COVID-19 vs. The Art Field

by Phillip Barcio


An Anti-Thesis

It was a typical Chicagoland Memorial Day: squirrels chittering, kids rolling through the alley on bikes, a whiff of lighter fluid as a neighbor fired up their grill.

No sign of the pandemic that had already robbed humanity of more than 350,000 family members.

As I ambled down the sidewalk with my terrier mutt Rocky leading the way, I noticed a delightful surprise: a pop-up art show. It wasn’t much—just two works installed on the porch of a town-home—but it was the first in-person exhibition I had had the chance to see since mid-March, when Illinois went on COVID-19 lockdown.

The work’s character perfectly complemented the architecture of the exhibition space, mobilizing a subtle, Modernist grid to support semi-abstract compositions evocative of nature and home.

Gazing at the works, my inner life expanded slightly outwards; the unseen became temporarily seen; a new, unexpected relationship emerged between me and my ordinary world. Things like this happen when humans interact with aesthetic objects in real space—a reminder why art is best experienced in person.



Installation view of works by Lea Basile-Lazarus as part of Art in Place. Photo by the author for New Art Examiner. Lea Basile-Lazarus, The Importance of Staying Connected, 2020. Woven paper pulp paintings, printmaking, paint, 30 X 22 in. Image courtesy of Lea Basile-Lazarus.


A sign on the porch announced who besides the artist, Lea Basile Lazarus, to thank for this unexpected hit of the good stuff: an initiative called ART-IN-PLACE, sponsored by Terrain Exhibitions and CNL Projects, two Chicago-based organizations that support creative art interventions that, as their website says, “make private space public.” Every artist in the world is invited to participate in ART-IN-PLACE, which means this particular exhibition on my street is one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, taking place right now, across the globe, maybe in your neighborhood. Maybe at your house! (What’s stopping you?)

So, who says COVID-19 has eliminated our ability to see art in person?

Undoubtedly, the pandemic has hobbled the art market’s usual revenue centers—galleries, museums and art fairs—a fact that has spawned a torrent of news articles, blog posts, social media rants and opinion/editorials, in which art world insiders pontificate about what the so-called “new normal” might mean for the so-called “art world.”

That’s the thesis. Here’s an anti-thesis: There is no art world. There’s just a world, which includes an art field and an art market, which are two separate things.

The art market consists of transactions in which people buy products. It’s no different from the blue jeans market or the wet market where the COVID-19 pandemic began. The art field, by comparison, is massive and diverse. It exists regardless of whether any art transactions take place, and it includes everyone who works in any capacity to facilitate humanity’s roll-out of aesthetic phenomena.


An Uncovering

Apocalyptic is the proper term for the COVID-19 pandemic. The word apocalypse comes from the Greek apokalupsis. It means, “to uncover or reveal.”

COVID-19 has revealed much: how many of the world’s nations are led by egotistical navel-gazers, how interconnected earth’s population has truly become, and how limited technology is when it comes to curing loneliness.

What has it uncovered about the art field?

Indianapolis-based artist Richard Emery Nickolson, Professor Emeritus of Painting at Herron School of Art, believes The Apocalypse Tapestry holds a clue. Completed in 1382, the 90 “scenes” within this medieval textile artwork portray the Battle of Armageddon as foretold in the Christian Bible’s Book of Revelation.


Richard Emery Nickolson in his studio. Image Courtesy of Jennifer Delgadillo.


Nickolson points out that if we look carefully, the Apocalypse Tapestry actually includes a 91st scene, which plays out along the bottom margin of the entire tapestry.

“That scene is full of nature. There are flowers blooming, and at one point, when things are getting really bad up above, there’s this rabbit in the lower margin who dives down a hole. For a while he just goes along and goes along. Then at the end, after all the cities have all crumbled to the ground, the rabbit peeks his head out.”


Detail view of the Apocalypse Tapestry, showing a rabbit peeking its head out in the bottom margin. Image courtesy of Kimon Berlin under Creative Commons License.


