How to Run An Arts Event During a Pandemic

(Lipstick & Masks Don’t Mix)

I now know what it takes to paint, plan and welcome people to art events and sell art during a pandemic.

It takes: flexible dates (watch out for panic), constant considerate communication (bring in forgiveness), safety & sterility measures, and in the end, letting go and gratitude.

I’d never painted a whole art collection during a national lockdown.
I’d never planned an art show during a global pandemic.
I’d never seen the relief of culture lovers reconnecting in the “new normal.”

More art lovers showed up to my art show IMMENSITIES than expected. They came with smiles behind masks, in hope for interaction, solitary culture vultures, some in pairs and some small families, all arriving slowly but surely to Art Base gallery here in Brussels, Belgium.

It was my honour to welcome some visitors on their first venture out of the house since the beginning of the global Coronavirus pandemic.

The pandemic switched up my audience. I noticed those taking precautions were buying art online, and the majority of those coming in person were a new audience, many people I met for the very first time. It was surprising to meet so many new people after months of interacting with only a small bubble.

Here are my suggestions on How to Run A Successful In-Person Arts Event During a Pandemic.

Step 1) Make sure your dates are in line with pandemic restrictions.

Check both you and the gallery are comfortable with the date, postpone if there is a lockdown or red-zone level restriction that would limit your audience or make you as hosts feel uncomfortable. Check the government guidelines for numbered groups of non-family members. Make sure your ticket sales option has restrictions in place that reflect the government guidelines. The main theme underlying these step is the uncertainty, the fear of planning things that might not come about, the wariness in case it will be rescheduled or cancelled. “Pandemic permitting,” might be the phrase to put at the end of every supply chain interaction. Work towards the event on any element that you can despite a possible changing date. It’s better to have everything ready and postpone than wait until dates are secure and be biting your nails for months and rushing at the last minute. The quality of your work will be closer to guaranteed if you do everything steadily.

Step 2) Make sure your audience understand what’s going on.

This is where we must embrace social media (as dark and scary as it is). Every time there was an iota of information regarding location, dates, preparation, event plans, I made sure to communicate it with utter transparency through almost all my social media channels and website. This was exhausting, but I hoped gallery visitors anticipating the show were getting answers to the questions that they wanted to ask. I answered event safety questions from gallery visitors through Facebook (personal pages, professional pages and event invites), Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, email, text message SMS, Facebook messenger, WhatsApp, my website, Instagram direct messages and telephone calls.

I made three mistakes.

  1. I should have made an email invitation or forwarded on the gallery’s newsletter with the full description of the event to those guests who do not use social media at all.
  2. Although I made Instagram and Facebook stories, I should have also made video blogs on my YouTube channel to update people and to outline the strategies that we were putting in place for other art event planners that might want these guidelines in a visual format (e.g., I watch How To…. videos on YouTube more than reading blogs like this). This video output could have included a live Zoom or YouTube streaming experience of the artwork that would have made it accessible to e.g. family far away (I’m still bummed my mother has not seen any of this painting collection in person).
  3. There were a lot of TV news cameras and newspaper cameras in the gallery. This happened at my last show and a lady confidentially asked to have her background profile removed from any social media posts. I mentioned this in advance when talking in person or on the phone to prospective visitors but I should have made it clearer in every interaction, including emphasising to gallery visitors that they then have the duty to inform their plus ones. There was one guest’s plus one, a gentleman in particular who did not feel comfortable having news cameras in the gallery and I regretted not giving him a more reassuring fair warning.

Those mistakes, those gaps in the information output, are regretful. However, the main theme underlying this step is forgiveness. You cannot do everything. No one can. You cannot create high quality work, put together a high-quality event AND use all the social media and communication networks to the extent they offer (there are always more ways you can utilise them, that’s part of the addiction). Unless you have a massive media communication team at hand, and even then, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to coordinate all the information needed during a pandemic.

The reason that you can never “win” and do it all is because it’s a moving target. It’s a living organism. Event planning is a protean beast at the best of times. During the global Coronavirus pandemic, we’ve noticed governments sharing conflicting information. If the official information is conflicting, and ever changing, then we individuals have no hope of doing everything by the book. Just try your very best to respect the official guidelines but also pay attention to what feels right for you and your audience.

