Home » ArtInsights: How an art gallery is surviving and Adapting in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic

ArtInsights: How an art gallery is surviving and Adapting in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic

Many of our great friends who also happen to be clients have been supporting ArtInsights gallery since last March when the Covid Pandemic effectively shut down the country (or it certainly should have..), and it’s not just heartwarming but an honor for that to be the case, but we’ve been asked many times by them, by folks online, and by friends how ArtInsights and how Michael and I are faring in what must be the worst time for small business since The Great Depression. That’s almost 100 years. Bummer for us to be part of this time in the economy, but since we’ve been in small business for over 30 years, we can’t be completely shocked. The short answer is that we’re hanging in there and doing ok up to this point, and that’s not a little because of our loyal clients, old and new. I thought I’d share our experience, and how we’ve found new clients at a time when so few are spending money at brick and mortar small businesses.

First, I’ll say something I’ve said many times to friends and clients. Very very few people get into owning and running an art gallery expecting to make a living at it. Even in the world of animation (and I’d say film art, but there are so few of us out there, there’s nothing to compare us to) nearly all the galleries are owned by people who don’t need to make money. Mostly it’s something people who don’t have to work and come from a trust fund or a family with money do because it seems like fun, or charming…or maybe a place to drink wine and chat? We are not those people. We can’t really afford to make many mistakes, at least not big ones. For example, the one time I misunderstood how advertising on YouTube worked and spent $800 in one week, I barely slept for days. (Lesson learned there!) Our time is our currency, and that’s what we spend instead of a big budget for advertising and marketing. We’ve had to learn how to do things ourselves. That includes what art we offer here in the gallery.

Our focus has been film art and animation for the 25+ years we’ve been in Reston Town Center. We have had to, during that time, shift and change with what we see in the marketplace. Here are a few examples:

We noticed about 20 years ago there was a lot of restored animation art showing up at auction, so we started trying to only represent production art that was in original condition.

When Disney kept switching the companies they had representing their art, stopped selling production art, and started only selling ‘Interpretive Disney Art’, we started focusing on the artists that actually worked for Disney, rather than those randomly chosen for their style. We have amplified Michelle St. Laurent (art directed for Disney production designer at the theme parks) , Tim Rogerson (graphic designer for the theme parks), Toby Bluth (art director for The Tigger Movie, etc), Lorelay Bove (visual development/concept artist at Pixar), Peter and Harrison Ellenshaw (Oscar winning matte background painter and special effects artists, respectively), James Coleman (background artist for many Disney films, including The Little Mermaid) Jim Salvati (concept artists for multiple studios), Bill Silvers (concept and background artist for multiple studios, worked on Lilo & Stitch & a bunch of other Disney movies) and John Alvin (movie poster artist who worked on over 250 posters, created Lion King, The Little Mermaid, & Aladdin posters for Disney).

When artists who had spent a large part of their careers at Hanna Barbera and Warner Brothers started selling their art, we started commissioning art from them, (other galleries followed suit, but imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and more commissions mean more money for these wonderful people!), so we have exclusive art by Bob Singer and Willie Ito.

When artists went out on their own or approached Disney directly to sell their art, we found ways to amplify and represent their work, leading to exclusive art from them, so we have art from Bill Silvers you can only get at ArtInsights.

When auctions started selling more and more animation art that had been restored, we carried less animation art, but focused on more exclusive, rarer images like key set-ups and concept art.

We saw that Warner Brothers, Disney, and Hanna Barbera limited editions were being overproduced, so we limited our inventory of them, guiding our clients to original art and only the most iconic limited editions, and only when the price was right.

We’ve had a good internet presence since the beginning of our business. Let me tell you, that’s been interesting. Anyone who had to have a good website that represents original art but couldn’t spend $10,000 on creating it had quite a time in the 1990s. What that meant was doing a lot of blogging and a lot of updating ourselves. We’ve also had about 10 completely new websites over the years. That got us used to adding inventory and writing about animation and film art. You know that website Marvel designed as a cool way to center the story in 1994? Our website looked almost exactly like that:

This website made me nostalgic for the ArtInsights website’s 3rd incarnation!

