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Digital sales not a viable business alternative for local art galleries during COVID-19 shutdown

No business these days is immune from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, be it ones that fall under industries designated “essential” and those that don’t.

Many in the latter category have resorted to completely digital means to keep going with varying degrees of success, but this isn’t really a viable alternative for Santa Barbara’s many art galleries.

For one thing, the era of economic uncertainty means that many Santa Barbara residents will think twice about buying art with what would formerly have been considered disposable income. In an interview with the News-Press, Sullivan Goss gallery Owner Nathan Vonk pointed out this reason along with his gallery’s closure for its sales decrease, which he estimated is around 80%.

“Art is not something that people are buying a lot because they’re worried about other things,” he said. 

This was echoed by Diane Waterhouse, eponymous co-owner of Waterhouse Gallery along with her husband Ralph Waterhouse. 

“I think people are focused on the virus, their health, what the future holds,” she said. 

The owners are trying to boost the online sales of their gallery, but to no avail.

This ultimately is a prospect of unlikely success according to several gallery owners, who told the News-Press variations of the same thing regarding the possibility of increasing online sales to offset financial losses due to lost gallery visitors. Even if there were no economic uncertainty from the coronavirus, buyers tend to like physically seeing artwork before spending a thousand plus dollars on it. 

“Almost always they’re going to want to see it in person before they buy it,” Mr. Vonk said. 

Sullivan Goss displays works featured in its current and past exhibitions on the gallery website and is presently trying to bolster its online sales given the situation. However, Mr. Vonk added that he has no illusions about the possibility of digital sales making up the loss of in-person sales. So long as he has the overhead of Sullivan Goss’ location on Anapamu Street to pay for, under no circumstances would this even be possible.

“I would never be able to cover all my costs just by doing online retail. Not even close,” he said. 

Similar sentiments were stated by 10 West Gallery Director Jan Ziegler, who told the News-Press that her gallery hasn’t experienced any sales since it shut its doors on March 16. As she explained, 10 West’s website isn’t so much a means of selling art, but rather a way of getting people into the gallery, which is where they ultimately make a purchase. 

“When a customer sees something they like on the website, it brings them into the gallery, which in turn, exposes them to all of the work displayed,” she said. 

In the experience of Yuliya Lennon, owner of the self-named Yuliya Lennon Fine Art, online art sales work best for smaller items, reprintings, and gifts in the price range of $50 to $100. When it comes to original works on canvas with a price tag in the neighborhood of $1,000 and up, they like to see the piece on the wall in front of them as there are qualities in the originals that aren’t captured in reprints or online digital images. 

“It’s not the same. Artwork has a physical aspect to it,” Ms. Lennon said. 

Of all the galleries who spoke to the News-Press, Waterhouse expressed having the most prominent online sales. Prior to the pandemic, online sales tended to account for a sizable minority, 35%, of its total business. The rest of its business consists of in-person sales, which the co-owners estimated divides into 60% out-of-town individuals and 40% local residents. Thus, even if restrictions are soon lifted, Waterhouse is unlikely to experience sales it is used to until Santa Barbara’s tourism industry is restored to full health. 

“No tourism hurts us, no locals hurts us,” Mr. Waterhouse said. “It’s a double whammy.” 

While galleries are still making sales, they have tended to be purchased from art collectors or individuals who have bought from the galleries in the past and are already familiar with the work and its quality. Mr. Vonk and Ms. Lennon both said that this is the case with their business. The latter went as far to say that she has “never sold anything through Facebook or Instagram advertising to people I’ve never met.”  

Online sales may not be an engine for restoring lost revenue, but galleries are using their digital presence to let the public see exhibitions they had planned for the near future that can’t presently be seen in person. Sullivan Goss always has three exhibits mounted at its location and is currently in the process of switching two of its current showcases. According to Mr. Vonk, his gallery is increasing its online outreach to promote the exhibits that will soon be hung up. 

At the same time that COVID-19 shut down business as usual, Santa Barbara Fine Art Gallery was scheduled to open “Along the Way West,” an exhibition showcasing the works of local landscape artist Michael Drury, who founded on-location painter organization The Oak Group. Co-owner Julie Schloss told the News-Press that although the exhibit’s reception has been postponed, she hopes being able to see Mr. Drury’s latest works on the gallery’s website will bring joy to the public at this time.  

“When Michael gave us the paintings that were going to be in the show, it really brought happiness to me so I can imagine what it’s going to do for collectors who are seeing this through Instagram, Facebook, and the website,” she said. 

Until restrictions are lifted, many Santa Barbara galleries have their own ways of weathering this storm. Mr. Vonk has enough saved up to pay for his expenses without laying off any of Sulivan Goss’ employees until around mid-summer. Ms. Lennon has paid work as she was recently commissioned to paint a book cover. 

Though 10 West has made no sales as of late, Ms. Ziegler expressed gratitude that it has a benevolent landlord that is allowing the gallery to pay whatever it can afford while business is disrupted.

Santa Barbara Fine Art Gallery also has a landlord willing to work with it through this difficult time. Considering that other small local businesses she has seen haven’t been so fortunate, Ms. Schloss expressed gratitude that the gallery is in a relatively good position. 

“We’re one of the lucky ones,” she said. 

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