Yet despite the distress unleashed by the pandemic, some people believe it could have a positive impact on the arts in the long term.
Museums and galleries were reopened in Asia some time ago, with many in Europe recently following suit. As a new age dawns upon the world of the arts, it seems an auspicious time to explore how it will be affected by the pandemic.
There is no doubt that the sector has taken a hard hit financially. Research conducted by the Network of European Museum Organisations indicates that, during the pandemic, 13% of the 650 museums surveyed lost up to €30,000 per week, and a further 5% lost almost €50,000 per week. Amsterdam’s world-famous Rijksmuseum, which would normally receive up to 12,000 visitors daily, recorded losses of between €100,000 and €600,000 per week. Though some museums have yet to disclose the magnitude of their losses, the slew of redundancies they have been issuing indicates the extent of their financial struggles. In late March, the UCLA Hammer Museum laid off 150 part-time employees, and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art announced plans to dismiss 72% of its workforce.
It is unlikely that museums’ ticket sales will bounce back to normality when they reopen. Both Philip Tinari and Eike Schmidt, directors of Bejing’s UCCA Center for Contemporary Art and Florence’s Uffizi Gallery respectively, recently announced plans to admit half as many visitors as usual owing to social distancing regulations. The decision is a costly one for Schmidt; the Uffizi, Italy’s most visited gallery in 2016, already lost over €10 million in revenue during lockdown. Moreover, people might be deterred from visiting art institutions for fear of putting their health at risk. Others might be put off by the lengthy entry procedures; before entering the UCCA, visitors are required to get their temperature taken, scan a QR code twice and show staff their green code.
If the pandemic will cost institutions as prestigious as New York’s Metropolitan Museum $100 million, as its executives recently projected, it is likely to threaten the very existence of smaller artistic institutions. The Comitié professionnel des galeries announced at the start of April that a third of French art galleries could be forced to shut by the end of 2020. The Indianapolis Contemporary, which first opened in 2001 and appointed a new director in January of this year, has already fallen victim to the pandemic. Announcing plans to close the museum permanently, board president Casey Cronin said “the impact of the coronavirus is certain to exacerbate economic hardships” and pointed out that “we are not alone as other arts institutions struggle in this crisis.”
Smaller artistic institutions could also struggle to attract visitors because people might assume their health and safety measures are inadequate. Some people believe that institutions must use expensive equipment to ensure visitors abide by hygiene and distancing regulations, such as gadgets which emit an alarm when visitors aren’t social distancing. The Duomo in Florence, an institution which is unlikely to suffer from great financial difficulty, distributes such devices free of charge to its visitors.
Amid the financial uncertainty posed by the pandemic, artists might also abandon smaller galleries in favour of larger, more established institutions. According to Vulture, even before the pandemic “artists were leaving smaller galleries in droves for megagalleries.”
The pandemic will no doubt deliver a serious financial blow to artists. Art fairs, which Alessandro Lupi, the owner of Bologna’s Labs Gallery recently described as “extremely important events where collectors discover artists’ projects and buy their work”, have been postponed or cancelled across the world. Jerry Saltz points out in Vulture that Covid-induced restrictions on mobility might even spell the end for such events.
Governments across the world have responded differently to artists’ financial struggles. While President Emmanuel Macron has promised to provide intermittent support for French artists, Togo’s Minister of Culture, Kossivi Egbetonyo, recently released a statement encouraging artists who have been hard-hit by the pandemic to temporarily change occupation. Many Togolese citizens were offended by his comments, and felt they were symptomatic of the government’s lack of respect for the arts.
However governments choose to treat artists, one thing is for certain: their work is the fuel that keeps the arts industry moving. Without them, the arts world would not be nearly as rich and diverse as it is today.
It is from this cornerstone that one positive impact of lockdown emerges. Many of the world’s most famous artworks were produced in isolation. As Waldemar Januszczak writes in The Sunday Times, the 12 months Vincent van Gogh spent in an asylum in Provence proved to be the “single most productive year of his career.” Other masters such as Pablo Picasso and Richard Dadd have shown us that isolation stimulates rather than stifles creativity.
What’s more, many great artworks have been born out of crises. As Frances Morris, the director of Tate Modern, recently put it, “if you look at the great traumatising events of the past – world wars, global emergencies of different kinds – artists have always responded.” We might in fact be on the cusp of a new artistic movement, driven by artists committed to helping us navigate our way out of isolation and make sense of what we have just lived through.
There is another reason, however, why many people believe the pandemic might have a positive impact on the arts world. The amount of money swilling about in the sector has long been a subject of contention among artists and curators. Works by industry heavyweights including Banksy and Maurizio Cattelan reflect their frustration with the obscene circus that the arts world now represents. Stuart Shave, owner of London’s Modern Art, recently admitted that, prior to the pandemic, his schedule was filled with days when he would make a 6,000-mile round trip for an opening and a dinner.
Yet the social and financial implications of the pandemic could very possibly put an end to the industry’s large-scale operations, since they will make it harder for gallerists, art works and devotees to travel around the world. The pace of exhibitions will no doubt be slower, as will the rate at which blockbuster shows are churned out. According to Rebecca Salter, President of London’s Royal Academy of Arts, the appetite for blockbuster shows might even find itself sated by “smaller, more intimate encounters with artists we might not know.” Many people are hopeful that the pandemic will also open the floodgates to more serious discussion about crowd control. Jan Dalley writes in the Financial Times: “perhaps in future a visit to the Louvre or the British Museum or the Uffizi won’t be a touristic given but more like going to the theatre — seeing the ‘Mona Lisa’ could be like getting a ticket for Hamilton.”
While so much about the post-corona arts world remains a mystery, one thing is for certain: art galleries and museums will be far emptier upon opening. Visitors will have more space, more time and, perhaps, a more rewarding experience. And who knows, perhaps this rewarding experience will remind industry leaders why they were drawn to work in the sector in the first place, and prompt them to precipitate changes that artists and curators have been seeking for so long.