Michelle Brandt survives cancer, navigates COVID to celebrate 10 years as a gallery owner

Andy Downing
Michelle Brandt

When much of the city shut down amid coronavirus restrictions in mid-March, Michelle Brandt, owner of Brandt-Roberts Gallery in the Short North, struggled with the economics of this new reality, wondering how she could keep the gallery operational and in turn provide for its stable of exhibiting artists.

“I have to take care of the livelihoods of my artists, which is something I take very seriously, and I was thinking about how I couldn’t share their work if people weren’t coming in,” said Brandt, who also closed for about a week in early June during the height of the most recent wave of Black Lives Matter protests to hit the city. “We were thinking hard about how we were going to pivot, and, like a lot of businesses, we had to think more virtually.”

While virtual exhibits kept the gallery in the conversation, though, they didn’t do much for the bottom line, and Brandt said sales lagged significantly up until the last eight weeks or so, a stretch in which the gallery has seen a needed increase in sales. “I read an article from a New York gallerist early on in COVID, and he made a prediction that people would return to local [businesses] if they weren’t able to travel and do those kinds of things,” said Brandt, who was able to negotiate a rent deferment plan with her landlord to better navigate the slowdown. “I think people are spending so much time at home that they’re looking at walls and empty spaces and thinking to themselves, ‘You know, I could [hang] something there to brighten my mood.’”

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All of this landed as Brandt-Roberts prepared to celebrate its 10th anniversary, complete with a new exhibit, “10: A Decade of BRG,” which opened over the weekend and runs through Nov. 1. The exhibit includes new pieces from the gallery’s exhibited artists, each of whom created a work centered on the number 10. (Bernard Palchick’s oil painting “Ten Cranes of Happiness,” for one, includes two realistically rendered cranes perched alongside eight paper ones.)

The landmark has recently led Brandt to reflect on the past  particularly a 2018 diagnosis of stage IV colon cancer, a life-altering event that the gallerist said has helped her better navigate the difficulties of this current year  as well as on the future of the gallery, an ever-shifting proposition in an environment currently defined by unknowns.

“That [cancer diagnosis] was a whole other fighting for my life, fighting to keep the doors open. It was kind of a miracle I made it through that, given how far along it was when they discovered it. But, as odd as it seems, I feel that was … a pregame to what we were going to be challenged with in 2020,” said Brandt, who cut her teeth running a gallery in Charleston, South Carolina, before returning to Columbus in 2002, eventually founding Brandt-Roberts alongside former business partner Brian Roberts in 2010. “In 2018, it felt like somebody hit me in both kneecaps and I went down and I was really trying to get through this illness, for my sake, for my family’s sake, and then also trying to keep the gallery operational when I was only there 35 percent of the time.

"I’m not minimizing the challenge of COVID whatsoever, but, when it hit, it was kind of like, ‘Here we go again.' I sat my staff down like I did when I had cancer, and it was like, all right, we’re going to give it everything we have. And if we don’t manage through it, it’s not for a lack of trying.”

Brandt said that surviving cancer shifted her worldview, as well as her approach to operating the gallery, which has been more outwardly focused on community-based projects in recent years, includinga coronavirus-inspired coloring book it helped create and distribute to Columbus City Schools students tasked with distance learning amid COVID-19. Additionally, Brandt, having negotiated these periods of personal and societal upheaval, said she now views herself as less averse to risk.

“Not that I was ever a real fearful person before, but I’m not afraid to try anything now. Cancer taught me that it’s OK to do things differently, and to think of things differently, and so we want to push the envelope a little bit more … as we become a more evolved, more mature business,” said Brandt, pointing to steps the gallery started taking 18 months ago to begin diversifying its artist roster, offering increased support to both female artists and artists of color. “That allows you to take a hard look at what you’re doing and how you may be part of the problem, as well. … The perspective has changed on so many levels.”

At the same time, the gallerist said the force that drives her to go to work each day remains largely unaltered from when the gallery first opened its doors a decade ago. “The motivation for opening a gallery in 2010 and continuing to operate one in 2020 has not changed, and that is solely to share the work of artists,” said Brandt. “And hopefully I can share that work in a way that helps it resonate with people, to where maybe they understand it a little bit better.”