How the Art World is Recovering from the Coronavirus Lockdown

With some signs of the coronavirus lockdown easing, and doors of galleries, museums, exhibitions and theatres starting to re-open, we’re taking a look at the way the art world has responded to the coronavirus pandemic, and what the ‘new normal’ might look like.

The doors of the Design Museum in London are finally open again, and celebrations are well underway in the new exhibition Electronic: From Kraftwerk to The Chemical Brothers. There are sights including the spectacular light installation Core by 1024 architecture (top of page) moving to the beat of Laurent Garnier’s exhibition soundtrack, Kraftwerk’s The Catalogue 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 in 3D, and a visual world created by Smith & Lyall for The Chemical Brothers’ Grammy Award winning track ‘Got to Keep On’.

But this celebration of the world of electronic and dance music, through the experiments of the Radiophonic Workshop to the Chicago house sound of Juan Atkins and Pater Saville’s graphics for British record sleeves, has a contradiction at its centre; visitors are masked, spaced out, and forbidden from gathering together even under the mirrorball on the dancefloor. With nightclubs still shut all over Europe, it’s clear that dance culture as well as other forms of culture are a long way from recovery.

Kraftwerk Man machine
Kraftwerk at the Design Museum – Photo credit: Peter Boettcher

Virtual Art

A successful London Art Week has been conducted mainly virtually, but Frieze London and Frieze Masters, the annual autumn art fairs due to take place in Regent’s Park from October 8th to 11th, have been cancelled for 2020. The Fair organisers cited logistical challenges and restrictions on travel and large events as the main motivators behind the decision. While the UK recently lifted travel restrictions for a handful of non-European countries, visitors from the US must self-quarantine upon arrival to the country for 14 days. “We simply cannot ask you to participate in such uncertain conditions,” Victoria Siddall, Frieze’s global director, wrote in an email to exhibitors. “We have no choice but to cancel.”

Shortly after the Tate Galleries re-opened, it was announced that visitors would be obliged to wear face coverings. The Tate had already instituted measures including pre-booking, one-way systems, regular hand-sanitising stations, closed cloakrooms and cafes and card only payments, but will it be possible to enjoy exhibitions under these conditions?

Current exhibitions include Kara Walker’s timely Fons Americanus, a major Andy Warhol retrospective and Steve McQueen’s ‘Year 3’ project, as well as Aubrey Beardsley’s etchings. All these are now extended at least until the autumn. Tate Liverpool and Tate St Ives have also re-opened with advance booking and social distancing measures in place.

Other galleries such as the National Portrait Gallery and the Serpentine are reopening under similar conditions. Many commercial galleries are open too, under slightly less strict conditions as they are classed as ‘non-commercial retail’ and so can arrange visitors by appointment.

The Whitechapel Gallery has reopened with Radical Figures: Painting in the New Millennium, a group exhibition of figurative painting by Tschabalala Self, Daniel Richter, Dana Schutz, Michael Armitage, Tala Madani, Cecily Brown and others, while the Serpentine will open to the public on Tuesday August 4 with Blueprints, a large-scale solo exhibition by multimedia artist and filmmaker Cao Fei.

Michael Armitage Kampala
Whitechapel Gallery, Michael Armitage, 2014, Kampala Suburb

The Royal Academy of Arts reopened on July 9th, with the Picasso and Paper exhibition extended to August 2. Gauguin and the Impressionists will now run from August 7th to October 18th, a joint show of work by Tracey Emin and Norwegian artist Edvard Munch will go ahead as planned on November 15th, and the Summer Exhibition 2020 will take place – but on October 6th.

The Barbican has reopened with Masculinities: Liberation Through Photography, while the National Gallery has extended its Titian: Love, Desire, Death until January 2021.

In China, though, a new outbreak of coronavirus has dashed hopes of returning the Beijing art world to operation, with several private museums, and the two M Woods galleries voluntarily closed, and the UCCA Center for Contemporary Art open but at 30 percent capacity.

Full house

Theatre, of course, has also been hit hard, with theatres dark and talk of many companies not surviving the lockdown, particularly if it goes on through Christmas. Few theatres, particularly the small ones, can operate at a profit without a full house, so social distancing makes it unviable to open. David Tennant’s West End play Good, due to open at the Playhouse in October, has been delayed until 2021, and this is unlikely to be the only big-name casualty.

