BY Gabriela Villarroel Villalobos
Twenty-seven-year-old artist Stephany Hernandes had always dreamt of showing her paintings to audiences across the world. Hernandes spent her time as a student building up her portfolio for galleries and sending samples of her work to small exhibitions, hoping that one day her work might gain enough exposure to be sold.
However, when the pandemic started everything changed.
“Traditional venues weren’t really a choice all of a sudden, so I had to think outside the box,” says Hernandes.
In an attempt to gain more momentum for her art work, Hernandes turned to social media platforms. She created an Instagram business-account for her work as soon as she graduated. The response was overwhelming.
“People from other Canadian cities would private message me asking if they could buy my art, or if they could have art lessons with me—it was very motivating,” she says.
When COVID-19 restrictions began to ease up, Hernandez decided to continue curating her art on Instagram rather than waiting for the approval of traditional art venues.
“Presenting my work on social media has led to many opportunities. I was able to give virtual art classes through zoom, at some point I started selling my sticker designs and handcrafted jewelry online,” she explains.
Above all, she felt that shifting away from traditional venues had allowed her to gain more confidence in her abilities.
“I stopped asking gallery after gallery to take a chance on me. Instead I took a chance on myself,” she says.
Pierre-Yann Dolec, a professor at Concordia University specializing in social media and cultural markets, says that avoiding institutional gatekeeping is one of the great incentives for artists to move away from traditional venues.
“Museums and galleries select work that aligns with their particular view of contemporary art. Before, artists would’ve needed to cater to galleries or patrons, whereas now they are going directly to the original consumer,” says Dolec.
He believes that the market position of art has become increasingly commercial, with more demand for artists to create an image of themselves and their work.
“Artists are being asked to develop a personal brand, and they now act as a marketing firm for one,” says Dolec.
Statistics by the Artsy Gallery Insights 2022 Report showed that the number of collectors who purchased art online grew by 39 per cent between 2020 and 2021. Meanwhile, an arts & finance report by Deloitte and ArtTactics revealed that 86 per cent of collectors under the age of 35 pay attention to the marketing behind art, particularly if it pertains to social impact, purpose led art or emotional value.
However, Dolec believes that the success of non-traditional venues isn’t necessarily limited to the virtual realm.
“Some artists use their online influence to facilitate in-person shows for example, but for others it might be about creating art for art’s sake,” he says.
Lilly Junod, is a dancer and artist who enjoys art in non-traditional venues for its own sake.
“I met a guitar player in Mont Royal during the summer, he asked if I wanted to accompany his playing with dancing and that’s how I started to busk,” says Junod.
Busking can include any type of entertainment performed in public places or streets and has been a liberating experience for Junod. Particularly because she had been trained as a classical ballet dancer until the pandemic.
“It was so much more nerve wrecking than rehearsing something and performing it in a theater. It felt like it came from me, and that was way more gratifying,” she explains.
Unlike her experience with formal dance institutions, Junod’s spontaneous performances aligned with her vision of what dance should truly be for an artist.
“I often felt like dance institutions were exclusive, elitist, and classist— even when you do have access to that world it always feels like there is a barrier between the performer and the audience,” says Junod, adding that street performers have the advantage of bringing art into places where everyone can see it and enjoy it.
However, not all performers rebel against traditional venues for the sake of artistic freedom. For some it is a question of accessibility. Aron Benjamin, the president of the Canadian Live Music Association, says that live music venues in particular have challenged emerging artists with new obstacles since the pandemic.
“We’re in a bottleneck right now. It’s sort of at a 3 year drawback from the pandemic, where artists that were supposed to play before and during the pandemic are taking up all the spots in popular venues and just can’t book anyone new.” said Benjamin.
Although Benjamin doesn’t think that non-traditional venues are a new invention, she says their increase since the pandemic is the result of evolution.
“It’s no surprise to me that non-traditional venues are increasing amongst emerging artists, because we’re filling a gap right now. This is what we call an innovative response, it requires outside the box thinking,” she explains.
The move towards non-traditional venues is not only seen with solo-artists, but has reflected on art centers in Montreal.
Lori Beavis, the Director of Montreal’s first Indigenous artist run center, Daphne, had to think outside the box quickly when the pandemic put a halt to her exhibition plans.
“Everything shut down, and then we were all stuck indoors for so long. We needed conversations again, we wanted a space to share and create,” she says.
That was how one of the center’s most popular gatherings was born: virtual beading nights on zoom. The initiative started in December 2020 as a way to engage with people once a week during the pandemic, but Beavis estimates they have now been running for 100 consecutive weeks.
“Some weeks there’s lots of conversation. Other weeks it’s like, totally silent and all you see are the top of people’s heads, everybody’s, working on something,” says Beavis.
The Daphne Bead initiative has also served as a chance to invite guest speakers to the gatherings, bringing Indigenous artists from across Canada to speak about their work.
“Even in a non-traditional space, the intention is to sort of create a community. We’re bringing people together to form new relationships and sort of enrich other older ones,” explains Beavis.