In the governor's March 16 proclamation of the shutdown, art galleries were called out alongside museums, theaters, hair salons, and gyms as non-essential services to be closed immediately. In the time between that announcement and Inslee's introduction of his phased Safe Start plan in late May, gallery owners in the city organized a letter to the governor requesting for galleries to be consciously uncoupled from the same category as art museums or gyms.
The letter—partly organized by Sarah Traver of Traver Gallery and signed by over 30 galleries in the city—strove to illuminate how the public interacts differently with galleries as opposed to traditional retail or museum spaces, outlining a list of actions that would be taken by galleries to ensure the safety of staff and visitors.
"We believe that commercial art galleries are in the lowest risk category for re-opening. Our daily traffic flow is very low compared to shops or bookstores," the letter reads. "Art galleries can support social distancing far more easily as we have open floor plans, allowing plenty of space for the few visitors we may have at any moment."
Over the phone, Traver said they sent this letter off in late April but heard crickets from the governor's office.
But when Inslee announced his Safe Start plan in May, galleries were not called out in a similar way, leading to confusion as to whether or not they would be included in Phase 2 with retail (because you buy stuff off the walls) or in Phase 3 with museums (for their similar, ambulatory nature).
After a meeting between Traver, Chihuly Studio President and CEO Leslie Jackson Chihuly, Executive Director of ArtsWA Karen Hanan, and King County Creative Economy Director Kate Becker in the first week of June, it was determined retail art galleries could, indeed, reopen according to retail guidelines seeing as they follow the proper precautions.
Besides traditional show openings and programming like First Thursdays put on hold until the government gives a go-ahead, going to the gallery doesn't look that much different from before—except for the masks, hand sanitizer, and proper social distancing.
Traver told me since they've reopened under the new guidelines, people have been slowly coming by for scheduled appointments as needed and the gallery intends to go forward with their planned summer exhibition schedule. "Everyone is doing it a little bit differently," she told me. "Some have regular business hours or by appointment, some doing half time—there's some flexibility."
Katelyn Norris, director of Koplin del Rio Gallery, said they are trying to adapt to these "wild times" as best they can. Since they've re-opened their doors in mid-June, visitors must set up viewings by appointment only and have limited guests to two at time. They require masks—as is mandated—and have a table set up near the entrance with social distancing goods. KDR will continue to run some of their programming online, from a series of interviews with artists at home during the pandemic to hosting monthly fundraising sales to benefit social justice organizations.
Co-director of Stonington Gallery Becky Blanchard—who is one of the signatories of the original letter—wrote to me that the gallery is "naturally a bit nervous to be re-opening" but they are going through a number of modifications to mitigate that risk. In addition to the requirements outlined by the state, the gallery is open fewer days for shorter hours; allowed immunocompromised staff to work at home; checks temperatures at the door; added plexiglass barriers and air filters to the space; and allows only six visitors in at a time. Most visitors either call ahead to make appointments or visit the gallery for a specific reason, which helps keep risk low.
"We're hoping that we can continue to stay open so that visitors can view our artists' works in person, and enjoy our space," Blanchard said.