Resurgence: Post-pandemic Engagement With Art
It’s been a tough two years for art galleries and art museums around the world. Most were forced to close for periods of 6–18 months by pandemic lock-down orders. Visitation revenues dried up completely. The lives of large numbers of staff serving the public were disrupted. Guards, cleaners, restaurant and gift shop staff had to be laid off.
Most curatorial and collections care staff stayed on. But many faced unusually stressful situations. Think about the effect on exhibitions, the life blood of most galleries.
In normal times, art exhibits are planned years ahead. Many hundreds of details must be meticulously scheduled. Arrangements are made for loans from other galleries and individual collectors. Rental fees are negotiated. Packing crates must often be custom built for art of unusual sizes or shapes. Vans and planes must be booked for transportation. Interim storage facilities must be hired, all years in advance.
Most galleries are not only bringing in exhibitions for display. They are also dealing with the circulation of their own exhibits to other galleries and packing up items in their collections for shipment on international loan. On any given day at a large gallery transport vans can be seen drawing up to the loading dock. The carriers are either taking crates of art away or bringing them in. Preparatorial staff are continually packing or unpacking.
When art museums close their doors, a gigantic traffic jam develops in the normal circulation of art for exhibitions. Arrangements for all the pieces in circulation must be reviewed, rescheduled, and renegotiated.
The circulation has to be brought to a stop. Yet timing is never perfect. Storage facilities become overloaded as new exhibits arrive before old ones can be shipped out. Immense costs are incurred when contracts for leased storage must be extended. Sensitive art objects need to be maintained at narrowly defined conditions of temperature and humidity. The administrative load to keep track of the details has to be overwhelming.
Uncertainty lies like a dark cloud over every decision. The situation is only compounded by false starts when lock-down regulations are temporarily suspended in some jurisdictions but not others.
Richard Seifman, writing on Impakter.com, covered a number of the harmful impacts of the pandemic on art. He quotes a UNESCO study finding that over 11,000 museums world wide shut down for at least a period. The severe reduction in revenues suggests that some may never reopen.
A hundred Warhol pieces were hung in the Ludwig Museum, Germany, in December 2020. But they remained unseen by the public until the museum opened again in March of 2021. A Rembrandt show at Canada’s National Gallery scheduled to open in May, 2021 was not unveiled until July.
A study published jointly by Art Basel and UBS in mid-2020 estimated that art museums suffered pandemic losses through layoffs and reduced sales in gallery shops, online sales and at art fairs. It stated, “Sales have contracted by an average of 36% in the first half of 2020 as nearly all galleries (93%) had closed their premises between January and July 1 of 2020.”
Opening the Doors Again
Nor has post-lockdown reopening been simple to manage. Re-staffing has become a challenge everywhere. Many who were laid off have had to find other jobs or even retired since. Large expenditures in marketing have been necessary to be sure the public is aware that the doors are open again. Staff have to be trained in new Covid protocols to ensure their own protection and that of their visitors.
In a recent visit to the Warhol show at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) crowds were controlled by the Gallery’s long-time practice of timed online bookings. But this still resulted in socially spaced entrance line-ups extending down the sidewalk outside. The outdoor wait was used by Gallery staff and volunteers to ensure that visitors had their passes, stated a lack of Covid symptoms and submitted to a non-invasive temperature measurement. A couple of weeks later they would also be checking vaccination passports.
Some museums and galleries used the down time to develop new virtual approaches to delivering services to their publics. Many created videos featuring the collections. But these ventures into new realms of engagement are apparently all not carrying forward
I did an informal survey of Ontario galleries and museums. 20 institutions were selected at random from the handy list offered by the Ontario Association of Art Galleries. At an early stage in reopening, 50% offered in-person visits only, 25% offered both in-person and virtual, 10% offered virtual only and 15% were still closed. Clearly the classical gallery visit is still the communications channel for which most institutions feel best equipped.
In the glow of the proverbial light now glaring brightly from the end of the tunnel, I experienced an inspiring take on the reopening paradigm in a visit to the Tangled Arts + Disability Gallery in Toronto. For a new show, ‘Undeliverable,’ produced jointly with The Robert McLaughlin Gallery, they offer both virtual and in person tours.
I quickly signed up for a virtual tour. The Gallery was using Calendly.com for online tour booking. I found the registration process as logical and smooth as the much larger online system used by the AGO. After booking I received several automatic reminder emails and text messages to ensure I would not miss my appointment.
The virtual tour itself was conducted using Zoom technology. Calendly automatically provided the Zoom link.
Everything went smoothly. A personable and knowledgeable gallery staffer hosted the visit. The session started on time and the whole ‘Undeliverable’ show was covered in just over the scheduled half an hour. The camera was directed alternately at pieces in the exhibit and the face of the tour guide. Both wide shots to establish the gallery layout and closeups of individual pieces were included.
My guide explained the overall concept behind the exhibition and the artist’s intentions behind each work on display. Lots of time was allowed for question and answer. Links to some of the audio-visual pieces were provided in the Zoom chat box. I received two supporting documents emailed promptly after the Zoom session was over.
Leading the Way
My own experience with art galleries and museums extends over many years. I can say that with their ‘Undeliverable” exhibition, Tangled Arts + Disability is on the leading edge of visitor engagement. Even those institutions which, in my survey claimed some virtual access, seemed to offer only pre-recorded exhibit videos. IMHOP you can’t beat the in-person, in-depth art experience-at-a-distance that is provided by an interactive Zoom tour.
[Thanks to Sean Lee, Director of Programs at Tangled Arts + Disability, for a cheerful and deeply informative tour.]
Dig Deeper into This Topic
AGO — Warhol page: https://ago.ca/exhibitions/andy-warhol
Coronavirus and Art: How Quarantine Impacts Museums:
German Warhol exhibition opens after lockdown delay: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GC5-BkyAi-k
How the pandemic is revolutionising art galleries and museums
The Impact of COVID-19 on the Gallery Sector:
Major exhibitions on hold as museums, galleries await reopening: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/national-gallery-museum-history-rembrandt-egypt-pandemic-1.6033767
OAAG Directory: http://oaag.org/directory/
Tangled Arts — Undeliverable page: https://tangledarts.org/exhibits/undeliverable/