Even if the government says you can now have up to 200 people at an event, you might not feel comfortable and you might know your audience well too. (They are likely to feel similar to you because your audience is attracted to your content due to the connection you feel already, the shared expression of humanity already bridging between you.) If you don’t feel comfortable and you know your audience won’t either, then consider doing it a different way (an online gallery experience perhaps) that would suit you on a personal level and the people you are hoping to connect with. More people have been buying art online than for any of my previous shows. However, if you intend an in-person event to connect art from your heart to people with a kinship, you need to make sure the presentation reflects that relationship. The way you would want a wedding to reflect your relationship.

If you put on an event that doesn’t suit your personality or needs, the art itself will become alienated from the people that end up trying to connect to it. It will be disingenuous to invite everyone you know to a place where you don’t want them to be. We all have to be in the right head space to connect in the arts. Unless you are buying original art for investment purposes only, it’s more likely you’ll be looking to find a bond with a painting. We need to be feel safe to engage with the artwork. This is not the time for forcing provocation upon an already anxiety-burdened public.

Step 3) Prepare a safe entrance and exit strategy.

Gallery visitors were ready to go out on the town, but in a safe way. They were tired of not living their lives. The gallery owner devised a numbered ticket rotation system where you viewed the paintings in a clockwise direction. If more than 20 people were in the room you were asked to pass your number to the next person at the door and step to the open-air gathering space just outside the gallery. We planned that if there were more than 40 people on opening night that I would then do my little welcoming and contextualising speech amongst everyone outside, rather than encouraging us all to linger too close inside.

Step 4) Love your collaborators.
Show some compassion to all the other people making this thing happen in your team. The photographer has lost a lot of business during the lockdown. The gallery owner had to cancel a lot of events and had rising debts. I’m sure many art galleries are facing untenable rent and utility bills. I stepped up the dialectic rate and the empathy in my communication with all suppliers and contractors and collaborators. A pandemic is a time for an empathetic friend, not a diva. (Actually, I don’t know when is the time to be a diva.)

In this circumstance I listened to whatever the gallery owner suggested and worked as hard as possible to be flexible on dates and in-gallery hours. I paid the photographer more than invoiced because we’ve got to keep each other alive when we can. An arts event is more of a family gathering than a corporate event would be. We are often poorly paid for the amount of hours put in, underappreciated as limited producers in the capitalist system, and each of us are facing just as much uncertainty as our cousins in the theatre and music spheres. No one here is future proof and the new normal is eating into all of our savings.

Just be kind.

Step 5) Mask wearing

VIP guests asked “Should I wear a mask in front of the news cameras?” I worried my lipstick would have rubbed around my mouth like a clown. Should I wear make up under my mask? Should I take my mask off when being interviewed? The government guidelines on mask wearing changed mid-show. Again, I think it’s courteous to ask permission from the press journalist or interlocutor, “do you mind if I take my mask off?” I also think this harks back to the comfort level described above. If you are more comfortable taking precautions your audience might be similar to you and want the same things. If you are feverishly denying this global event and it is part of your brand to clan together with other deniers, you’re probably reading the room correctly and in that kind of event masks might not even be welcome!

Step 6) Cleaning

Keeping a sterile home is impossible, a sterile public space is even more tricky. If it were my gallery, I might have budgeted for more cleaning, however I understand it’s a LOT to do and stay on top of and costly in time and energy or cleaning bills. This is one of those areas of concern that has been voiced to me by parents of young children (as I am) who are already losing the battle of control. I feel it helps to know the space you are entering, as you are also entering into a nonverbal contract of trust. You might have visited in the past and known what their level of cleanliness is or been to similar venues or museums and become familiar with what to expect. Do not expect a higher standard of sterility than what you experienced pre-pandemic, because I can speak with assurance, the post-pandemic world is more strapped for time and cash and the cleaning budget might be one of the first things to slip. If parenting a child who touches everything (and then their mouths) is part of the concern, then this needs to be assessed by the parent who is battling with what compromised level of control they need to in order to enjoy an activity in a public space.

