In the last six months, many galleries have been revitalizing the concept of the online gallery. Perhaps ironically, the Fenway-based Shelter in Place Gallery has taken the online gallery to new heights. Using one inch to one foot scale, this miniature space exhibited via Instagram permits local artists to send scaled down versions of their most ambitious exhibition proposals. Since its inception in late March, SIP Gallery has taken off, with 36 exhibitions to date and everyone from Jerry Saltz to PBS raving about it. I sat down with co-founders Eben Haines and Delaney Dameron for their first in-person, socially distanced interview, to get more insight into how this all started, their first group exhibition, and what the future holds.
BOSTON HASSLE: I’m wondering, why this name? What made you choose “Shelter in Place” specifically?
EBEN HAINES: We had a couple of different names, but it was mostly because the scale made it so much easier for people to make things at their shelter-in-place location. I personally wasn’t able to get to my studio because it was a shared studio space, and we couldn’t all be in there at the same time. We have a little space in our apartment that can be sectioned off and it has a desk so I can work there. Going from a big studio to a tiny space, I realized that so many other people are in the same situation. So it was just like, “make something tiny in your shelter-in-place location, send it to us, and we’ll make it look gigantic.”
DELANEY DAMERON: And the abbreviation “SIP” seemed like a fun play on words since everything was small.
BH: Is that why the logo is a mug?
DD: Yeah so Shelter in Place is SIP Gallery for short. It’s like a sip; it’s little.
BH: SIP Gallery is really interesting because it’s not a white cube; it’s a very different kind of aesthetic than most contemporary galleries. Why did you choose to do this more aged or loft-like look rather than the typical white cube?
EH: Originally it was my version of a perfect studio. It was 500 sq. ft. , which is a really nice size for a studio. If I was able to find a space that I could afford at that size, it was not going to be in any way updated. There’s no electrical, there’s no plumbing, there’s no anything, which is just realistic as to what I could afford.
BH: So this is essentially your dream gallery space?
DD: It’s his dream realistic gallery! It’s also in his aesthetic if you see the paintings that he does and his general aesthetic. It’s very much built in his eye. The humor of the gallery too—the leaks in the ceiling, and where the outlet is placed is terrible for a gallery. There’s humor in it that’s very much Eben imprinted on it.
EH: At the same time, I have this idea that art is meant to live with humans, and live in an actual lived space. So many galleries—and especially museums—put in a white cube, and it just sucks the humanity out of the room. It says that art is its own thing that exists in its own space, in its own place, and it’s out of your price range and not for you. Putting it in a place that looks like people exist, you realize that artwork is made by real living people who are not these gods, top of the heap blue chip artists who don’t exist in the same realm as us. It’s all very human, especially during the pandemic. Talking about our humanity seemed very important.
BH: In one recent post you said that the pictures were too sweaty so you didn’t want to post them, and other times, for example, you’ve written about how exhausted the registrars or art handlers are. Why did you choose to have these elements of fantasy?
EH: I think a lot of it is just bringing people in on the joke, because so much of the art world is just posturing and trying to look fancier or more advanced than you really are. So I especially like to play on that. What a lot of people have said that they love about the gallery is that there is this conceit. Like, it’s not real, but we pretend it’s real, and in that way, having to use your imagination so much, the art takes on such a bigger presence and it draws you into the scene a lot more.
DD: I think it’s very intentional that Eben does all the writing. He weaves in humor to something that’s generally so serious—especially during such a serious time. People love the humor in it. A lot of it is museum humor. Eben works at the Museum of Fine Arts as a graphic designer for exhibitions, and there’s a good chunk of curators and friends that follow that are all a part of the museum world, so it’s poking fun at that world that they’re all familiar with.
BH: Has the MFA said anything to you about it?
EH: Oh yeah, definitely. They’ve posted some things on their Instagram, and we’re actually in talks about them acquiring it, the gallery itself.
BH: Do you think you’ll continue this when the MFA reopens?
