it into something more concrete. We’ve been exploring virtual exhibitions, reading about shifting aspects and projections of the art world, listening to conversations between galleries, watching new artworks unfold, and in general a lot of observation.

The newness, the unknown path forward, that undefined space is a good place to be creatively. A blank slate ahead, with a few ideas plotted out, but with a lot to be filled in—these are the spaces where art belongs.

We are grateful and humbled to be invited to participate in so many online platforms the past few months and the software, hardware, and skills needed to navigate this new space has been thrown into relief. Typically we hire a photographer to document exhibitions and artwork, but it was not possible to have a photographer in our space during previous phases of COVID-19, so we borrowed a friend’s camera and documented and edited many artworks ourselves, organizing low- to no-touch pickups at artists’ studios, as one example. 

There may be a perception or expectation that online exhibitions can be organized quickly and easily, but this isn’t necessarily true all of the time. Seemingly uncomplicated presentations can take quite a bit of labor to put together, much of which depends on artists’ readiness and access to their studios, work needing to be documented, galleries having the bandwidth to organize and conceptualize an online presentation, and many more aspects that involve many art workers’ efforts. 

What has been the most challenging aspect of your work with the current circumstances?

The most challenging aspect is planning for the unknown while keeping everyone’s safety at the forefront. We’re processing upcoming exhibitions, alternative programming, how to support the artists we work with and ourselves, and engaging with art collectors in this shifting landscape. 

The internet has been a powerful tool for us from the advent of our program, so working within this space is welcome. We’ve been strategic and considered a broader online audience alongside our Baltimore community, and developed communication and promotion strategies to address both. 

While I think virtual space will continue to develop and benefit some, I’ll be interested to see what sticks, as there is a fatigue setting in, and as the limits of online exhibitions are being felt. Art is inherently social, including not just opening receptions, but also dinners, studio visits, performances, there are many types of important gatherings that I don’t necessarily see being replaced online. Of course, the internet is inherently flawed, as not everyone has internet access, not everyone will be searching for art online or know how to find it while galleries and artists compete for visibility in the increasingly oversaturated online world. 

Sydney Shen, Vox Aranea (Here Rests Syd), 2018, Medicine cabinet, magazine and newspaper clippings, electric organ hardware, belt from punitive garment, buttons, Brachypelma emilia specimen (deceased pet of artist), 20 x 15 x 6 inches

What do you think is the best way for collectors to support artists in this time of economic uncertainty?

If you have the capacity to purchase art, I strongly encourage you to acquire from local galleries and/or artists. Whether that’s a $100 drawing or a $10,000 painting, every purchase makes a difference and you are directly supporting individuals and small creative enterprises. 

Browse local gallery websites to view their exhibitions to see what type of work they exhibit and offer, and reach out to them directly via contact information on their website to ask about available work. Don’t be afraid to be direct about what type of work you’re interested in, or what your price range is, this is helpful information and we can better advise you on your particular set of goals. It’s important to make that initial contact, even if we don’t have what you’re looking for at the moment, we’ll keep you apprised when we do. 

The art world is an ecosystem and we all rely on each other’s work and resources. We need to support the galleries and creative enterprises we have now, and in the coming months, more than ever if we want to keep our creative communities intact.

Galleries advocate for artists and provide vital platforms for their work to be professionally exhibited. They are conduits for art, not just making public presentation and discovery possible, but also investing in the trajectory of artists’ careers. 

One can say hindsight is everything, but looking back at our exhibitions, time and time again artists have demonstrated foresight, sensitivity, and ingenuity. I’m once again reminded of the importance of creating space for art.

So much of what makes Baltimore a magnetic place to live, go to school, raise a family, and retire, is because of its incomparable creative population of artists, writers, curators, cultural organizers, musicians, makers, and restaurateurs that define this city as a cultural beacon.

I have been seeing countless galleries doing “virtual exhibitions” but this is one of the first instances I’ve seen of a gallery specifically focusing on selling the work of artists rather than on creating virtual exhibitions. I think this is very powerful because what you’re doing will directly impact artists financially. That being said, do you foresee Springsteen hosting virtual exhibitions?

