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Missoula galleries reopen to customers, wary of in-person events

Missoula galleries reopen to customers, wary of in-person events

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On Tuesday, the sun shone bright as a breeze swept across Higgins Avenue and through the open door of the Artists’ Shop in downtown Missoula. Inside, hand sanitizer awaited customers looking to shop for local art.

“We reopened on the 18th and it’s been great,” said Ann Franke, one of the 12 members of the co-op that runs the Artists’ Shop at 127 N. Higgins Ave.

While things may look a little different in terms of a shopping experience, local galleries have begun to open their doors to the public following months-long closures due to COVID-19. From recommending or requiring face coverings, to increased sanitation practices, to capacity limits, the galleries are implementing precautionary measures to help customers feel safe (see Reopening Guide for details on individual businesses).

The Artists’ Shop is now open seven days a week, but is asking shoppers to wear masks before entering. They’re offering hand sanitizer as well and limiting capacity to 12 people at a time.

“We haven’t had any issues with people getting too close and so far, we’ve never come up against our limit,” Franke said.

Ram Murphy, of Murphy-Jubb Fine Art, said they opened their doors on the first day they could, May 14.

“We have gloves available, we have hand sanitizer we offer and when someone walks in, I put my face mask on,” Murphy said, adding he’d guess 95% of the customers who have come into the gallery have had face coverings as well.

It’s been easy so far to keep the numbers in the gallery space down because people are likely still wary about going out, he said.

“Not a lot of people are coming downtown, not a lot of people are comfortable yet,” he added, but he’s starting to see more and more faces. “At first we’d just get one or two people a day; now it’s picked up.”

Despite doors being open, a majority of galleries are not yet ready to hold in-person events and openings, to avoid creating crowds, said Tom Bensen, director of Arts Missoula, so First Friday as we know it might not return for awhile.

“The feel I’m getting from the arts community in general is one of safety first and employees and responsibility as much as anything,” Bensen said, adding most galleries feel they can safely open during regular business hours, “but they also don’t want to have a First Friday, which can be kind of crazy and wall-to-wall people — which is great, unless it’s a pandemic.”

June First Friday usually kicks off the summer art walk season, but as last month, most galleries will be participating virtually (see box for details).

May’s Virtual First Friday was held in conjunction with Missoula Gives and was organized by Arts Missoula as a way to bring back some form of the downtown community event. After last month’s online version received positive feedback, Bensen said they plan to continue for the foreseeable future.

This month, Missoula Community Access Television is taking care of the technical aspects of piecing together each participating gallery, shop or organization’s video clip. The end result is a virtual walk through several downtown shops and galleries that you’d normally be able to peruse on First Friday.

This month, at least 10 groups will appear on MCAT’s Virtual First Friday YouTube stream, including Radius Gallery, Gallery 709, Dana Gallery, 4 Ravens Gallery, the Missoula Art Museum, the Zootown Arts Community Center, the Artists’ Shop, the Clay Studio of Missoula, the Missoula Writing Collaborative and Murphy-Jubb Fine Art.

“And there probably will be a few more,” Bensen said.

While the online gallery tours can’t fully replace the in-person experience, they’re giving shop owners a chance to show what they have available now that their doors are back open.

“I think it’s important for the Artists’ Shop to come together with other galleries downtown and throughout Missoula to kind of show support for each other and recreate that same thing that the community always came out for on First Friday,” Franke said. The Artists’ Shop will be showing off Monica Thompson’s “Punctuated Pause” exhibition currently on display through June 30.

While many galleries’ doors will be closed Friday evening, Murphy-Jubb Fine Art plans to host an in-person First Friday on location, with safety guidelines and a plan in place in case a crowd does show.

“This to us is a small step to see if we can’t make it work,” Murphy said, adding they’ll have a host greeting people at the door and asking patrons to wait in the lobby if their three gallery rooms are already full, in addition to their other safety measures. “We’re not going back to where we were in December. It’s not going to be like that for the foreseeable future.”

No refreshments will be available, but they will have music from The Pescaderos on their balcony starting at 7:30 p.m. They’ll be facing the street, so the idea is to listen from outside on the ground below rather than inside the gallery.

“If you’re inside, you’ll see them from the back,” he said. And for art lovers not ready yet to visit the gallery, Murphy said they’re also participating in the virtual version.

Gallery 709 at Montana Art and Framing also plans to host an in-person First Friday and will have their large door open so guests can spill into the parking lot for better social distancing.

A usual hot spot for the city's tourists, Franke isn’t sure what this summer will look like for the Artists' Shop in terms of business. And they plan to just wait and watch to determine when they might be able to hold in-person events like First Friday again.

“We’re going to stay open as long as we can and just follow with what happens in Missoula. It’s really early, but so far so good.”

They plan to host a new show every month going forward even though they can’t host openings.

“Our artists have shows ready and they want to be hung even though they are missing out on the big crowds at First Friday,” she said.

Because the future of the situation with COVID-19 is hard to predict, Bensen said it’s impossible to plan for when things might look somewhat normal again.

“We don’t know what summer will entail. It’s already evident that with the opening up, you’re going to get more cases and the question is how many more cases?” he said. “I think whatever happens, it’s going to look a lot different.”

Despite everything that Missoula’s arts organizations are facing, Bensen said the silver lining is that it’s united the local arts community in a way he hasn’t seen before.

“We’re not necessarily interested in all putting on the same uniform and charging for the team, but you have a crisis like this and it does bring people together,” he said. “Putting together things like the Virtual First Friday is an example of that coming together and saying, let’s all do this.”

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