DD: Right now we’ve been doing at about one and a half shows per week since the beginning of quarantine, so we’ve shown just over 30 artists. Since Eben’s beginning work again, we’re going to be reducing it down to about a show a week, just to try and give us some more breathing room. Our plan is to continue the gallery as long as there’s a need for it and people are enjoying it. It’s proving to be a good resource and venue for artists to be able to show their works in a more accessible way. It will live on, it’s just living on in a more reduced capacity since we’re both working and it’s a lot of work.
BH: And obviously if the MFA acquires SIP—
EH: So they did tell us that they’ll wait until the project is over before acquiring it. We do have a tentative plan now. We’re booked out through September. We might keep it through then and then it goes to the museum. Then we’ll build a new gallery that gets rid of all the difficulties about this current space.
DD: We basically have to move half of our living room every time we have to photograph it because of where the doors and windows are. So his 2.0 version will make it a little more accessible for us to photograph all of the shows.
BH: Do you have to take off one of the walls to photograph it?
EH: So the roof comes off, and then there’s the three walls you see and then the back wall is mostly open.
DD: So that’s where we stick our arms and everything to get our photographs.
BH: What is it like going from a graphic designer for exhibitions to becoming a curator for exhibitions? Is it a weird transition?
DD: He’s a natural, a curator at heart.
EH: I do know a lot about how a show comes together and the bureaucracy behind that, which is always something we make fun of a lot with the gallery. I’m not curating groups of shows and I’m not curating themes really. It’s just like here’s an artist that I like, here’s what they wanted to do. It’s not quite as intense as being a regular curator so it was a pretty easy transition I’d say.
DD: Your experience at the museum has definitely benefited the gallery in making things more realistic. And his parents worked at the museum, so he basically grew up at the museum. His family is a family of artists.
BH: Like a dynasty!
DD: Yes, and I’m a witness to it. It’s definitely helped with the gallery.
BH: So what is your role?
DD: I’m a project and account manager at a marketing agency. Basically when he started the project, all the sirens of his lack of organization were going off in my head. I basically helped him get the social media account set up. I help with all the emails, keep everything sorted, and manage the calendar. I’m like an operations and project manager for it. It’s a lot of coordinating with artists and making sure that things are delivered and sent back. So all of the stuff that he would find boring and I find exciting, I do for the gallery. I also review submissions and help determine who shows with us. I photograph some of the shows. I help place on walls and things like that.
BH: Hyperallergic identified you as the “gallery assistant.” Do you think that’s a good identification?
DD: Yeah I think gallery assistant is pretty good.
EH: You’re the paperwork person.
DD: Yeah, I help manage the grant that we have to make sure artists are paid. I built the website. I do all the digital management of it, and project management which is fun.
EH: You’re co-curator and general management, and then I do all the writing and most of the photography, and I built the space.
BH: You mentioned the Transformative Public Art Program grant. When did you get the grant from the Boston Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture?
EH: Since June 1st we’ve been able to give every artist a $25 stipend that hopefully pays for materials and then we can pitch in for shipping up to $20 which generally covers all the shipping.
DD: It has for everyone so far. It’s amazing because the goal for the gallery as a whole is to make shows more accessible for artists during quarantine, but artists obviously paid for their own materials and shipping, so it covers the basics of making it. It should be totally free for artists to show for us. We felt almost embarrassed offering somebody only $25 at first. We didn’t know if artists would even accept it or if they would just pass it on or something, but so far everyone’s accepted it, and been very gracious. It seems like they’ve been receptive to it. It’s been good.
BH: And so now you’ve expanded to more non-Boston area artists?
DD: There’s been a few. It’s not really intentional. We say that we prioritize Boston artists as we get them, and if we feel like their shows are a good fit for the space and their statement makes sense with the mission, and with the other works that we’re showing at the time. We’ve been receiving more out of state submissions that we’ve really liked, so we just started showing them. There’s no official line in the sand of when we were going to do it, but there’s a lot of interest from people out of state.
EH: We’ve gotten lots of submissions from all over the country and some from outside of the country. A lot of Canadians for a while. There was a good three weeks where we were getting a ton of submissions from Vancouver.
