A scene from a past exhibition and performance at C3:Initiative by Cannupa Hanska Luger.
A scene from a past exhibition and performance at C3:Initiative by Cannupa Hanska Luger. C3:Initiative / Sam Gehrke

When Gov. Kate Brown first unveiled her framework for reopening Oregon's economy after coronavirus closures, a few businesses were identified to open first: Furniture stores, jewelry stores, boutiques, and art galleries.

For Elizabeth Leach, owner of Elizabeth Leach Gallery in Northwest Portland, the decision to include art galleries in this lineup didn't make much sense.

"I'm not sure why we were included, to be quite honest," said Leach, who spoke with the Mercury shortly after Brown's announcement in early May. That's because Leach, like the majority of gallery owners and directors across Portland, has no interest in rushing to reopen her space to the public.

Now, nearly two weeks since art galleries—along with most retail shops in Oregon—were given permission by Brown to reopen, most remain shuttered. Galleries are instead getting creative with virtual tours, individual viewing appointments, and other solutions to keep Portland's art ecosystem alive during an unstable time.

"I'm comfortable with being by appointment only for the time being," said Leach, who allows anyone interested in touring the current gallery show to schedule a solo visit. "And frankly, until there’s a vaccine, that’s what I’m going to do. Why would I jeopardize anyone’s health and wellbeing?"

It helps that Leach hasn't seen a serious dip in sales since closing the gallery in March. Unlike past economic crashes her gallery's lived through, many people who can afford to buy fine art are still employed and financially stable. The only difference is that they're working from home, staring at blank walls.

"People want to be around beautiful things, especially during unnerving times," said Leach. "I think that's why the landscaping and gardening business is doing so well right now, too."

Leach's gallery is one of dozens located in and around Portland's Pearl District that participates in Portland's long-running First Thursday art walk. The monthly event can bring thousands of people through a gallery's door in a single night, creating a critical opportunity for galleries and artists to make sales, build community, and gain exposure in a city brimming with talent. With COVID-19 forcing First Thursday into a temporary hiatus, some galleries are experimenting with new ways to attract the public's attention.

For Blackfish Gallery, a cooperative art gallery located around the corner from Elizabeth Leach Gallery, that means running a virtual art show on its website, featuring a new piece of art every day from each of the gallery's 30 members, and allowing artists to talk about their work over Zoom. The gallery has also created an online store for the first time in its 41 years. Finding new ways to stay connected is not just critical for the gallery's own survival, but for its artists' morale.

"The secret to sustainability is our community," said Blackfish director Kristin Solomon. "It's so important artists feel supported right now. This is the time that artist go to work... times of tragedy. Their work will help our society heal and move forward."

Solomon pointed to the work coming from local artists, like the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art's (PICA) mid-May virtual arts festival and fundraiser Beyond Now, inspired and driven by the pandemic.

With 30 artists splitting the cooperative's bills (and the gallery's landlord temporally waiving rent payments), Solomon isn't too worried about business' current finances. She's more concerned about the impact the closures will have on Portland's arts community as a whole.

"We’re not in any hurry to get back to business as usual at this time," said Solomon. "But it's hard not knowing when we'll be able to all come together again."

Other galleries, however, have discovered new communities by taking their business online. C3:Initiative, a nonprofit art gallery located two blocks east of Blackfish, found that their virtual gallery and artists' discussions attracted people who wouldn't otherwise participate.

"For people with chronic pain, or are Deaf... or have other physical challenges, going to an art opening isn't always a comfortable activity," said C3:Initiative Director Shir Ly Camin Grisanti. "But we've connected with them online. It's highlighted how much we could have been doing already to improve accessibility."

The pandemic hasn't cancelled C3:Initiative's current residency for papermaking artists, or other upcoming residency programs. Grisanti said C3:Initiative has been careful to make sure artists are only interacting with one staff member in person throughout the residency and signing on to informed consent agreements about safety beforehand.

Accessibility to art is something Brian Ferriso, director of the Portland Art Museum (PAM), has been contemplating in the past months. While PAM's been shuttered during the pandemic, the organization has been using its virtual platform to connect with students and communities that don't always feel at home in a massive museum, like low-income communities and communities of color.

Ferriso said that once PAM eventually reopens, he's interested in creating more dedicated opportunities—whether it's through special events or exhibits—for these communities to feel welcome within the museum's walls.

"We want to be very purposeful in really making sure those audiences and individuals continue to engage with us," Ferriso said. "Art is going to be part of the healing process when this ends. For everyone."

While PAM operates on a different scale from the city's small art galleries, Ferriso said Portland's art community is very much an ecosystem, where one organization's downfall can hurt everyone.

"We’re only as healthy as the artists, the galleries, and the mid-sized arts organizations are," he said.

At Disjecta, North Portland's nonprofit art gallery, members of the public have become featured artists during the COVID-19 saga. In early May, Disjecta shifted a planned exhibit on artists' "sacred objects" to Instagram, where they let the public contribute by snapping a photo of their own items considered sacred.

"It almost seemed like it was meant to be an online project all along," said Blake Shell, director of Disjecta. "Highlighting what is sacred to people at this time felt very poignant."

Like Elizabeth Leach Gallery, Disjecta has remained open to scheduled appointments since March. But Shell said the gallery has only received a handful of inquires.

While Shell said she had an initial shock about how much money the nonprofit was slated to lose due to cancelled shows, receptions, and events, she's confident that it will still be "in good shape" when it eventually reopens, though she's not sure when that will be. That's because Disjecta owns its building in the Kenton Neighborhood, and is still collecting rent from other tenants who use the space. Disjecta also qualified for the federal Payroll Protection Program, allowing the nonprofit to keep paying staff during the economic slowdown.

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"I feel very lucky," said Shell. "It's a challenging time."

Every art gallery director the Mercury spoke with shared their anticipation for the art that will be created during this particularly challenging moment in history. Solomon, with Blackfish Gallery, called artists the "historians of our culture," while C3:Initiative's Gristanti said that culture is defined by artists.

"Art has guided the world through times of hardships in the past," said Grisanti. "I see the same thing in artists processing this moment today. Artists are at the helm of answering the question, 'What do want this world to look like?' I’m excited to see what kind of cultural shifts are on the horizon. It gives me hope for the days to come."