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Operational in isolation: the show goes on with virtual exhibits at Main Street Arts


After the state ordered only “essential” businesses to remain open, many museums and galleries in the Rochester region switched to programming that could be streamed, while others went silent.

But Main Street Arts, located in the Ontario County village of Clifton Springs, has for the most part maintained its exhibition schedule. The white walls gallery and arts programming organization pivoted quickly by using interactive tech to document and share its shows, making them accessible to socially-distanced visitors.

"Made of Stars," a painting in gouache by Chad Grohman. - PHOTO BY BRADLEY BUTLER
  • "Made of Stars," a painting in gouache by Chad Grohman.
Its two current exhibits feature work by established artists in western New York. Buffalo-based  artist and RIT professor Chad Grohman’s solo show, “Up to Now” is installed on the main floor of the gallery and “Field Trip Visions,” a group show featuring work by Rochester artists Zanne Brunner, Judy Gohringer, Courtney Gruttadauria, and Nancy Valle, occupies the second floor.

Though you can’t be in the gallery physically at the moment, the virtual exhibits place you “in the gallery” by allowing visitors to scroll up and down on their screen to move through the space. Visitors can take a detailed look and learn more about each piece with a click.

I’m particularly impressed with an interactive element of Grohman’s show: on one wall there’s a shelf of his sketchbooks, which you can browse by clicking each one and clicking through the pages. And just like any exhibit, these include curatorial information about each of the artists and the artworks.

I spoke with the gallery’s executive director-curator Bradley Butler about how he and assistant director Sarah Butler have accomplished this labor-intensive endeavor, and how the gallery is, in a fairly comprehensive way, staying operational while we isolate.

CITY: Is this Main Street Art's first set of exhibitions under the shutdown?

Bradley Butler:
We ran a beta test for the online interactive setup with our last exhibition, “Painters Painting Painters,” during the last week of that exhibition, which can still be seen at The show still had a week and a half left when we closed to the public on Wednesday, March 18.

The two current exhibitions were the first to be planned to "open" in this way from the outset. This is something that Sarah and I have talked about doing for over three years and the circumstances finally forced us to act quickly to make it happen.

Is it correct that the current shows are physically on the walls, or is this all tech simulation?

Correct, these exhibitions are hanging at the gallery just as they always are. We had discussions with all of the artists prior to them delivering the work for the shows and reassured them that we would do our absolute best to make these shows available to the public in new and exciting ways. It wasn't possible to postpone these shows, and we are so thankful that the artists trusted us to install exhibitions knowing that people can't see them in person.

It was important to present the exhibitions in this way because we wanted people to experience the artwork as it is meant to be seen in the context of the exhibition, not just a slideshow of the work itself. It’s our hope that by extending these exhibitions into early June, that we will be able to have a closing reception at the gallery. Only time will tell.

"Corbetts Glen," a gouache painting by Courtney Gruttadauria. - PHOTO BY BRADLEY BUTLER
  • "Corbetts Glen," a gouache painting by Courtney Gruttadauria.
What technology was used to set up the interactive elements?

I took a dozen or so photos of each wall of each exhibition with our DSLR camera and combined them piece-by-piece in Adobe Photoshop to create seamless images of full walls in the gallery. Sarah then used Adobe Muse to program the interactive portion of our site.

How long did it take to put the online components together?

It took me 20 to 30 hours to edit the photos and gather supplemental materials, and it took Sarah 40 to 50 hours to program the site. We spent long days in our home office for a solid week getting these things done.

What were the biggest challenges in creating this showcase?

Sarah has used Adobe Muse to design the Main Street Arts website for the past six years, however, the way in which we wanted this part of the site to function is totally different and required a lot of trial and error. She's a print designer and web [design] comes out of necessity rather than desire, so trying new things is always a learning experience.

In thinking about the sketchbooks, there were three different versions of how people would interact with those, each time becoming more user-friendly. There were times when the site would also just stop functioning for no discernible reason, and that had to be resolved.

I had issues with the test run on the “Painters Painting Painters” show with the photography. I didn't keep a consistent distance from each wall and there were times when things didn't quite match up, and I had to spend a lot of time to make the virtual space look convincing. It was great to have that show as a test-run because it informed how we approached the current exhibitions.

Another challenge was the lack of time to do all of this. We launched the painting exhibition online five days after the decision was made to close to the public, and then had the same amount of time to get the next two exhibitions online after they were installed at the gallery. We "opened" the shows with a reception (via Zoom) on April 1.

"Mendon Monument," a work in ceramic and encaustic by Nancy Valle. - PHOTO BY BRADLEY BUTLER
  • "Mendon Monument," a work in ceramic and encaustic by Nancy Valle.
How will you measure viewership of the exhibitions? What is the average foot traffic for an exhibition during its run?

