Few industries have been spared from the COVID-19 pandemic’s clutches, and among the most vulnerable businesses are the kind lining Stoughton’s downtown.
In particular, the economic slowdown has posed a threat to the city’s art community.
Two Stoughton galleries told the Hub that while they have online shops where people can peruse their collections, there’s no substitute for a customer being able to walk by and stare at a piece in awe at a gallery, fair or opening art reception. And all of those have been shut down since mid-March.
“People tend to not buy art unless they can see it and touch it,” said Woodland Studios owner Alan Sheets, who has seen sales plummet by more than half since the state’s “Safer at Home” order went into effect March 25.
Abel Contemporary Gallery owner Theresa Abel said it’s also been devastating for artists to lose that personal connection with customers from seeing each other in person.
“Artists’ lives can be kind of a solitary existence,” Abel said. “You want that feedback about your work.”
Abel and Sheets agreed that many people view art as a luxury during times of financial hardship, further incentivizing the need to evolve their business models.
Adding to the struggle is the planned construction on Main Street this summer, which Sheets called a double whammy to Woodland Studios.
Sheets said he and other business owners he’s spoken to aren’t sure what Stoughton’s downtown will look like after the crisis lifts and the construction is over..
“There’s a lot of uncertainty,” Sheets said. “If we are losing money right now and our sales are down, people might still be afraid to shop (when things open up again).”
But both Sheets and Abel said they’ve invested so much time and funds into their businesses and their buildings, they will do whatever it takes to stay afloat. The two are not only selling pieces for their own profit, they represent many local and regional artists who are making the “starving artist” stereotype even more fitting.
“I think it’s really devastating for a lot of artists,” Abel said.
Trying to be optimistic
Sheets has hope that once people are allowed outside their homes again, they will have developed a newfound appreciation for the arts.
But he said he felt it was a “slap in the face” to be deemed a non-essential business during a trying time.
He said sales at Woodland, a former printing, framing and yarn shop he’s owned for four years, have likely dropped between 50-75% since the studios closed down.
Abel said she’s lost about 40% of her sales without foot traffic.
“A lot of small businesses … they already have a slim margin of profit,” she said. “A lot of people work hard even though they don’t make a lot. It doesn’t take a huge drop to be scary.”
It doesn’t help that both owners have put extensive work into the brick and mortar spaces where people view artists’ work, despite having an internet presence.
Sheets said he’s invested “hundreds of thousands of dollars” into the Woodland Studios building.
And Abel and her husband poured their savings into rehabilitating the old tobacco warehouse, going through what Abel regarded as an exhausting renovation when it moved to Stoughton from Paoli last year.
“This makes you realize how vulnerable you are,” she said.
Shortly after state, federal and county governments declared the coronavirus spread an emergency, Abel said she and her staff looked at the gallery’s upcoming art show schedule and postponed events for the next few months — even into 2021.
Fortunately, she said the gallery already had a strong online following.
“I’m grateful we had that infrastructure in place,” Abel said.
But as sales have dropped, she’s needed to take advantage of federal payroll grants to keep her one full-timer and two part-timers employed.
Woodland, like Abel, also has an online shop and offers curbside pickups by appointment. Sheets said he also has a presence on Facebook and Instagram where Woodland promotes pieces to purchase daily, but some services have to be in person.
“The hard one is framing,” Sheets said. “That’s over 50% of total sales. That really requires the customer to come (into the studio.)”
Abel said her building — an old warehouse — works really well for curbside pickup, as staff can leave pieces in the entryway and arrange a specific pickup time.
Both owners seemed optimistic about the abundance of space in both their galleries, which will further encourage social distancing once orders are lifted.
“I’m hopeful,” Abel said.