The Radius Gallery was settling into its new home in downtown Missoula when the pandemic hit, prompting the showpiece of modern art to close its doors.
Gone were the days of celebratory art openings and live demonstrations with working artists. The gallery was at a crossroads, and while the options seemed grim, owners Jason Neal and Lisa Simon forged ahead.
“It seemed a little strange that we were going to continue making all these changes and continue with our program when it became more and more evident that we weren’t going to be able to have customers in the gallery, we weren’t going to be able to have opening receptions or any of that,” said Neal. “We decided to keep doing it, in some ways to make the statement that art is still being made.”
Like a number of businesses around Missoula, the Radius Gallery found new ways to bring customers into the gallery, even if the doors were locked. It also found ways to broaden its exposure by completing plans that had lingered for years.
“We started thinking about how to build our online presence more and how to make that more fulfilling, and how people could experience art that way,” said Neal. “We started reaching out to clients and corresponding with them directly. We created these virtual tours on our website.”
The Radius Gallery opened in 2014 on East Main Street, and while it took a few years to find its place in the art community, it emerged as a successful and popular downtown attraction.
In partnership with a local philanthropist, the gallery upped its game in January when it moved into its new $3 million home on Higgins Avenue. The works of fabled Montana artist Rudio Autio highlighted the grand opening.
But two months later, just as the excitement for a new summer season was growing, the pandemic hit and businesses were forced to close.
“For us, this whole experience spurred us to do things with our business that we’ve wanted to do for a while,” said Neal. “We’ve always wanted to reach an audience beyond Missoula and the region. We’ve put ourselves into that, and most of things we’ve done to adapt are long-term things.”
Making the changes hasn’t been easy, Neal said. As an exhibition based gallery, the collection changes every few months and coincides with large opening receptions that can draw up to 900 people.
It’s unlikely those days will return any time soon, Neal said. But for now, the gallery remains open by appointment, and Neal and Simon are exploring ways to adapt to the changes and continue building the gallery’s online presence.
“This is all so strange and so unprecedented. I think we’re all wondering, as we enter this next phase, where we’re inching back to normality but real normality seems far out on the horizon. The big question mark isn’t what our business can do differently. It’s more how people’s behaviors are going to change.”