Nickolson’s point? Every apocalypse contains dueling narratives. Some stories tell of threatened giants battling each other for dwindling resources. Others tell of creative denizens surviving by tak-ing refuge in humble accommodations and giving more to their ecosystem than they take.

Remember, when the asteroid killed the dinosaurs, whichever giants weren’t immediately wiped out fought each other to the death for the last remnants of food, while the tiniest, meekest creatures, who had long ago learned to survive on next to nothing, evolved into us.


Down the Rabbit Hole

Marlene Krygowski operates GAG (Garden Apartment Gallery) Chicago in the garden unit of her townhome in Chicago’s East Garfield Park neighborhood. The tiny artspace hosted its inaugural exhibition, “Concrete Campground,” in October 2012.

“It was a rough exhibit,” Krygowski recalls. “Tents scattered, coolers, cookware, branches hung from the ceiling and a fake fire. Bad lighting, no heat, junk boxes everywhere, no real focus. It was a blast.”


Installation view of works by Edra Soto (left) and oil paintings by Brian Wells at GAG. Image courtesy of Marlene krygowski.


Krygowski paid for it all herself, as she has done for all of the approximately 50 group shows GAG has since hosted, featuring works by more than 300 artists and attracting more than 10,000 viewers.

Far flung from Chicago art market centers like the West Loop and River North, Krygowski’s exhibitions attract a varied audience.

“There are drastically different experiences here in East Garfield Park,” Krygowski says. “My neighbor Tyrone said, ‘I don’t get it. No need to invite me to openings.’ At the opposite spectrum of responses is endless support. For example, there was an unexpected snowstorm on April 27, 2019, the opening night of the Bad Ass Women of East Garfield Park show. Five lady artists (Tracy O. Haschke, Andrea Jablonski, Kelly Reaves, Edra Soto, and Alla Yanovsky), who all live within five blocks of GAG, were exhibiting. The streets were empty, full of snow, yet GAG was packed. Everyone came out to support the neighborhood gals.”

Krygowski doesn’t charge admission. If anything sells, the money goes to the artists. She supports her operations by occasionally Airbnbing the gallery out, or by hosting private events in the space.


Why do this?

“It’s all about personal contact with the artist,” Krygowski says. “GAG is accessible to anyone who wants to talk to the artist, and not be intimidated by the gallery experience. For people who are new to viewing art, or don’t have a lot of money, going into a big gallery, you’re like, ‘Whoa, I’m out of my league here.’ But I do things that are slightly off from a normal gallery. It’s more per-sonal.”

For example, Krygowski personally hands out fliers for her shows: “I hand them to people, look people in the eye and say come to my home, come see my gallery. That resonates with people. They show up. I also always have group shows,” she jokes, “so at least there will be five people here.”

Krygowski is not concerned about the economic implications of COVID-19 as much as the pandemic’s effect on the currency of community.

“If physical presence is out of the mix, I would be really miserable,” she says. “The vigor and shenanigans of a ruckus party makes me happy. During a crowded event while people are appreciating the talents of artists, I think, ‘I brought them together.’ It’s an extremely fulfilling and emotional reflection for me. For this reason, adapting to an elongated pandemic would be difficult.”

I found another rabbit sanctuary in Bucktown at Firecat Projects. The rather traditional looking, white-walled gallery hides an unusual operational model: owner Stan Klein takes no commissions from the sale of work, passing all proceeds directly to the artist.


Interior view of Firecat Projects gallery in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood. Image courtesy of Stan Klein.


When he first opened in 2011, Klein solicited support from art patrons who financed exhibitions without knowing who the artist was going to be, and without expectation of a material return. Lately, he adopted a model similar to that of GAG, renting the space out for occasional private events to help subsidize exhibitions.

Firecat Projects has hosted solo exhibitions for almost 100 artists, so far. The model succeeds, Klein believes, because unlike a traditional gallery, he is not responsible for nurturing an artist for their entire career.

“I’m a one off,” Klein says. “I invest in the artists, but it’s for a single moment in time in their ca-reer. Hopefully, it’s a stepping-off place, a place to find a new direction. I try to help them focus and talk with them about what that means. It’s a learning experience. When the show is up, they get the feedback, they learn about their artwork, about how they communicate their ideas, about how it all fits into an exhibition space.”

