Coronavirus: Menlo Park art gallery opens in defiance of shelter-in-place order

Weary of stay-at-home orders now in their seventh week, business owners like Katharina Powers are openly defying state and city orders to remain closed to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Saturday she opened her Art Ventures Gallery on Menlo Park’s main commercial strip and on Wednesday will reopen it with limited hours and is urging other galleries in the Bay Area to do the same.

“Art galleries are essential. Art does something that nothing else can achieve, which is that it takes us away from our current mindset and everything that’s going on,” Powers said in an interview on Monday. “People are getting desperate because they don’t know how long it’s going to take and they’re getting nervous. I want people to get out of this mindset and look at art, which calms you down and gets rid of the stress.”

Powers joins a growing number of businesses deemed non-essential that are ignoring the stay-at-home orders. Over the weekend, several Orange County restaurants also reopened including Nomads Canteen in San Clemente, an eatery leading the call for restaurants and shops to reopen despite statewide restrictions.

Powers’ actions may not sit well with local officials who she said have asked her to comply with the shutdown order and not reopen.

She said she received a call Monday from Menlo Park Police Department Commander William Dixon who told her that “to have a conversation of being open or not with an art gallery in the middle of a pandemic is ridiculous.” Her response was simply “wow.” Dixon could not be reached for comment Monday.

Powers said she didn’t mean for her actions to come off as a “challenge against Governor Newsom and the threat of COVID-19,” but that she is opening up her gallery following phone calls, requests and emails from Menlo Park residents that she do so.

Powers said it’s “very safe to look at art” as guests aren’t allowed to touch the pieces and there’s plenty of space for people to keep a safe distance from each other.

MENLO PARK, CA – MAY 04: A message asking for the 6 feet social distance is visible at Art Ventures Gallery in Menlo Park, California, on May 5, 2020. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 

Facemasks will be mandatory and social distancing will be enforced. Powers said she also has set up a new one-way viewing system for the gallery so guests come in one way and leave another. For those with health concerns, private appointments still will be taken, Powers said.

Opening nights, though, still will be conducted through video to avoid large crowds.

“This isn’t meant for disrespect for those on the front lines, those that have been affected and those other companies out there that are being disrupted by the attempt to curb the spread of the deadly Coronavirus,” Powers said in statement. “This is a lesson on the sentimentality of art and the survival of art through every catastrophe that man and mother nature threw at it.”

Powers said she has already been contacted by an art gallery in Half Moon Bay and others around the Bay Area who wondered how her soft opening on Saturday went, and whether they should do the same.

About a dozen people went to the gallery on Saturday and Powers said they were “really happy and appreciative.” For the first time in several months, Powers said she was able to talk with someone about something other than the pandemic and its economic ramifications.

“People felt so happy,” Powers said. “We talked about the arts, the world wars and normal things. That’s what we need.”

She said it’s important for other galleries to do what she’s doing, if only to send a message about the power of art.

Two weeks ago, Powers said she sent an email to Newsom’s office asking him to consider making art galleries “essential businesses,” but never heard back.

Because art galleries are probably the last thing on the governor’s mind, Powers said she decided to take matters into her own hands and re-open her business on Saturday. She didn’t ask the Menlo Park mayor or the city council, so Powers was expecting a quick reaction from local officials. But none came until Monday.

Opening her gallery won’t be easy for Powers, who is a mother of four children currently all at home with nothing to keep them busy but online assignments from school.

“I have to do homeschooling while they’re home all the time, meals all the time, making sure the kids do homework. It’s a disaster,” Powers said. “It’s an act for me to open the gallery. It’s not fun for me to do it. It’s more like a service to other people to do it. To give them back some sense of normalcy. This is culture, so much more important than all the other stuff.”

Powers said she hopes people choose to go to her gallery rather than the hair salon or a nail studio. She said culture is more important.

“We are so much more important than all the other stuff,” Powers said. “Certainly more important than going to your hairdresser.”

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Author: Aldo Toledo

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