It’s the fact that we always focused as much on our website and selling online as we did in the brick and mortar store that has, in part, saved us during the pandemic. We literally see nearly no one that isn’t a longterm client or ours, or someone who has searched us out online right now in the gallery. (at the moment, I’m quite glad of that, because I don’t want some random, vaguely interested lookie-loo giving me and mine Covid)

We have had to use Facebook, twitter, and Instagram (free, not paid) to get our message out as well. That worked better before they made it impossible for anyone to see posts without paying for them. Occasionally we still make a sale through social media, but it’s not usually from someone just seeing a post. It’s mostly from being part of secret groups. Facebook and all the other social media sites should have offered free advertising and marketing to small businesses during the pandemic. They said they were going to, but I never saw any proof that it actually happened…this has been a problem for small businesses since 2016, when political pages and advertising took over Facebook et al.

So, how have we found ways to be ok through Covid in 2020? It really started with my ability to write (see my work on: TheCredits, and The Alliance of Women Film Journalists) and my concern for other folks who were FREAKING out about their loved ones or themselves dying of a horrible virus. Early in the pandemic, we shut the gallery to in-person visits. I tried to think what I could do to help people feel better, and how I could help artists and wholesale companies I wanted to support. Since I’ve been in the animation and film art business for longer than most folks, I figured I could write about what I knew, and I could interview artists and figures in animation that might distract and entertain. I talked to Bob Singer, (and got exclusive original Hanna Barbera art directly from him) Talked to Don Cameron about his work on Batman: The Animated Series

and got some great pieces (many of which are sold now, but still!) from Batman and Superman, interviewed Disney interpretive artists Tim Rogerson and Michelle St. Laurent about their lives in art and got exclusive images from them for sale (you can see all Tim Rogerson art here and all of Michelle St. Laurent art here. I also found a wonderful collection of vintage Mickey Mouse drawings that I loved and wrote about it. You can find all those drawings HERE.

Tim rocks! I was glad to catch up with him and talk about his life in the time of Covid.

While it’s true I knew a lot I could just write about off the cuff, in the process of all this blogging, I found out all sorts of things. I learned about the Willow movie production when I was researching for the John Alvin Willow art blog. I might have learned more about A Charlie Brown Christmas than I ever thought I’d know for my Christmas Peanuts animation art blog and (actually one of my favorites in terms of research, a REAL black hole in the best way!) was when I dove into the story behind Snoopy and his connection to NASA for the release of the new ‘Mission Control: We’re Ready for Our Assignment’ Peanuts limited edition.

As to my dear friend John Alvin, I wrote about his work on Hook, in part because *MIRACLE of MIRACLES!* Andrea Alvin found 5 copies of a production used image from the film used for the opening sequence from the film. We sold them all as a result of the blog, but you can always check with me to see if she finds any others.

The wonderful art created by John Alvin for the opening sequence of Hook.

Andrea Alvin’s closets are like the door to Narnia. She keeps finding things and calling me with exciting news. I keep hoping she’ll discover more production art used for Blade Runner or some such, but that’s just a dream I have (that also includes electric sheep..).

I also wrote a blog about the art from Cats Don’t Dance, from which we found two original backgrounds. John Alvin did the movie poster for that movie. I had no idea there was such an obsessive fanbase for art and information from Cats Don’t Dance. I had never watched it, and once I did, I had a better idea why so many people love it, especially dancers.

I had a wonderful chat with Ruth Clampett, the daughter of Bob Clampett, about Bob’s tv show Beanie and Cecil, and got some exclusive art from the original cartoon. That blog was a big hit, and we sold most of the art we got from the Clampett estate because of it. I can tell you Beany & Cecil fans are the best! After all these years, they still just love those quirky characters!

Sopwith Productions, the company that sells all the art from the Bill Melendez Studios, is my absolute favorite wholesale company. They are always willing to connect me with animators and artists for interviews, and that makes me, and the Charlie Brown TV animated specials and Peanuts art collectors so happy!

So much wonderful art representing the Peanuts cartoons! Thanks, Sopwith!

It was through them that I got the art from the MetLife commercial featuring all the Peanuts characters together as an orchestra. They are some of the most beautiful cels I’ve ever seen, and since Snoopy is my favorite character and I grew up watching Charlie Brown cartoons, I loved learning about why these cels are so gorgeous. Bill Melendez got paid the same amount for a 15-30 second commercial as he did for making a 30 minute Peanuts cartoon special! I talk about this in my Beethoven’s 250th Birthday Peanuts animation blog.

