In the past month, a Boston gallery has managed to mount 15 exhibitions of never-before-seen works, with a rigorous schedule ahead. With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, arts institutions around the world closed one after another; Meanwhile, Shelter in Place Gallery was not only founded during the crisis, but continues to thrive.
Of course, there is a catch. Shelter In Place is a miniature gallery measuring 20 by 30 inches displaying scaled-down works in a model structure created using foam core, mat board, balsa wood and plexiglass. Artists can submit works in 1:12 scale or one inch to foot scale, allowing them to create and show even ambitious, seemingly large-scale pieces – a romantic, suspended latex installation by Mary Pedicini; wall to wall paintings by B. Chehayeb — while traditional exhibition spaces remain closed. With high ceilings and skylights that flood the space with sunlight, the condensed gallery is incredibly realistic, giving artists room to be especially creative. In some photographs, it is almost impossible to distinguish yourself from the large galleries.
The brilliant concept was imagined by Eben Haines, painter and graphic designer for exhibitions at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston. “With ongoing shutdowns and lockdowns across the world, artists need to stay home and away from their studios. For most of us, that means considerably less space to create,” he said in a first Publish on Instagram, the virtual home of the gallery.
“So I built the SIP Gallery as a new platform for artists from Boston (and eventually everywhere) to enable the realization of large-scale works of art on a desk or dining room table” , he added.
The idea first came to him in 2018, long before the pandemic, when Haines was invited to participate in a group exhibition at the Porch Gallery in Minneapolis titled art fair. The concept was simple: each artist was given a 10-inch by 10-inch white-painted MDF box that would serve as an ersatz booth where they could show off scale artwork.
“I went a little overboard doing some work and building a scale room with wallpaper, moldings, etc,” Haines told Hyperallergic. Months later, as part of a rainy day project, he decided to create his own 1:12 scale model to house scale models of works he could not produce in his workshop due to space or financial constraints.
“But then the weather improved and the more or less abandoned model remained hidden in my studio,” he said.
Enter the current crisis. Haines was one of over 300 workers left MFA Boston, which closed in March to help contain the spread of the coronavirus. As the situation worsened, he realized it would be difficult to access his studio during the shutdowns, so he packed up supplies and settled into his home office.
Haines dusted off the gallery model of years ago and began doing miniature paintings, initially as a strategy to continue working in his shrinking studio space, which had shrunk from 400 square feet to just 10. But he realized that other artists might be in a similar situation, confined to less than ideal working conditions and eager to share their creations in a meaningful way.
“It was then that I realized how fruitful this space could be for artists in the same situation, who need momentum to continue moving through this new reality in which we have been placed”, Haines said. “So I made an Instagram and asked for submissions!”
Each exhibition at Shelter In Place is based on works submitted by artists selected by Haines and her partner and gallery assistant, Delaney Dameron, from submissions originally submitted online. Exhibitions typically last three to four days, during which Haines and Dameron capture installation and detail photography as well as videos that are shared on the gallery’s Instagram.
Haines was amazed by the elaborate quality of the small works that arrived at his doorstep. When mounted in its intricate gallery mockup, the result is deeply authentic and visceral; the plans for Lilliputian exhibits are virtually indistinguishable from life-size spectacles.
This is partly thanks to the gallery’s submission criteria: all works on display are original, and it favors new pieces as opposed to small copies of existing ones. Digital copies are practically prohibited.
“The model is made from the same materials as the exhibit designers I work with for their exhibit models,” Haines said. “I then used paint to age everything as realistically as possible.”
Haines’ father was a frame restorer who taught him how to warp grain and age wood, techniques he frequently incorporates into his own work. So far, all works have arrived ready to hang, which has made installation easy. Haines said that certain works like that of Peter Kazantsev dazzling dangling disco ball sculpture of a glittering hand posed a bit more of a challenge.
Haines stresses that the project is not commercial; instead, all sales requests received are redirected to the artists themselves or to their galleries. At Nicole Duennebier’s exposurefor example, nearly sold out before he could deliver the mini-paintings to his gallery, 13FOREST.
“I hope artists can see their work better and even sell work during the pandemic and beyond,” Haines said. “One of my ambitions for this project, in addition to getting people out of their crisis mode a bit, is for artists to be able to use their submission proposals and photographs of their installed work to send to galleries, residencies or grant programs, and have some momentum when the country reopens.
Small exhibitions, of course, will never replace the joy and freedom of working on a larger scale, but in a nation with an artistic population mostly without economic prospects, Shelter In Place offers some blue skies. It invites artists to experiment with different formats and mediums, and can even help them build their portfolios.
Haines, himself a cultural worker affected by recent waves of furloughs and layoffs in the sector, voices the need for equal opportunity in the art world. MFA Boston has kept furloughed workers insured through June, though it’s unclear what July will bring.
“The messages of solidarity and unity that we hear from museum directors tend to ring a little hollow when half the staff are on furlough. It is then compounded by the fact that, even after the executive pay cuts, the monthly compensation of these directors is still higher than what these furloughed workers earn per year,” Haines said.
So far, Shelter In Place has only shown local works that are fairly easy to drop off (“contactless, of course”), to avoid possible contamination during shipping. But Haines hopes to expand the opportunity to a more diverse group of artists.
“Honestly we are so busy with the local response we have had that it seems daunting to open it but once the post office becomes a little safer and easier I wish I could show the work of outside. Boston,” Haines said.
In the meantime, local artists or those who can easily transport work to the area can view submission guidelines on the gallery’s website. instagram.