Klein mostly wants to give artists who are at a turning point in their career a chance to imagine what the next level might look like. He also encourages his artists to learn how to promote their own exhibition. “I tell them, ‘You have the responsibility to share with me.’ That starts weighing on people a little bit, and I try to get them through that, so the next time they do it, they have all those boxes they know need to be checked.”

Klein had the idea for Firecat Projects while working as an artist assistant for artists like Andrew and James Wyeth, Robert Indiana, and Kenneth Noland.

“I always heard them talk about their dealings with galleries,” Klein says. “One of the artists said it’d be nice to have a gallery that didn’t take a commission, but we wondered, how would that work? He sort of left it, but I kept thinking about it. It evolved in my mind about how to go forward with it. My dad was a teacher, so I have that teacher gene in me somewhere. This model fits for what I wanted to do.

Some artists instantly gravitate to Klein’s approach, he says. “Others just drop the artwork off and say, ‘You hang it.’ Everyone has a different approach.” Regardless, Klein has his own reasons for doing what he does. “For me, I walk through a door and it’s an experience of learning and seeing that enhances every show. I learn about people, about artists, about art, about how they see the world and see themselves in it.”

Serendipitously, Firecat Projects opened “Jon Gnagy: You Are the Artist” just as the pandemic put Chicago on lockdown. Gnagy could be considered the world’s first remote art teacher. His instructional drawing and painting show was a forerunner of, and inspiration for, Bob Ross’ The Joy of Painting.


    Cover of "Learn to Draw, with Jon Gnagy." Image courtesy of Stan Klein at Firecat Projects.


Gnagy also inspired Klein: “He was giving his viewers the tools to create. How far you wanted to take it was up to you, and your enjoyment of it. He never confronted you with a product. He wasn’t telling you, ‘Now buy this.’ He said, ‘See if you like it, if you enjoy it, if it hits your crea-tive spirit to go forward.’”


Beneath the Fray

Art galleries like GAG and Firecat Projects offer flexible business models for an uncertain eco-nomic climate, but even Krygowski and Klein would admit that their efforts would be nothing without their collaborators, the true rabbits of the art field: the artists.

When not in the studio, Chicago-based artist Robert Burnier holds a day job as an art handler and preparator at the Art Institute of Chicago. His dual role as independent working artist and caretaker of one of the world’s most important institutional art collections gives him perspectives both from the highest heights of the art ecosystem, and from the ground floor.

“The last thing we did at the museum before the pandemic was the ‘El Greco: Ambition and Defiance’ show,” says Burnier, recalling how that ambitious exhibition, for which nearly 60 works were sourced from all over the world, was nearly mothballed by COVID-19. “The whole world kind of cooperated. Loans got extended.”

The Art Institute has stretched the show through autumn, yet, who really knows if crowds will be welcome again even then? Meanwhile, Burnier’s role at the museum is evolving: “The Art Institute has been on our side in trying to extend as much as they can to keep us all employed. Our work is normally very physical, but we’ve been doing a lot of data work lately, going over the website, go-ing over art records, which you can do remotely. We’ve also done a little bit of work contributing to scholarship.”

As the institutional art model shifts online for now, Burnier is optimistic about what that means for art in general.

“The core museum mission is to have people look at art,” Burnier points out. “I’m no there to quote numbers, but our website traffic has gone way up, and the curatorial staff seems excited about that in a weird way.”

The pandemic has also given Burnier a chance to constructively reimagine his own art practice:

“I’m letting this situation help me discover some new ideas. It’s having the opposite effect than if I was completely chained to my studio, which is at a big building. It’s still open, but I don’t want to travel on a train, so I’m staying home. Instead of my usual tools and environment, I’ve scaled it back. The results have been interesting.”


Robert Burnier, Valora Stono 6, 2019,
Acrylic on aluminum, 4 1/2 x 3 1/2 x 4 in.
Image courtesy of the artist.


