When I visited Skye Gallery on March 7, it was packed – people spilling out onto the sidewalk, voices bubbling and music throbbing inside the brightly lit reception for DIVINE 2020. On April 29, Jonny and I faced each other across a white table in the back room, masks in place while keeping a careful social distance. The opening seemed like a memory from another world. I asked this Providence gallery owner how the pandemic had gone down at Skye.
Jonny Skye: I was closely monitoring online; every day there was a new unfolding. We’d had that very well-attended opening on March 7; even then, a couple of concerned people wore gloves and stayed outside. This gave me pause. By March 12, when Mayor Elorza declared a state of emergency and the city stopped issuing entertainment licenses, I knew I had to cancel all events. By March 28, Governor Raimondo said all non-essential businesses must close. Everyone was staying inside by that point anyway.
Cathren Housley (Motif): Did you have a plan in place for adjusting to the new restrictions?
JS: I did not have a plan. I am still making it up as I go. There is no solid ground in this dilemma we face. Being flexible and paying attention to all the information available is daily work; it has taken some time to sort through what makes sense business wise for the gallery.
CH: RI has really stepped up to help the people of the state. What was available for sole proprietors like you?
JS: I applied for over eight grants and supports. As soon as I saw something go up, I dropped everything and applied. The Artist Relief Fund (RISCA, RI Foundation, Providence Dept of Art, Culture and Tourism, and the Alliance for Artist Communities) responded first and really gave me a bolt of confidence that I wasn’t going to lose the gallery. Soon after, the money through the RI Dept. of Labor and Training for small businesses also came through. The other grants I applied for I haven’t heard from yet. I really need to find grants, as my business model is commission based – I don’t have assets to borrow against.
CH: What other responsibilities and problems have you had to take on because of the pandemic shutdown?
JS: There is too much to say here. I am responsible for supporting the health and optimism of the artists I work with – ongoing conversations, sending opportunity links, writing and submitting on their behalf, and generally sharing woes and hopes. The gallery is not just a business, it is a support system for many people; I do consulting with local businesses outside of the gallery as well. I am a mother of four grown children who are navigating the situation independently, yet need varying degrees of support. For me, and most others, providing emotional and tangible support to family and friends, along with the daily worry of infection, has added a lot of extra responsibility.
CH: So, how do you do business with all that going on, when people are being hit with a global crisis like this one?
JS: I felt morally conflicted. How could I promote art sales when people were anxious, sick, dying, hungry and housing insecure, when the scaffolding of everyday life was being taken away? I know art is critical to humanity, but I couldn’t reconcile it in my heart. When the idea of virtual openings was pushed by folks, I couldn’t reconcile that for the gallery either. I see art objects as talismans, not just images. They hold the spirit of the artists who poured themselves into their creation. Being able to gather at events and opening celebrations were key marketing and community building efforts of the gallery. So I’ve had to let my thoughts and feelings unfold, along with all this new input, to find the right mix of respect for people and art that aligned with the mission of the gallery, and the reason I am doing this anyway.
CH: How do you keep going in the meantime?
JS: I was heartened by some early success from the DIVINE 2020 exhibition – mostly friendly neighbors who wanted to ensure the gallery would remain and were also excited to acquire a new piece of art while supporting an artist and a giving positive boost to their creative confidence. This energy has waned in the past month or so, but luckily, the added supports I mentioned earlier are allowing me to cover the basics of rent and utilities and give me room to imagine and build the framework for a new business model. I want to capitalize on the need of folks for intimacy and a sensory experience with art, as it connects us with humanity. I have decided to hang shows in the front of the gallery through the end of the year so people can clearly view new work from the sidewalk. I will operate by appointment, encouraging patrons to come safely one or two at a time, experience the work, enjoy conversation and check out our back room stock. I have built a new scheduling function into the website, skye-gallery.com, as well added more work to the website. I will continue my IG and FB promotion and add new initiatives as the days unfold, to stay relative to what’s going on.
CH: What do you think the biggest disadvantages to lockdown are? And do you see anything positive coming out of it?
JS: The negatives are the anxiety, fear, separation, dying alone, mourning alone and the seeding of more distrust.
At the same time, we have been given the gift of slowing down – the earth gets a breath and we get a breath. There is an opportunity in this for each of us to reflect on the meaning of our lives and the ways our patterns aligned or didn’t align to what truly matters to each of us. It’s a short trip our spirits get to take in the human body. Taking the time to see who we are outside of work hustle and consumption is good for our culture and the collective energy of the planet.
CH: Any parting thoughts?
JS: I am supremely grateful that Skye Gallery is important to this community. I am committed to the artists and patrons who value it and will continue to ensure its relevance so that it can continue to uplift and help us see a way forward with respect for life and our culture.
Skye Gallery will present new paintings by Brett Cimino, on view beginning Saturday, May 23, 2020. INTERTWINED, the current show featuring the work of Nepalese artist Ragini Upadhayay Grela (see story at motifri.com/ragini-upadhyay-grela) will continue to be available for view and purchase at skye-gallery.com, along with the works of other artists. You can schedule a visit to 381 Broadway in Providence at skye-gallery.com; Skye Gallery can always be reached at email@example.com and 401-481-4480, and be sure to follow@skye_gallery