Look, don’t touch: Local art galleries weigh risks and rewards of reopening

  • Peter Dellert of Holyoke, left, talks about his work with Michael Tillyer during the recent opening of his show, “Work Related,” at Anchor House of Artists in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • William Baczek, owner of William Baczek Fine Arts in Northampton, at his gallery last fall. He has reopened the gallery for limited visitation. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Peter Dellert of Holyoke, left, talks about his work with Michael Tillyer, founding director of Anchor House of Artists in Northampton, during the recent opening of Dellert’s exhibit, “Work Related.” STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Larry Dunn and Pamela Matsuda-Dunn of Easthampton visit “Work Related,” an exhibit by Holyoke artist Peter Dellert at Anchor House of Artists in Northampton. Dellert’s works shoes and gloves are arranged on the floor. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Peter Dellert of Holyoke, left, talks about his work with Michael Tillyer, founding director of Anchor House of Artists in Northampton, during the recent opening of Dellert’s exhibit, “Work Related.” STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Larry Dunn and Pamela Matsuda-Dunn of Easthampton visit “Work Related,” an exhibit by Holyoke artist Peter Dellert at Anchor House of Artists in Northampton.  STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Pamela Matsuda-Dunn and Larry Dunn of Easthampton visit “Work Related,” an exhibit by Holyoke artist Peter Dellert at Anchor House of Artists in Northampton. Dellert’s works shoes and gloves are arranged on the floor. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • “Five Minute Vulcanizer,” part of the exhibit “Work Related by Holyoke artist Peter Dellertat Anchot House of Artists in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • “Eight Ounce,” acrylic on board by Travis Louie. Image courtesy William Baczek Fine Arts

Staff Writer
Published: 7/20/2020 11:30:07 AM

Museums were recently given the go-ahead to reopen in Massachusetts, and some have done so, while others are considering plans to open some months down the road with limited visitation.

Now art galleries are also testing the water and grappling with similar questions: how to bring visitors back, display art and give artists a chance to sell their work, all while keeping everyone safe.

Locally, most galleries remain closed, though some, like Northampton’s A.P.E. Gallery, are looking at opening in September. From virtual exhibits and other online content to window displays of artwork, venues such as A.P.E. and Gallery A3 in Amherst have been trying to give artists a bit of exposure while also providing the public some access to artwork.

But another Northampton gallery, Anchor House of Artists, has just opened its doors to live exhibits, though with restrictions on visitation, and with stepped-up safety protocols. The reopening marks the debut of “Work Related,” an exhibit by Holyoke sculptor and woodworker Peter Dellert that includes a number of unusual sculptures based on old tools, as well as some themed installations.

Also in Northampton, William Baczek Fine Arts opened last month for limited visitation and currently is exhibiting paintings by New York City artist Travis Louie. But owner William Baczek says the pandemic’s effects have continued to linger, affecting everything from shipping to presentation of art to customers.

Michael Tillyer, the founding director of Anchor House, says he and co-director Susan Foley had been keeping in touch with some of their previously scheduled artists through Zoom, phone and email — and staging a few virtual exhibits — for the past few months, while also keeping tabs on the state’s plans for reopening.

“It seemed like we were finally in position to go live again as long as we did it very carefully,” said Tillyer. “There was certainly interest from artists, and we wanted to reconnect with people.”

But there was another critical element at play, Tillyer notes. He founded the gallery and organization over 20 years ago to help support artists dealing with mental illness, in particular by providing them with subsidized studio space where they could work; he also displayed their art. Anchor had to shut down that space with the advent of COVID-19, Tillyer said.

“It was really hard for a lot of our artists to suddenly be cut off from a place where they can work without any stigma, and to be cut off from each other,” he noted. Staying in touch with most of them via Zoom hadn’t really been possible, Tillyer added, “so we were concerned about the isolation people were feeling.”

Now the work space has reopened, while visits to the gallery are being arranged by advanced appointment, with a limit of six visitors every half hour. Face masks and social distancing are required for all.

Tillyer says he’s thrilled to host Dellert’s show, originally scheduled to debut in June, since it offers an apt commentary on the job loss so many people have experienced since the pandemic began, as well as the general drift in many manufacturing and skilled trade sectors from workers to automation.

