Over the past several months of Art on the Air, I’ve been interviewing local creatives about what projects they’ve been doing during the health crisis, as well as how they’ve been coping with the emotional toll that the shelter-in-place has had on them.
Now that things have started opening up in Savannah again, I decided to reach out to a diverse group of six artists to get their feedback on what they’ve learned, where things stand today, and some of the challenges that we, as an art community, face going forward. Here’s what I’ve gathered from Xavier Hutchins, Tiffani Taylor, Michael Mahaffey, Phillip Davis, Lisa Rosenmeier, and Brian MacGregor.
For artists, just like everyone else, the health crisis has had its up and downs.
"I have mixed and contradicting emotions [of] selflessness and selfishness… confusion and yet sense of calm," said artist, poet, and musician Phillip Davis. "It’s hard not to feel a sense of sadness for those truly effected by the pandemic."
Taylor, who, along with being an artist, is the owner and operator of the eponymous Tiffani Taylor Gallery, echoed those sentiments.
"This is a heart wrenching and trying time for everyone," she said. "I have truly leaned into my faith that God will always provide and that if this is the path I am meant to continue on, things will work out."
Mahaffey, whose Etsy site "MrMahaffey" has over 2,600 sales, noted that his clients were more interested in conversing with him than usual, sending a higher volume of messages via social media, perhaps because they’ve been experiencing a greater sense of isolation.
A particular interaction stood out to him due to the impact that it had on the buyer.
"One woman messaged me after receiving her painting and just wanted to let me know that her cousin had just passed due to the virus," he told me, "and that receiving her artwork was the only thing that had made her smile all week."
Brick and Mortar Gallery Spaces
There haven’t been any in-person receptions at the major Savannah galleries since mid-March. During that time, we’ve already lost one brick and mortar exhibition space, as Roots Up Gallery has closed its physical location permanently (they are still online at RootsUpGallery.com). Lisa Rosenmeier, whose work was shown at the eclectic gallery, noted that Savannah isn’t the only place where this has been happening.
"A little bit further than midway through the quarantine I started getting the notices from places representing me of permanent closure," she told me. "Then it got scary."
Rosenmeier added that she’d been living in the Las Vegas area during the Great Recession of 2008, and noted that it’d had a dramatic impact on the art scene, with even some museums forced to close their doors, "so I was already starting to prepare for that this was going to be an interesting ride."
She now maintains a gallery space and studio at City Market, and acted as a self-described "canary in a coal mine" by being one of the first to re-open her space in early May. Brian MacGregor is next door, and he’s been in one space or another in the downtown art complex for seventeen years. Although he sees some similarities between the financial crisis of a decade ago and the hardships of today, he feels as though there are important differences as well.
"The Savannah art community was hit hard [during the Great Recession]," MacGregor told me, "but as an individual you could still host events and travelers still came to Savannah, just not as many and they hadn't just bought a house."
Taylor’s space at 11 Whitaker Street re-opened on Friday, June 5th, but additional precautions are now in place, including a hand-sanitizing station, optional disposable masks and gloves, and enforced social distancing.
"For both Savannah Art Walk and the Tiffani Taylor Gallery," she told me, "we are putting health and safety as our number one priority. We will continue to reassess as we learn more."
"Everything was screaming, ‘go online, go online, go online!’ said Rosenmeier. "It felt like a modern day gold rush. Better get there first… or you’re going to miss out."
She’d been so occupied with just staying on top of commissions and gallery deadlines that’d she’d had little time to work on a website prior to the health crisis. But with the aforementioned closing of several of her brick and mortar representations coupled with the extra time on her hands, she dove right in on revamping LisaRosenmeier.com.
Other local artists, like Hutchins and Mahaffey, had long utilized online platforms and social media to supplement the physical presence of their art, and both have found that having such a structure in place has been a great benefit to them during these times.
"[In regards to] connecting with potential clients, social [media] has helped substantially," Hutchins, who goes by the handle @art_by_zay on Instagram, relayed. "If I post a new piece or share an old piece, I get a good number of shares and comments from followers which, in return, would increase inquires on commissions. I’m able to make a sale or two, if not for the present, then it would be for the near future."
Mahaffey, who had to collect a number of his works that’d been hanging at various spots around town when the health crisis hit, said that simultaneously his "online sales exploded."
"I've been trying to coach my [brick and mortar gallery] friends to really push their online endeavors," he told me. "Now is the time to really let loose and have fun curating your own content online. The whole world is your captive audience."
Taylor already had an online presence as well, but had been previously focused on her physical gallery location. She immediately shifted gears in response to the shelter-in-place order, and the results have been impressive.
"We turned our focus completely onto our TiffaniTaylor.com website and social media platforms," she said. "We created a banner image for the website and shared the codes for free shipping and 10% for the past couple of months. We saw a 600% increase in website sales."
There is no question that the landscape of the Savannah art community has been altered by the pandemic. But every artist I spoke to agreed on one thing when considering the future of the scene: We will recover.
"We will sustain through these hard times and be stronger for it," said Taylor. "I pray every morning and specifically include our artists and entrepreneurs of Savannah and the world. We need the comfort and vision art offers now more than ever."
"You know, it’s a little bit like the phoenix rising from the ashes," agreed Rosenmeier. "Yes, things have changed and turmoil has rocked some of our world and some of our foundations have completely crumbled down. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t rise up again. That doesn’t mean that we can’t be something more magnificent than we were before. Both individually and as a whole."
To hear more about the way in which one of these artists is managing life during the health crisis, listen to my interview with Lisa Rosenmeier embedded here. Next week’s guest is Peggy Jo Aughtry, who is working on a series of portraits in response to the civil unrest currently reshaping our country.
Tune in to "Art on the Air" every Wednesday from 3-4 p.m. on WRUU 107.5 FM in Savannah, and streaming worldwide at www.wruu.org.
Art off the Air is a digital-only column that is posted every week on dosavannah.com as a companion piece to the WRUU 107.5 FM show "Art on the Air."
Rob Hessler is an artist, host of the radio show Art on the Air on WRUU 107.5 FM Savannah, and Executive Director of Bigger Pie, a Savannah-based arts advocacy organization.