DD: The international ones are hard because of shipping and the logistics of that. To be clear, we’re not really doing international submissions yet, but we are opening it up to other states.
BH: In the WBUR article back in April you said that you accepted all submissions. Has that changed?
EH: Yeah definitely. That was when we were getting fewer. We were still getting a lot and we were able to build up the calendar for a while. I think there were a lot of people who were really dedicated and really excited about it and to make something new and like, ‘I’m going to put everything into this and do a really great job.’ Since then we’ve gotten a lot of people who are just like, ‘I have tiny things can you show it?’ And I’m like, ‘well did you make it for the gallery or is this just a tiny thing?’
DD: The point being, we’ve gotten much more submissions, so the quality of submissions is much more across the board than it was when we first started.
EH: We’re also really trying to prioritize people who are making things for the space, and thinking about how they’ll sit in the space, as opposed to just making tiny things.
BH: So people make artworks specifically for the space and then they send it to you, rather than them showing you their portfolio and you saying ‘okay we’ll accept you to make work?’
EH: Well yes, I guess we’ve done both. A lot of people say ‘here’s other things I’ve made,’ and then ‘here’s a small mock up.’
DD: They’ll do a drawing of what they want to make, but then other artists will just be like, ‘I make mini stuff; here’s pictures of it. This is from 2019. Can I show it in your space?’ And that’s not what we’re really trying to do. We’re trying to get artists engaged during COVID to make their works on a smaller scale.
EH: We’re trying to get people to make things way bigger than they’re currently able to, or maybe have ever been able to because of lack of galleries that will show it, and lack of space to make it.
BH: Do you have any idea how many submissions you’ve gotten?
EH: In the hundreds.
BH: Craft School was such a different kind of show from what you had done previously. It was your first group show and your first guest curated show, with Michelle Millar Fisher, the Wornick Curator of Contemporary Decorative Arts at the MFA. How was that conceived? Did Michelle reach out to you or did you guys reach out to her? How did that happen?
EH: She reached out to me. Originally it was in June when she said there was a Craft Futures Fund grant that she was like, ‘I want to have a show in your gallery and I want to fund it through this. Would you be interested?’ Knowing how great she is I was like, ‘yes, absolutely let’s do it.’ That didn’t end up panning out, but she was able to get artists to join on and then she spearheaded this whole print fundraiser for the Black School which was amazing and ended up raising a ton of money. Michelle raised $3,733 for the Black School and $3,003 for the artists.
DD: She really spearheaded 80-90% of that show. She curated the show, she worked with the artists. Eben collaborated with her on some of the texts and interpretation just to get it organized for what days and what posts will happen.
EH: Michelle did trust me with the actual installation. Sometimes I’d be like, ‘this looks kind of weird, do you want to weigh in’ but most of the time I would lay things out and photograph it. It was funny; she was like, ‘I never thought it would be so much work to make things for a miniature space,’ and I’m like ‘just because it’s miniature, it’s the same amount of logistics involved.’
DD: It’s hard with the gallery because you don’t think about it like that, but every installation is it’s own show, and then you have to have all the text and make sure you have all the photographs, so it was four individual shows with their own text to talk about the artist and everything. It was a lot of work.
BH: Was that weird to give over the gallery to another curator or were you kind of relieved?
EH: Kind of, but it was also nice because I got to step back for a little bit, though less than I was anticipating.
DD: I was going to say, you didn’t step back– it was so much work. But it was really cool to see her interpretation of the works and to have a different voice show in the gallery through her lens. And they’re artists that we wouldn’t know, so we also had the opportunity to work with their pieces and see their work which was really cool for us, because they’re amazing artists.
EH: And because so far we haven’t asked anybody to show besides the first, maybe, three shows that we had. But otherwise it’s been entirely submission based, so it was nice to have Michelle pick the artists that she really wanted to have shown together.
DD: It was very intentional.
EH: Yeah, more intentional than we usually are.
BH: How long did that take between conception of the exhibition to actual implementation?