Early on, I included something called the “COVID COMFORT CARTOON” or “COVID COMFORT CLIP” at the end of every blog, which was just a clip relating to a cartoon or film mentioned. It was fun finding something appropriate. I think my favorite was the one with the Hex Girls, a fictitious band first featured in Scooby Doo! and the Witch’s Ghost. In the late 90s when the band was introduced, it became a cult favorite for kids first exploring their sexuality, because there’s some androgyny and queerness afoot there, something you didn’t see in cartoons at the time.

I found that sometimes the links I added went bad, depending on who uploaded it in the first place, so I got choosier and more specific about what I included in the blogs. I have also always included some Covid Comfort in my newsletters, which started out weekly at the beginning of the pandemic, and have been shifted to bi-weekly (because the blogs take so much time to research and because I’m often adding a lot of art to the site before each newsletter…)

One of the other things ArtInsights has been doing through the Covid pandemic is incorporating charity connections in much of our sales. Early on, we gave 10% of all sales of anything hero-related to charities helping get PPE and safety support for frontline workers. We also started donating 10% of all sales of Harry Potter art to the National Center for Transgender Equality. That commitment will continue until we have sold all Harry Potter art currently in stock, and we won’t be ordering any more after we sell them through. We feel too strongly about supporting our trans brothers and sister to put any more money into JKR’s pockets, even as we still hold Harry Potter dear to our hearts and always will.

I’m sure you have seen our posts and promos about a partnership with our friend Julie, who makes masks over on Etsy at Joyful Creations by J. For folks who have been able to come by the gallery, you could and still can buy masks at the store, but all the money goes to Julie, who worked at a job that was too dangerous for her, being in a high-risk family, and now makes masks and creates clothing through her Etsy store. We started doing that in March, back when more folks were mask-adverse. (Gratefully most sane folks are wearing them now.)

All these blogs, COVID COMFORT CARTOONS, working with Julie, connecting with charity, having exclusive art you can only get through my gallery and posting about all of it on social media led way way more folks to find us online, which led to more clients and more sales.

Is it more work? Yes. It is way more work. Michael and I have never been afraid of work. If you’re someone who is in small business, especially with ArtInsights, an art gallery that has to make enough money to support a family, you can’t be afraid of hard work and long hours. But I also believe we have been succeeding because I started out the pandemic just wanting to soothe and comfort our friends and clients and anyone else who might find us. I also wanted the gallery’s success to extend to artists and companies we know and love. Never let anyone tell you that doing well and doing good can’t go hand in hand.

What do I think 2021 will bring to ArtInsights? I honestly have no idea. I hope I can find more interesting things to write about that relate to the art we sell and the artists we love and want to support. I know we’ll have a very low profile in terms of the physical gallery until the current virulent and terrifying wave of the virus is quelled. We’ll be focused online, where we can all gather and interact safely. Does it sting a little we are paying so much to be in a nice center when we aren’t many clients? Maybe a bit. But its also lovely that we are in an outside mall, where shoppers feel safer, and lovelier still that we can control our retail environment so that those who ARE high risk feel safe coming for a physical visit. We will be there, masked up, door open for ventilation, pens and door knobs wiped down, just like I’d want it in my favorite stores.

At ArtInsights, we feel incredibly grateful with all the small businesses closing down that we have, so far, found a way to survive. Hopefully our way will continue to keep us open, safe, and stable until we all see better days. With clients like you, we stand a very good chance.

What can you do to help? You can buy some art from our gallery! One of the ways we’ve stayed viable and on the radar of collectors is that we have so much art you can’t get anywhere else. From Bill Silvers artist proofs, to limited edition and original art by John Alvin, to exclusive collections of original art featuring Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and friends, we have some special pieces that you won’t see anywhere else.

Please go through our website and find some treasures for you family and/or to liven up the living space you’ll be working in and experiencing for the near future. Click here to see our latest acquisitions.

Thanks to all of you, old clients, new clients, potential clients…you are why we are still here and why we will be here in the future. You are the only reason, really. THANKS.

In the tradition of 2020/2021, I’ll end this blog with Covid Comfort Clips: Seems like a great idea to show the trailers to 3 great animated features released this year, all of which deserve at the very least to be nominated for an Oscar:

SOUL. Loved this film, as will every jazz fan and pianist the world over.
OVER THE MOON: Directors Glen Keane and John Kahrs make something beautiful.
WOLFWALKERS: the third in the Irish Folklore Trilogy. Gorgeous, spiritual, and moving.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.