As Covid-19 and the state-wide lockdown continue to wreak havoc on the performing arts, it’s not all doom and gloom for the visual arts sector.

Many of Sydney’s commercial galleries have built on the digital offerings they began last lockdown, curating clever online exhibitions, behind-the-scenes footage, artist Q&As, podcasts and e-magazines that not only engage the viewer but provide crucial support to the livelihoods of many of our visual artists.

“Artists really need support and it’s up to us to come up with ways to still make it possible for people to acquire and engage with the work,” Sullivan + Strumpf (S+S) co-founder Ursula Sullivan tells Broadsheet, pointing out exhibitions also provide artists with crucial feedback, audience engagement and a natural evolution to their next series.

S+S, Michael Reid Sydney, Arthouse, Utopia, Yavuz Gallery and Olsen Gallery are just some of those reporting strong sales and, in some cases, complete sell-outs just days into an exhibition despite their physical galleries being closed.

Michael Reid Sydney was one of the first to move into the digital sphere, launching an e-commerce platform on its website way back in 2018. Its gallerists have spent the past three years helping their audience become comfortable purchasing online.

“The first lockdown was a key moment for us because we pivoted and started treating all our online collateral almost like curated exhibitions themselves,” says director Daniel Soma. “It afforded us all a level of creativity we had to tap into, to look at our shows from an external perspective and any formulated approach to the display of work online went out the window.”

A professional photographer now shoots all the gallery’s artworks and each online exhibition is curated to optimise the art form, be it photos by Narelle Autio or landscape paintings by Lucy Vader.

While S+S always knew they’d need to upscale their digital gallery offering, the lockdown fast-tracked things. The key to representing their artists properly and keeping viewers engaged is constantly coming up with fresh ways to present the work and curate exhibitions.

Its current sculpture exhibition On Touch, for example, featuring works by Lindy Lee, Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran and Tim Silver, has sold well despite sculpture not being an immediately obvious online purchase. “Sculpture is an antidote to people being so immersed in their screens they need to get off 2D and into 3D,” says Sullivan.

Sydney Contemporary director Barry Keldoulis says works by artists who are already well-known tend to sell well online, with photography and ceramics translating more smoothly than painting, which is trickier given texture and scale.

Bucking that trend, however, were two recent painting exhibitions at Michael Reid Sydney: a sell-out by Indigenous mother and daughter Betty Chimney and Raylene Walatinna, and a show by young painter and sculptor Kaspar Kägi, which was 75 per cent sold before it had officially opened.

And at Olsen Gallery, an exhibition by Sydney artist Janis Clarke sold all but one painting within a day of opening. Luke Storrier’s sculpture exhibition and Andrew Taylor’s oil paintings are also selling well.

In addition to maintaining an ongoing dialogue with audiences through social media and email, Soma believes price transparency contributes to successful sales. “We need to make it as easy as possible for people, that’s how we get the best results and why we’re enjoying a really buoyant moment,” he says. “But it’s not just a matter of pressing ‘play’; there’s a personal consultation you have to marry to help communicate these works to your clients.”

For S+S that personal relationship is key. “We like to develop a community of people who like to look at art. We’re not talking a ‘click to add to cart’ relationship; it’s an information exchange and our business is still very relationship-based,” says Sullivan, whose online catalogues don’t display prices.

Upcoming exhibitions at S+S by Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran and Michael Zavros are also selling well before they’ve even gone online. “All our artists do well because we encourage them to be prepared, have the work early to give people that good start and [be] prepared for online Q&As.”

Of course, there are plenty of commercial galleries for whom lockdown has been tough. “It’s a very patchy and mixed bag,” says Keldoulis. “There’s a lot of galleries who have had to rely on Jobkeeper and Jobseekers as their sales have dropped 30 to 40 per cent; it’s hardest for younger and not as well-financed galleries because the digital overhaul can be quite expensive.”

But as vaccination rates rise and an emergence from lockdown inches closer, one fact remains: the public is hankering to get back together and experience art IRL.

“We’ve rescheduled Sydney Contemporary to November and there’s an enormous amount of enthusiasm,” Keldoulis says. “People are excited about coming back out and seeing not just the art but the personalities involved, the collectors and gallerists and curators and artists.”