Since the exhibitions can be seen online in this way, we know that the work will be seen by a wider audience than normal. Especially given the current circumstances of people being stuck at home. We installed analytics on the site so we can track how many visitors see each exhibition. Since we launched the exhibitions, we have had over 330 unique visitors see these two shows.

Average foot traffic when the gallery is open to the public is definitely less. I would estimate that we would have had 100 to 125 people attend the opening reception for these two shows (they would have opened at the same reception event) and then an average of 10 people per day after that.

What's next in MSA's calendar? Have you had to pivot in your lineup of shows for this year, or just pivot in your approach to exhibiting the work?

We’re excited about the rest of the year of exhibition programming and are hopeful to move forward with as much of it as possible. We have had to postpone our June 27–August 7 exhibition, “The Living Land,” to 2021 in order to move “Biblio Spectaculum,” our spring juried exhibition of artist books and text-based work (juried by Scott McCarney) to a time when we hope to be open to the public again. We’re disappointed to have to postpone an exhibition, but look forward to that one next year.

Other shows coming up include the Print Club of Rochester's 89th Members Show, curated by Main Street Arts; a solo exhibition by Pat Bacon; our annual Small Works exhibition, and a special 95th birthday exhibition by Robert Marx to open two days after his birthday.

Aside from exhibitions, is there other programming you'd like to highlight?
Judy Gohringer's "Ponds at Corbetts Glen," a work in acrylic on wood. - PHOTO BY BRADLEY BUTLER
  • Judy Gohringer's "Ponds at Corbetts Glen," a work in acrylic on wood.

We have tried to maintain as much of our programming as possible in an expanded online format. We have a free weekly art workshop for kids, "Art With Miss Maria," with gallery assistant and instructor Maria Galens. She leads kids through projects similar to what she teaches during our quarterly "Art Saturdays" series, using materials that can be found at home.

And we’re working now to launch an online version of our After School Art Experience with instructor Pam Viggiani. Typically, the kids meet each week with Pam at the gallery to discuss the art and artists in our current exhibitions and then make work based on that. We’re excited to see how this will work online.

Rachel [Crawford, at Main Street Arts’ bookstore Sulfur Books] has been working on literary arts programming including online book clubs, open mic events, and interviews with people in the literary industry. We have been putting out weekly newsletters to keep everyone informed with what we're doing and we have also started a blog series called "Get to Know Us" in an effort to let people know more about MSA staff. We miss the physical interactions with people and felt that this would add a human element that may be lacking while engaging with things digitally. We have already shared what we're reading, our own personal art collections, and will continue to share more throughout the duration of our closure to the public.

As a non-profit business, has MSA experienced changes in funding streams during the shutdown, or are they about the same? What are the financial challenges MSA is experiencing during this time?

The breakdown is: a significant portion of our income comes from grants and foundations, then retail and exhibitions, followed by workshops and studio fees, and then individual donations. At this time, we estimate that we are losing about 20 percent of our income from retail and exhibitions, and workshops and studio fees. We also realize that grant opportunities will be more difficult to secure after all of this because it’s so competitive and resources are limited for non-profits all over the country.

The financial challenges for MSA are similar to most other non-profit arts organizations in our area. With our doors closed and a lot of people out of work, there is an uncertainty that can be disconcerting. This is why we are doing everything we can to keep our programming alive through online channels. There's less money coming in, but the streams remain the same. We realize that our sources of income are going to be shifting a bit as a result of this pandemic and we are applying for smaller grants and seeking out new grant opportunities that we hadn't considered before. We’re realizing that exhibition and retail sales will be down, income from workshops is down and our residency program is suspended until June at this point.

We have always appreciated individual donations, no matter how big or small, and are especially grateful during this time when we know that everyone is suffering financially. Main Street Arts is still at the beginning stages as a non-profit (we officially became a non-profit at the end of 2018) and have been navigating our way through applying for grants, holding fundraising events, and other fundraising campaigns to support programming.

"Every Day All Day," a watercolor painting by Chad Grohman. - PHOTO BY BRADLEY BUTLER
  • "Every Day All Day," a watercolor painting by Chad Grohman.
If folks are interested in helping support MSA, what are the best ways to do so?

First, a majority of the artwork in each exhibition is for sale and can be found in our online shop — you can get there from the interactive shows when you click on each piece as well. There are new items being added to our online shop each week as well. Buying art from local artists is a great way to support Main Street Arts as well as these artists directly.

We also have a donations page on our website where people can support our mission as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit arts organization. A donation at any level helps us keep doing what we feel is important work for our community — locally, regionally, and nationally.

People can also support us by staying connected with us by commenting and sharing on social media and joining our email newsletter.

Rebecca Rafferty is CITY’s arts & entertainment editor. She can be reached at [email protected].