For us, the exhibition comes to life in the space perfecting final details, finessing the installation, layout, and lighting. We’ve had exhibitions with scent, living organisms, colorful light, faux finished walls, edible work, and virtual reality work, all of which were important facets to finely tuned installations. Visitors have sometimes described an ethereal feeling that occurs when LEDs meet filtered daylight. 

There is something particular about the way a body moves through carefully crafted space that allows work to unfold in a way that cannot be translated to a virtual platform. We consider how one might find a sense of intimacy with the work. These are subtleties we pour ourselves into. Every inch of space reflects an intention and is important to the audience experience.

That said, we deeply recognize the value of virtual viewing rooms, Instagram, websites, and other digital platforms as they exist now—we all have to adapt to support our artists, ourselves, our communities with the tools we have available at the present moment.

We are planning to further transition to virtual spaces and looking forward to new ways of thinking. There are so many inspiring artist talks, panels, tutorials, Dadaist performances, that are paving the way and filling the void. We can learn new ways to communicate, create, and connect that will serve us well even after we’re allowed to congregate again.

Ryan Syrell, Ninth Wave, 2019, Oil on canvas, 96 x 84 in.
If you have the capacity to purchase art, I strongly encourage you to acquire from local galleries and/or artists. Whether that’s a $100 drawing or a $10,000 painting, every purchase makes a difference and you are directly supporting individuals and small creative enterprises. 
Amelia Szpiech

Do you think that after this period of uncertainty passes, a year from now (hopefully), that galleries will go back to “normal”? Or do you think moving forward they will continue to implement more digital methods of art selling?

The evolution of selling art online has substantially grown in the last several years with platforms like Instagram, Artsy, Artspace, and so on. As many strides as virtual and online spaces may take, I do think there’s a virtual threshold for emerging art objects (as opposed to blue-chip art)—there’s nothing like seeing a painting in front of you on the wall or experiencing the materiality of a sculpture that makes you fall in love with it. That feeling of discovery can’t be mimicked online for work meant for the physical world. 

We see a lot of space to build new coalitions and strengthen existing ones to create new models for presenting and selling art. Zwirner is sharing their virtual viewing room with smaller galleries. Dozens of Los Angeles galleries are collaborating to share virtual viewing rooms and are creating programming around the exhibitions, with the parallel goal of selling work. The field is wide open, and the key concept is those with resources are sharing and distributing amongst those with fewer resources. 

Speaking of a year from now, how do you see the future of the art world in Baltimore and at large?

Artists and creative workers have always been innovative and regularly demonstrate resilience and strength. We’ve built livelihoods that function practically yet fulfill us creatively. It’s important that resilience is not taken for granted or mistaken for being everlasting. We should all contribute to the art world we want to see, in whatever way we’re able.

We’d love to see Baltimore continue to develop the collecting scene on all levels, from emerging collectors to those who are seasoned and seriously turn their eyes towards the wealth of talent and activity here.

We imagine there could be a renaissance of new artist-run projects both online and in physical spaces, as well as new models yet to be conceived. I hope this translates into increased attendance and new audiences at exhibitions and open hours, sold-out shows, and a commitment to collecting art and patronage. 

Hopefully we all have more tools under our belt and are more fluent in both physical and virtual possibilities, allowing us to connect with communities in both types of spaces.


Devin N. Morris, You Close Doors Yet Windows Are The Threshold And Neither Are A Concern of Recent. Did You Notice?, 2019, Acrylic, collage, oil pastel, wood veneer, metal key shavings, metal house keys, photo collage, leather, watercolor and velvet ribbon on wood panel, 22.5 x 23.5 x 5 in.
Ryan Syrell, Vagabond, 2018, Oil on canvas, 62 x 52 inches
Sydney Shen, Co-Morbidity, 2017, C-print, handmade paper (hornet nest, Tremella fuciformis, Nostoc flagelliforme, bean curd, vermin remains harvested from owl pellets, cellulose), artist’s frame, 10.5 x 10.5 inches

Interview with the Artists: Devin N. Morris and Ryan Syrell

Devin N. Morris had an exhibition that was scheduled for earlier this spring at Springsteen which was subsequently postponed because of COVID-19. His work is available through Springsteen via the NADAxArtnet sale. Ryan Syrell, who had a solo show at Springsteen last year, is also part of the NADAxArtnet initiative and the current NADA FAIR.

