Art Museums and COVID-19

The arts are a weathervane, they spin in the gusts of a robust financial climate and are the first to stall in the economic doldrums. When money is tight, the first funding curtailed is that allocated to the arts and entertainment, and consequently, the reaction to COVID-19 has been abrupt. Many events, festivals, concerts, and performances were cancelled and theatres, venues, and galleries closed. As roughly two-thirds of the country’s artists and artworkers are employed as casuals or sole traders, the impact on their fragile incomes was severe and immediate. The newly established website ‘I lost my gig’ reported on 7 April that lost income had reached $330 million and impacted the lives of over 600,000 artists and artworkers. We know from previous experience of wars, global financial crises, and natural disasters that while the impact is immediate, rebuilding is slow and painful. The task facing the sector is to ensure that what emerges is proactive and aspirational rather than a mirror of our fears and apathy.

When the art museums around the world shuttered up early in 2020, the impact was dramatic. Over-night we inhabited André Malraux’s ‘museum without walls’. With gallery access denied, we had to rely on the musée imaginaire, a repository of reproducible art held in memory, carried in data files, stored in the Cloud. Many galleries were able to quickly marshal their resources and provide access to a range of virtual tours, videos, activities for children and other downloadable assets. As MCA Director Elizabeth Ann Macgregor said, ‘the best course of action is to focus on the things we can control rather than stress about those we can’t.’  It also prompted an adjustment in orientation according to Chris Saines; ‘at Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) our focus was on different audience segments and in particular on our local audiences, including children, targeted through home-based learning programs.’

For the major players, it was a consolidation of previous investment. QAGOMA had already initiated its Digital Transformation project, and the crisis jump-started it into overdrive. The National Gallery of Victoria’s digitisation project was well advanced, with ninety percent of the collection online. As Andrew Clark explains, ‘with the absence of physical exhibition experiences, this is really a moment for museums and galleries to explore how to mine their collections to tell engaging stories.’ For the National Gallery of Australia (NGA), however, it was a catalyst for experimentation. ‘Without the coronavirus, we would have been more precious’, admits Nick Mitzevich, ‘it gave us permission to try a range of things, some with high production values, others with low so we could test out our audience response.’ With their national remit at the forefront of their strategic thinking, the NGA is exploring all options that add to the experience of engaging with artworks. ‘We can’t replicate the physical experience, and we don’t want to’, explained Amit Sood from Google in 2015, ‘but let’s at least try and give people a sense of magic.’

For museum professionals, artists, and the wider community alike, that poses the question of what generates ‘a sense of magic’? Anyone who has visited a gallery knows it is a heady fusion of the café and conversation, quietude and consumerism, laced with a dose of lectures, tours events and the chance to imbibe the enthusiasm of others. The catalyst, however, remains the artworks fuelled by what Walter Benjamin described as their ‘aura’; the sense of being in contact with the artist, of standing between them and their unique work created years, decades or centuries earlier. ‘What can’t be replaced is spending time with a work of art’, reiterates Mitzevich. 

Though online engagement has been critical, it presents unique problems, according to Macgregor. ‘Many of the groups we work with do not have internet access — for example, thirty percent of the primary children in the core group of Western Sydney Schools — and we have a responsibility to ensure this crisis does not exacerbate the gap between those who have access to art and those that do not.’ Accessibility will remain a priority and the digital platforms have provided mechanisms to reach more people, some previously ignored, and to offer supplementary information, greater insight and the space for introspection. How we employ those tools to transform the gallery experience is the tantalising conundrum. While no panacea, as Clark acknowledges, ‘there is an opportunity for the new and existing audiences we gain in this time, to continue to engage with the collection and exhibition program virtually.’

One thing we have learnt about Benjamin’s theory of aura is that reproduction does not erode the allure of artworks. Indeed, there is evidence that its magnetism increases with every reproduction. As Sood explained in another interview, ‘the more digital has embraced culture, and culture has embraced digital, the greater the increase in physical footfall across cultural institutions.’ Once reopened, we can assume the local crowds will flock back to our galleries in even greater numbers. ‘I strongly believe that when we come out of isolation, there will be a huge demand for the real!’ says Macgregor, though Chris Saines warns that ongoing disruptions to international and domestic non-essential travel will undoubtedly impact overall visitor numbers.

Reopening as quickly as possible is vital because as Mitzevich, Saines, Clarke, and Macgregor confirm closure has resulted in a significant hit to the bottom line of their institutions, and the longer the requirement for social distancing continues the deeper it will cut. ‘We know that many organisations are on the brink of going under’, says Macgregor, ‘and even those who can get through the immediate crisis will face a long period of reduced activity and the loss of critical staff, including artists.’ While JobKeeper offers a level of support for some sole trader artists and the ‘resilience’ funds at Federal and State level offer individual artists short-term assistance, for the sector at large, staffed extensively by casuals, the picture is bleak. Dependant on government for infrastructure support, on the corporate world for sponsorship and the community for philanthropic support – not to mention on the work of artists for content – the public galleries are entering perilous territory. Commercial galleries face an even more tenuous future and the entire arts ecology is under threat unless a government rescue package that addresses the long-term impact of this shutdown is forthcoming.

That said, within the commercial gallery sector retail alternatives have been cranked up from fledgling prototypes. Art Basel’s viewing rooms and the proliferation of online auctions and sales rooms have sought to keep the market alive and simultaneously, artists able to afford rent and food. Those artists who built their careers through social media platforms and digital marketing strategies, such as Chloe Wise, Amalia Ulman and Lina Iris Viktor are seen as harbingers of innovation, identifying markets that did not previously exist and concurrently managing a segue into established sales channels. This heightened collaboration may well be one of the enduring outcomes of the COVID-19 disruptions as the gallery/client relationship is transformed through access to digital portals where the artist/gallerist and their audiences are establishing new mechanisms for building commercial relationships. The commercial gallery is a creation of the late nineteenth century, when the Impressionist artists rejected from the Salon were taken up by a young entrepreneur named Paul Durand-Ruel, so it is likely that this disruption will instigate a review of that mercantile mechanism leading to a transformation of the art marketplace.

Consequently, this must be seen as a time of revision when we recalibrate our modus operandi as visual arts professionals. After surviving this global catastrophe – and we will survive – we will have the insight of that trauma to enable us to see afresh and revalue our priorities and restructure our operations. What will we choose to retain, what will we be brave enough to discard? Will we focus our attention on celebrating the local and showcasing our collections as a response to the lingering crisis? Will we be seduced by a return to the status quo or have the courage to realise that for many, including Indigenous Australians, ‘normality maintains disadvantage’, as Noongar Elder Jim Morrison reminds us.  The sector has been severely mauled, and worse is likely to come, so in tandem, with government support, it will require all of our shared resourcefulness and innovation to secure a sustainable and vibrant future. As the fresh breezes of rejuvenation eddy through our community, let us use them productively to set a new course.   

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 51, 020

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