Step 7) Letting Go

This bring us to Step 7, letting go. It’s the day of the show. You’ve survived lockdown. You’ve done the artwork to the peak of your present ability. You’ve prepared the hanging devices. You’ve transported it safely to the venue. You’ve hung and curated the space. The lights are set up. You’ve communicated with transparency to your audience and with kindness to all collaborators. You’ve detailed mask safety, safe entrance and exit, cleanliness and courtesy with everyone involved to a comfort level that suits both you and your guests. You’ve got invitations up online and a microphone available if needed. You’re wearing something you’re excited to wear. (Don’t choose heels after months of not wearing heels! My toes experienced frightening levels of numbness after this event, for a record amount of time!) You’re in place and your car has a little note on it saying “Please don’t tow me, I’m in the gallery right now, please tell me if there’s a problem with parking here,” and similarly, your child is safe at home with a familiar babysitter and a little note that says “Please read her four stories before bed.”

The event started at 6pm. There was a moment only around 5.30 wherein I had a small vision of the near future: I know who I am and what I made, I know what this is going to be.

It was the first time I allowed myself to imagine what it would be like.

Prior to that moment I’d been unable to project a vision of the event. My own fear of the ever-developing pandemic caused a mental imagery block. This is panic. Long term, sustained panic. This is the kind of thing that causes mind-body PTSD. Painting during lockdown through the anxiety and paralysis: unable to be certain if the main exhibition event would happen or not, unable to do anything but respond to the entrapment with landscape art that represents freedom, all I could do was make sure I communicated clearly through my art and show up on the day. It might not have been a perfectly executed event, but I could not be more than I am and the art was exactly as good as I could deliver to the best of my abilities in this exact moment.

How do we calm panic in this instance? How do we cure mind-body PTSD when trying to do something normalizing in a not normal new normal? It feels innocent to offer art to friends post-pandemic, but it’s actually a huge undertaking. So we must circle back to forgiveness. I forgive myself for not following all of social media’s siren calls. I forgive myself for not being as slim as I was before lockdown. I forgive myself for not painting that one painting to the majesty of my original vision. I forgive myself for not being able to have family close-by. I forgive myself for letting go of my normal painting-by-sight. Forgiveness for painting by memory, for my new artistic abstractions which are not my normal skillset, but they are new, evolved skills. I forgive myself for weeping to calm my perfectionism. I forgive myself for making this all that it is, during this strange era, whatever it becomes.

Sustained fear is unhealthy. We have all gone through a major global event with a lot of uncertainty involved. One suggestion in PTSD therapy is to connect mind and body again. Small actions like focusing on the sensation of hair brushing, or taking warm baths, or going for nature walks and paying attention to breathing in sun and air… Also, making movement a part of daily life: silly dancing (be safe wiggling to the radio when in the shower), rough and tumble child’s play, focusing on the tasteful pleasure of healthy food choices. It’s incredibly difficult to find space for small movements when we prioritise big achievements. But without the mindful small movements we can’t survive with mental and physical health intact to enjoy this or the next big events.

Last Step For Life (Never to Forget) Gratitude

Thank your guests for showing up. Thank your art collectors for investing in a living artist. Thank your collaborators for bringing their skills to the table. And acknowledge that your stubborn commitment to your art made a live event. Passing on that commitment to your art is a kind of death, a possible depression and stepping back from an event you committed to would be fading away from the community you’re contributing to, and fading away from the positive vision of vibrant humanity you’re trying to express and keep aflame at this time. The real-life interactions are brimming with possibility at these kinds of events and we all need that kind of optimism at this time. Thank the gallery owner for sharing their space. Thank the journalists for sharing their platforms. Thank the locality for a sense of place. Thank the babysitter for the childcare. Thank the support from the loved ones that are left. And pat yourself on the back for having made something new and hopeful come alive in this ridiculous world.

My art show IMMENSITIES is on until Oct 10th. Art Base, 29 rue des Sables, 1000 Bruxelles

Photos by Iris Haidau

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