As for the auction houses, both Sotheby’s and Christie’s have made great strides in virtual auctioneering technology, and have made some impressive sales – Francis Bacon’s Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus, 1981, sold for $84,550,000 at Sotheby’s New York Contemporary Art Evening Auction. But many blockbuster sales have been postponed, and sales totals were well down on the same period last year.

Christie’s innovated with a hybrid themed auction, ONE, which achieved $420m in sales, and a new “20/21” category set to change the entire sale structure of the market, while Sotheby’s responded with a Rembrandt to Richter auction valued at around $200 million.

Bacon Triptych
Francis Bacon, Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus, 1981

Whatever the innovations of the auction houses, it’s clear that further challenges lie ahead.

Sarah Verano, Art Law Associate at international law firm Withers, told Arts & Collections: “Now that the major auction houses have successfully demonstrated the virtual platform to be a viable alternative to the classic in-person auction, it will be interesting to see whether the evening sales in the fall and winter seasons will remain virtual, particularly in jurisdictions easing their lockdowns (for instance, in London and Paris).

“If social distancing requirements linger so that it remains difficult for potential buyers to view artwork in person, the solutions proposed to address this challenge may become a significant focus in consignments, potentially leading to some innovations in the space now opened by the use of a virtual platform.

Sarah Verano, Withers: “Adding another element of market uncertainty is the upcoming election”

“At the same time, because buyers may be making purchases sight unseen, the catalogue and marketing descriptions of artwork will take on more considerable significance and may bear more scrutiny as the primary source of information about an artwork. And, adding another element of market uncertainty is the upcoming fall presidential election in the US, which may ultimately affect the eagerness (or cautiousness) of buyers with respect to making purchases.”

Hard hit

A further question of course is what can be done to help artists, financially hard-hit by the shutdown. Mrs Anita Choudhrie, Founder of the Stellar International Art Foundation, told us: “The UK arts sector has been one of the hardest-hit industries during the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, a new report has projected that the creative sector will be hit twice as hard as the wider economy and is expected to lose £1.4 billion a week in 2020. This economic impact is undeniably devastating and equates to one of the greatest cultural catastrophes this country has witnessed.

“Amid this backdrop, it is brilliant that after closing their doors indefinitely over three months ago, major galleries and museums are starting to make plans to re-open and adapt to the ‘new normal’ in a post-COVID reality. However, whilst funding from commercial companies and philanthropic donations will be crucial in reviving the sector, unfortunately, with devastation spread so far and wide, charitable handouts or one-off boosts in funding simply will not go far enough.

Mrs Anita Choudhrie of the Stellar International Art Foundation: “Active engagement is crucial”

“Instead, now the priority needs to be creating new opportunities for artists to support them during this unprecedented time. Only by restoring the demand for artists and publicly acknowledging the importance of their work, can we truly reinvigorate art creation across the country and ensure the survival of the entire art ecosystem.

“At the Stellar International Art Foundation, one of the areas we focus on is supporting female artists with a strong social relevance by providing a platform to showcase their work and build their profile. We believe that this active engagement is crucial to help propel artists careers and also to help change how individuals engage with the arts and make the sector more accessible to the wider public.

“Unfortunately, people may not see the importance of supporting the arts following a global pandemic – however, unless this narrative is overhauled and artists are given the opportunity to develop meaningful connections with society, we risk losing one of this country’s most vibrant industries.”

Hard road

Clearly there’s a long way to go before we achieve anything like full recovery for the arts and culture – and whether it’s a gallery, a museum, a theatre an auction house or an individual artist, there’s a hard road to travel.

Lynn Hershman
Lynn Hershman: “We don’t know how (COVID-19 is) hitting us”

Possibly the only bright side is that artists will have extraordinary opportunities to respond to the crisis in their own ways. Speaking to Frieze magazine, multi-media artist Lynn Hershman said: “We don’t know how (COVID-19 is) hitting us or what it will cause. More and more, we are losing control of who we are and our identity is being virtualized and contaminated, just like the globe, like the virus is this contamination through connection…

“It doesn’t just have to be dystopic. We had collective traumas in the past, but we didn’t have the internet; now, we have the connectivity to try to understand this in profound ways.’

See also: How the Luxury Goods Market Can Recover After Coronavirus


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