Do you think that online galleries/showrooms are a sufficient replacement for physical galleries?

Devin N. Morris: Are they replacements? I don’t consider them to be that.

Ryan Syrell: As useful and important as they are right now, they’re definitely not an adequate replacement for brick-and-mortar spaces. Beyond the commercial/sales stuff, without a physical space you lose all sense of context; there’s very limited dialogue between works, and basically no capacity for gauging the subtle, nonverbal responses of viewers. They’re definitely appreciated and necessary, but no amount of detail shots and immaculate lighting can put you in a real, tactile, bodily conversation.

What do you think the future of selling artwork will look like post COVID-19 quarantine?

DNM: I think the future of selling looks like it’s past. But what we’re seeing is a reliance on sales models that were not primary in the past. Now they’re being used as primary or temporary sales spaces for safety purposes. I’m interested to see how these disbursal platforms will optimize for clearer use in the future.

RS: It’s probably less an issue of quarantine/distancing timelines, and more about long-term economic disruption; this uncertainty and instability seems to be leading collectors to be really cautious. On the flip side though, there’s also been this very visible generosity coming from a lot of artists and galleries in the form of benefit auctions, fundraisers, print sales, microgrants, etc. It’s a beautiful reminder that in a crisis artists are often among the first people to be inventive with their generosity, even if they are in need themselves.  

I have no real guesses as to how this might play out over the next year or two, but it is interesting and exciting to see how even the commercial side of things is being affected: NADA’s current FAIR project has reimagined the art fair structure, building it around a profit-sharing model. However it works out, it’s a rather remarkable gesture for the art world. It’s also a heartening glimpse of what’s possible if we enact far more radical and sweeping change on a national scale. This country has so many systems that aren’t just broken, they’ve never worked, or they more often intentionally work against people. If the suffering and loss of this pandemic can come to mean something, hopefully it can be the catalyst for real, equitable, systemic changes.

Springsteen Gallery in Highlandtown featuring Ryan Syrell’s paintings

Have you sold any of your work through online sales? If yes, how has this compared to sales before COVID-19?

DNM: I have sold work through two online sales. But again, those sales were not very different from how I’ve made sales prior to COVID. On all occasions I already knew the buyer, or they were a fan or my work prior to the sale. I haven’t seen an increased presence of new interest due to an online sale as I’m not sure that the digital space fully achieves that yet.

RS: There’s been a very clear before-and-after boundary, really right in the second week of March. For the whole previous year things were consistent; since March, it’s absolutely slowed down. 

What feelings do you have regarding the sale of your work online?

DNM: Art sells, somewhere. I’m more interested in exhibiting my art and who sees it. The sale of the work is important but I’m not a seller. I’m interested in how galleries and institutions who make sales online will innovate and create more engaging visual interactions with work that is displayed or sold online.

RS: Online sales have been central to the art market for a long time, and the practice of someone collecting something sight unseen isn’t new at all, so that in and of itself doesn’t particularly bother me anyway. What’s rough is the idea of making something, placing it directly online to potentially sell, and knowing that you’re completely circumventing the broader engagement with a physical public space. Everything I’ve had online during all of this has been work from my last couple of shows, works that have already engaged with an audience. I’ve been making drawings and work on paper recently, but I’m hesitant about trying to push them straight into an almost wholly online life.

How have you been taking care of yourself during quarantine?

DNM: So many things. Mostly focusing on care work, craftsmanship, process. All these terms relate to my emotional, creative health and physical health.

What are your hopes for artists in Baltimore when all of this settles? 

RS: I hope that our artists, galleries, and spaces are still here and able to do their work, and that they receive all of the forms of support that they have earned, and that they so deeply deserve. This pandemic is a unique event, but lack of consistent support is a systemic problem which has long plagued Baltimore artists and spaces. We have so many artists doing such brilliant work in all fields, and our gallery infrastructure has survived and adapted to seemingly impossible circumstances over the years. Baltimore artists deserve more than the hard-won honor of persevering, they need to be seen and celebrated in their city, in their time.

For more info on Springsteen, visit their website, Artspace, BMA Salon exhibition, or email them directly [email protected]

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