Sorry, We’re Closed: Summer Holidays in the Art World

An extended summer holiday is a widespread tradition in the art world, but in recent years fewer galleries are shutting up shop. Why do galleries close? And for those who now stay open, whats changed?

Nicholas William Johnson, Another Angel’s Trumpet VI, 2019, Courtesy House of Egorn

By the end of next week, the ping of an OOO auto-response will be all too familiar. “Back August 31st!” comes the cheerful response. The rest of the world, ostensibly (aside from the Italian Postal Service, perhaps), seems to go on as before. But where did everyone in the art world go?

The benefits of really switching off and logging off for our mental and physical well-being are by now well-known. It has long been a tradition in the Western art world to take the whole month of August off, but in recent years, it seems, in cities like London and New York, more galleries are staying open. Are the crushing demands of a non-stop market making the long summer holiday unfeasible? Are we losing one of the greatest things about the art world—its flexibility?

“Although I say we take a break my phone is always on—and August is also the time that many of my collectors are on holiday”

Young London-based dealer Sim Smith splits summer between France and London. “We close the gallery for the majority of August to take a break. We decided on August as that’s when the majority of galleries break for summer.” Shutting up shop doesn’t always mean work doesn’t go on. “Although I say we take a break my phone is always on—and August is also the time that many of my collectors are on holiday. They are often catching up on emails and interests outside of work so often August is one of my busiest months as collectors have the time to reach out and get back to me. More often than not, I’ll bounce back and forth throughout the month to see them.”

Installation View of Anne Ryan at They Catch Feelings, I Catch Bodies, Sim Smith Gallery. Courtesy Sim Smith

“I think everyone needs a break, calendars are filled with gallery shows and fairs throughout the year and it’s a good time to re-set before the busy autumn/winter season,” says Smith. “I suppose before art fairs, online sales and social media, galleries that would rely solely on passing trade would close for the summer as their collectors would be away.”

For blue-chip galleries, the tradition still largely prevails. All of David Zwirner’s galleries close for several weeks in August, while Gagosian keeps its US locations open but closes its London, Hong Kong, Paris and Geneva spaces. But some larger galleries with multiple locations do it differently.

Thaddaeus Ropac’s Paris and London locations do close in August—but summer is peak season for its Salzburg galleries, “as international collectors and music lovers fly in for the summer music festival”, explains Thaddaeus Ropac. “The gallery therefore always opens an exhibition at the end of July in one or both of our Salzburg galleries to be open over August, and this summer is no exception. We’ve opened an exhibition of rarely seen seminal 1980s Brushstroke works by Roy Lichtenstein.” The exhibition on Lichtenstein will continue to the end of September. 

For large galleries, like Perrotin—which closes to visitors for three weeks—when their public spaces are closed, it doesn’t necessarily mean no-one is working.  Summer is the perfect time for planning for the busy Autumn season, for completing renovations and spending time catching up on other major museum shows, as well as visiting artists at their studios. At Ropac, “While the galleries may be closed to the public, members of the team work in rotation at this time to continue work on all areas of the gallery’s programme and responsibilities to our artists.”

Installation View of Sandra Lane at Trophy, Sim Smith Gallery. Courtesy Sim Smith

In Berlin, Sharon Zhu works at House of Egorn, which will be among the galleries to stay open. The gallery has just opened a new group exhibition appropriate for the season—Sticky: Like a Summer Night. “The art calendar is a train that hardly ever stops, and with a busy autumn ahead it is tempting to have some downtime during summer. However, there is something very special about summer exhibitions, and pulling off a good summer show could be very rewarding for a young gallery. In a city like Berlin, we’ve certainly seen a new audience walk through the door during this time. I like to think of these shows as that novel by a new writer you’ve saved for the summer holidays, to explore and to dip into something different.” The show includes ceramics that appear to be melting by Lucia Pizzani and vegetal paintings by Nicholas William Johnson.

“We generally like to embrace summer as a moment that allows for reflection and contemplation, and that determines the choice of our summer shows,” Zhu adds. “The current exhibition features an international line-up of artists and is based on observations of how the human body changes its relationship to nature and landscape during the summer months. The artists approach topics that are deeply rooted in the history of art as well as relating to very contemporary concerns about changes in urban and rural life. We opened the show during this year’s second heatwave, so the title felt quite right on the opening night!”

“I think you owe it to the street you are on to stay open. It part of what makes the street stay alive” 

“I force everyone to work to over the summer!” says Richard Saltoun, back in London—a city that shows no signs of slowing down. The gallery on Dover Street will be showing Penny Slinger’s Tantric Transformations until 24 August, with a new exhibition opening on 30 August (works by Vivienne Koorland and Berni Seattle). He sees staying open as part of the ecosystem. “I think you owe it to the street you are on to stay open. It’s part of what makes the street stay alive.” 

Elsewhere in Europe, taking an extended vacation at this time of the year is a tradition that is deeply embedded in the culture—and something most continental Europeans are reluctant to give up. “I am so happy not to be in New York or Paris or London where galleries never seem to close”, says Tim Wouters of the Belgian gallery Waldburger Wouters. “Most galleries are closed after 15 July, or at the latest by 21 July, our National Day. And we don’t open again before Brussels Gallery Weekend, which is always the first weekend of September.”

Installation view of Finishing Line, a group exhibition at Waldburger Wouters, Brussels; on view until August 15

Wouters admits that this is a luxury of economics. “I speak as a gallery owner with a small team. Then when you have staff to pay all year round it’s more logical to stay open longer, probably by appointment. The summer break is the moment to arrange the storage, make physical changes in the gallery rooms… and go on holidays. The summer months are not the time when you make your money, even though we (in general) try with summer groups shows, or smaller art fairs at the end of August (like Marseille or Copenhagen).”

He also notes the importance of taking a proper break—mentally, physically and financially—when most of the art world are used to regular short trips throughout the year that can be exhausting, on the body and cash flow, especially for a small organization with limited resources. “I never go far, because we travel enough throughout the year, try to avoid planes, prefer trains. A few swims in the Mediterranean are always a must; today I’m happy with silence and a house in the middle of nature—not too many humans and no small talk.” 

If ever we needed a reason to set our OOO, there it is.