What I Learned Helping Launch an Immersive Art Business During a Pandemic

Paint and Brushes

My partner’s long-time dream of starting his own immersive art gallery came into fruition last fall. He had secured enough funding from investors and landed on a great space in LA’s Chinatown.

The buildout phase went smoothly. Talented, dedicated people seemed to emerge out of nowhere to help him with all aspects of starting his business. Folks to build out his installation, develop merch, build the website, and handle publicity and marketing.

And the months leading up to its launch date of March 20, we expected the opening to go without a hitch. But the grand opening of Cakeland L.A., my partner’s life project, an artistic vision that was born over 15 years ago, was put on hold because of the pandemic. The eve Cakeland was to open to the public, the mayor of LA announced that all non-essential businesses were required to temporarily shutter.

It was a devastating blow, to say the least. As my partner describes it, it was like “giving birth to a beautiful, wild animal, only to lead it into suspended animation, not knowing if it will ever have a moment to live its own life.”

It’s been a valuable lesson in patience. I’ve been involved in helping with different aspects of the business, from signing up for insurance to helping with the website. In turn, I’ve learned quite a bit about how to launch a small art gallery. And how to deal with the setback of trying to start a business during a pandemic:

Planning for the relaunch

It looks as if shelter-in-place orders for LA county will most likely be extended through July. What’s more, it remains unclear as to when it will be safe for non-essential businesses to open.

It’s been a hard knock, no doubt. A lot was lost: marketing and publicity efforts, which required months of planning and took up a chunk of the startup funds, were mostly eclipsed because of the coronavirus.

But my partner is amazingly resourceful, resilient, and a brilliant creative problem-solver. He’s been spending this in-between time fine-turning the installation, working out kinks with the website, and strategizing publicity and marketing efforts for the relaunch. The marketing and publicity efforts were, for the most part, eclipsed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Reassessing expenses

Shortly after the quarantine began, we sat down to look carefully at overhead for the business. As hiring on-site staff was put on hold, we were able to reduce coverage for Cakeland’s workers’ compensation. What’s more, the insurance carrier offered a small refund for overpayment. We also went through the overhead costs, such as utility payments, to see if anything else could be bumped down.

Bottom line: It’s worth it to review all expenses and see what can be scaled back. It’s also an opportune time to see what can be dropped entirely or find a better deal elsewhere.

Seeking financial resources

A silver lining from the pandemic is how many lending options were available for small businesses. My partner jumped at the bit when applying for the PPP loan was made available through his bank. He also applied as soon as he learned about the SBA’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL). He secured a small amount to cover some overhead costs.

It’s been a bit tricky charting a financial plan when a definitive open date remains in the lurch. Another challenge has been to keep up with the rules of the PPP, as changes have been made to the requirements.

But we’re learning to take it day by day and make the most of available resources. He’s been able to work with designers and artists to fine-tune his gallery and look for areas that could be made better.

Integrating digital platforms

As performance venues and concert halls across the country are canceling their summer programming, it remains up in the air when it’ll be safe to venture out again. In turn, thinking critically about how AR, virtual experiences, and the online store digital can impact the success — and survival — of the business.

Since the mandated shutdown of art galleries, we’ve been focusing on boosting sales for the online merch shop, thinking of how to incorporate digital experiences and potentially AR into the gallery and its branding, and concentrate on the narrative behind the gallery’s installation, The Beauty War.

And he’s had to since rethink his business. His art will always remain center stage. But instead of thinking of digital platforms as secondary, how can the gallery be approached so that digital platforms — such as the merch store and virtual experiences — can lead to people potentially visiting the space in person?

And how can the two platforms be integrated so that it’s not just digital experiences, or in-person experiences, but expanded to be events presented by The Beauty War?

Embrace uncertainty

It’s a hard time for almost everyone. And it’s tough to plan ahead when there’s no end date in sight. But it hasn’t been all gloom-and-doom. If anything, the pandemic has taught me how to remain calm, relaxed, and relatively free from anxiety despite the circumstances.

And it’s taught us that the most crucial resource we have is each other. By rallying the help and resources of those around us, we can offer more support and glean insights. By working together, we can see each other through, and The best thing you can do is to focus on the task at hand, and move forward in your own way.


Jackie Lam
Jackie Lam is an L.A.-based money writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Business Insider, and GOOD Magazine. She is currently studying to be a financial coach (AFC®) to help artists and freelancers with their money. In her free time she blogs at heyfreelancer.com

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