EH: In terms of Michelle and I working together, that was probably over a month in total. I don’t know how much work Michelle was doing on her own prior to that to figure it out– probably a lot. But the week before was a lot of figuring out how to time things out, and things were changing all the time too because she was like, ‘I actually found this printer who could do this other stuff and I’ve got this other artist who wants to make a print,’ because there was this whole other component to it that we’ve never dealt with– selling prints.
BH: And then there’s the new website for Craft School as well.
DD: Which she also did.
EH: She did a ton. She was excited to be able to curate because she hasn’t been able to be a curator for months.
BH: Do you see yourself doing more of these shows, more sales?
DD: I think that we want to do more group shows, because it’s cool to see the collaboration between artists and how the works speak to each other. But I don’t think we could do group shows very regularly.
EH: Because you still want to give each piece of work its due, and write about it, and have people learn about the artist. At the same time, if we have six people in a room together, Instagram only has so much space, so much bandwidth. So when you’re able to just write something about the show, as opposed to the individual works in the show, it’s obviously a lot easier.
DD: And one of the main goals of the gallery was to give artists solo shows that couldn’t or wouldn’t otherwise be able to. So I think that group shows– working with curators that we admire and want to work with, and artists that we think will be really complementary of each other in a group setting– is something that we will do. But I think that the solo shows are the priority for us, because that is the goal of the gallery.
BH: So the original way that I saw the gallery was through Nina Miller’s exhibition in April because we had both just graduated from Boston University. That was so cool to see that and to see her, and I noticed in the Craft School show that there was another artist, Jolie Ngo, who had just gotten her BFA from RISD. It’s so exciting to see newly graduated people next to artists who have won big awards or are professors and very established. Can you talk about the range of artists that you’re working with?
EH: So when we see the proposal, we often don’t know that much about them demographically. It’s just their work.
DD: Half of the time we don’t even know where they’re from, which is partially the reason why we’ve had shows that weren’t Boston artists at first, because we didn’t know where people lived. Generally they just send us their work and a statement about it, so we don’t know if they’re recent graduates. We don’t know anything about them. But then we just say that we love their work, and we learn that they’re students or that they’re in New York or something, and learn as we work with them. Sometimes it’s just a coincidence honestly that a student or previous student makes work that we really love and want to show. But it’s great that we have been able to show the work of recent graduates who I think have been extremely limited in what they can do post graduation. We’ve had students reach out to us who didn’t get their – what are the final shows called?
BH: Oh, the thesis shows. All my friends were very heartbroken.
DD: Yeah, no, it’s horrible! They’re trying to figure out where and how they can show their works, so there’s been a lot of conversations that we’ve had and things we’ve looked into to try and make sure that we’re collaborating with recent graduates. But yeah, it’s been totally dependent on the work.
EH: When we see something we really like, we’re like “they have a show” and whoever they are is who they are.
BH: It’s really cool because it’s kind of an equalizer. I think it would be really hard normally for a new grad to show at a regular gallery. The submissions are more anonymous this way.
EH: It’s this weird thing in the art world where, for some reason, you have to have a good resume to back up whether or not your work is any good. You don’t have to have good work, as long as you’ve shown in the right places, for whatever reason.
DD: And our gallery is not commercial, we’re not trying to sell their work, which I think also makes it so that we can show so much stuff that maybe galleries wouldn’t regularly show.
EH: Yeah, because gallerists also have to eat, and so they have to show sellable work.
DD: So much of our selection has literally nothing to do with sellability, because we don’t sell anything. They ship it to us, and we mail it back to them. For us, it’s what will be impactful in the space. What’s telling a story, what do we like, literally. It is very much an equalizer because we don’t care at all. It’s not that we don’t care who they are, but we care so much more about the work, and how the work will live in the space, and what the work means to what we care about.
EH: Because that’s what art is supposed to be! It’s putting a lens on something that either is hard to see, or people don’t want to look at, but then when you make it something beautiful, then they’ll look at it.
You can visit the Shelter in Place Gallery on Instagram @shelterinplacegallery or on their website shelterinplacegallery.com.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.