It reminds Burnier of once when he was doing an art fair in Copenhagen. It was expensive to ship work, so he planned something instead that he could carry in a suitcase.

“Because of the pandemic, certain types of artwork might become amenable to a more austere environment,” he speculates. “Scale and transportability might become a thing for a while. Then again, it’s almost disappointing to talk about. It’s innovative, but it’s also purely an economic decision. That could be negative as people try to make things to fit the market.”

Burnier’s co-worker at The Art Institute, Chicago-based artist Rufino Jimenez, also sees the transition of bigger institutions to an online model as a net positive for the art field.

“It hardly costs a thing to start an online gallery, which is why up until this point online galleries have sort of been looked down upon,” Jimenez says. “As big galleries and museums start showing artwork online more often, that normalizes it and opens it way up for individuals who have less money. Now that people see this is a legitimate form, it’s the time to say, ok, let’s do something new.”

Jimenez notes how the pandemic is also challenging foregone conclusions about social media’s relationship to art:

“Small artists have been posting their work on Instagram and doing online things all along because they can’t afford exhibition space or sell enough work to attract a gallery. Now these big galleries are also re-embracing Instagram and other social media platforms, which again legitimizes what used to be looked down upon, and kind of creates a market in a place that people didn’t used to see as high art.”

On one hand, this creates opportunities for less established artists who are now sharing the same playing fields as giant dealers. On the other hand, can the online ecosystem possibly feed the appetites of dinosaurs and rabbits alike?


    Rufino Jimenez in the process of making a live, performative charcoal drawing. Image courtesy of the artist.



Jimenez points out that major galleries have been heading this way for a while anyway, shifting away from in-person exhibitions, having more private viewings, and only offering works at unapproachable price points.

“At a gallery like Gagosian, most of the art sells before the show even opens,” Jimenez says.

If they can make the shift to online sales work for them, he muses, some big galleries might walk away from the brick and mortar model for good. Regardless, Jimenez suggests none of this will affect the bulk of artists who have been sustaining the art field all along.

“In Chicago, especially, we’ve got a really good underground scene where people have apartment galleries and pop-up galleries and collaborators who get things done,” he notes. “Some artists get plucked out of obscurity by galleries, but all these other artists are still just making art all the time. It doesn’t matter what’s going on out there. If the economy is great, we’ll make art and put it out there. When the economy is terrible, we’ll do the same thing. It’s the underground driving force of the industry. The artists just keep making artwork, regardless of what the cost and value is, no matter who wants it, whether it’s important or not important.”

Burnier agrees: “There’s always that flora and fauna under the big trees. That floor covering gives life to the ecosystem. It’s always there. None of that can change. Art as part of human history has found a way through every horrid epic, every plague, every upheaval. Art was being made in the most tumultuous of times. And I think artists, their daily lives, are like that. The precarity of artists’ daily lives makes them used to finding ways to survive. Artists solve problems.”

No one doubts that COVID-19 is pitting the lumbering beasts of the art market against each other for dwindling grant money and acquisition budgets. Their struggle for resources may exhaust the landscape of their operations. The art market bulges and whimpers in response to changing economic conditions. The art field, meanwhile, carries on, as it has since the ancient ones first painted their handprints on cave walls, not for money, immune to circumstance, fueled only by the currency of compulsion. In the underbrush, beneath the fray, the artists, collectives, artist-run spaces, apartment galleries, muralists, taggers, street performers, and the passionate patrons who support their work while asking nothing in return, are like the tiny mammals that even the dinosaur-killing asteroid could not kill. They are the beating heart of the art field; the ones who have always thrived on next to nothing. COVID-19 won’t stop them from doing their work.


Phillip Barcio’s writing has appeared in Western Humanities Review, Hyperallergic, Momus, The Michigan Quarterly Review, IdeelArt, New Art Examiner, WIDEWALLS, Tikkun, Space Squid, the Swamp Ape Review, various exhibition catalogues, and is included in the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. He hosts Apocalypse Mixtape on WQRT.ORG every Saturday at 7PM ET.




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