Dellert, who had some other exhibits shut down or postponed this spring, said he grew up in a home where he and his siblings “always had a broom or a paintbrush in our hands and were expected to help out around the house.” A former carpenter and cabinetmaker, he says “Work Related” is aimed at celebrating the dignity of work, especially using tools, and respecting workers “who are often pretty low in the pecking order.”

Part of his exhibit includes sculptures that Dellert has fashioned from old tools, such as two paired rakes that have been molded into a giant circle, with the blades of the rakes practically entwined. A symbol of the beauty of crafted tools and the work they do? Or a commentary on the steady decline of manual and skilled labor and the push for automation in workplaces?

“I maintain that in our society, individuals need meaningful work, using good tools, whether fountain pen or ax, and that these tools need to be part of our culture,” Dellert writes in a statement about his work.

“Work Related” runs through Aug. 20 at Anchor House. Tillyer says he’s planning additional shows for the fall, including a display of unusual paintings by longtime Valley artist Scott Prior.

“Hopefully [reopening] can go forward without any big issues,” said Tillyer, who noted that “to work our way back is a careful but exciting thing.”

Face masks required

At William Baczek Fine Arts, Baczek has limited visitation to eight people at a time, and face masks and social distancing are required. Hand sanitizer is also available, Baczek noted in an email. Foot traffic is light enough that people have not had to be turned away since the gallery reopened in June, he said, though people can also visit via FaceTime or Zoom if they prefer not coming in.

The exhibit of Travis Louie’s work, “Imaginary Friends,” which runs at least through the end of July, features surrealist portraits that reference Victorian photographic portraiture, with animals and semi-human creatures wearing formal outfits. Consider “Eight Ounce,” a teacup with a female face and hair, wearing a high-necked white blouse.

Baczek says it’s been a struggle since March, with just a few people at first buying work online; that’s normally a big part of his business, he says, and “it took a while for people to even begin to adjust to the new (ab)normal.”

Shipping artwork out, or getting it in, has also been an issue at times, Baczek says. The gallery’s next show is by an artist from Latvia, he notes, “and shipping is more complicated because of the pandemic.”

That said, online sales have now begun to pick up, and he’s hopeful more people will begin to check out the gallery. Another encouraging sign, Baczek noted, is that visitors have been very good about wearing masks and keeping several feet apart.

The collectives that run the Oxbow Gallery in Northampton and Amherst’s Gallery A3 are sticking with window art displays at the moment, given the small size of the venues. At A.P.E., Director Lisa Thompson said last month that the gallery is looking into reopening in September and thinking carefully about how many people will be allowed in, and how artwork will be displayed. A series of window art exhibits, “normal pop-up,” runs through Aug. 17.

Next door to A.P.E., at R. Michelson Galleries, visitation is by appointment only, with masks required. Owner Richard Michelson says the gallery has hosted a number of live Zoom and Facebook interviews with artists but is still not ready for a full opening.

“I have left opening decisions to my staff, since they are the ones on the front line, and I do not want to put anyone at risk,” Michelson said in an email, noting that the gallery prefers to err “on the side of caution.”

In Easthampton, meanwhile, galleries are still closed. Jean-Pierre Pasche, who runs the Elusie Gallery in town, is currently using that space for interacting with customers at his adjacent framing shop, Big Red Frame. In a recent newsletter to customers, he said he has discussed reopening possibilities with the owners and directors of other galleries but decided against it himself for the time being.

The reason? Even though galleries can reopen with limited visitation, he believes it’s still not safe to hold opening receptions for artists.

“That is when the artists get to interact with the public, talk about their work, socialize around art and a glass of wine, and make sales,” Pasche said. If that’s not possible yet, he added, most of the people he spoke with “agreed that it was not worth the creative and financial investment put towards an exhibition.”

“We are working towards alternate solutions for artists to showcase their work,” Pasche added.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com. For more information on Anchor House of Artists, William Baczek Fine Arts, and their current exhibits, visit anchorhouseartists.org and wbfinearts.com.


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