Everything has changed. The way we greet each other, the way we shop, the way we think about public transport. But what about the way we interact with our most beloved representations of art and culture? How will museums get people through the door? Will independent galleries recover?
It’s impossible to say anything concrete, but there are certain lessons we have learned from the past. First, if we forget the most grievous sides of the pandemic and look at it solely from an economic point-of-view, people haven’t been working as much. Therefore, they’ve been earning less. Going to a museum with your family, or for those able to, purchasing a piece of art, could easily be considered a luxury in such times.
We know this as, despite art holding its value, cultural outlets often suffer the greatest during times of economic depression, like in recent memory of the 2008 market crash. Then there are the practical implications for people, let alone institutions. Will people want to take their whole family out to busy places, potentially being around a virus that will probably never be fully eradicated?
There are many practical elements to this too. Museums and galleries will have to make a choice. When (it will eventually happen) governmental restrictions are lifted on the wearing of masks and maximum numbers, private institutions will have to decide whether they are as open as they can be, or whether they’d rather continue with the prior restrictions as a means of mitigating potential risk. Having an outbreak attributed to your institution is bad press - however low the probability was.
Of course, in times of total lockdown, the virtual model became a subtle champion, allowing institutions to weather potential future outbreaks and securing their brand a place in the conversation of ‘who adapted, who died’. This, however, is not a permanent solution, but one that is only viable short-term. Physicality is the lifeblood of these places. The experience of walking around, enjoying a lazy Sunday at a leisurely pace, taking in some of the world’s greatest works, is a huge revenue driver and outlet for people to learn.
Essentially, it’s not actually about whether places can do it. Many museums and galleries are already open. It’s about how they do it. What can a museum provide that will make people want to venture back out into public. Sure, there was a thirst for these kinds of experiences during the lockdown - but we always miss what we can’t have. The reality is that those experiencing it virtually don’t translate into bodies through the door.
We still don’t know how to properly ‘corona-safe’ places. Ventilation is good, but museums are carefully climate-controlled. Hand sanitization is good, but many contemporary museums rely heavily on things being experienced sensorially - particularly for younger audiences.
Now, this is largely only considering a national audience visiting national places. What about tourists? With a greatly diminished volume of tourists expected to be travelling over the coming two years, museums whose value is largely found in what it can offer international visitors have yet to endure the harshest part of the storm.
There are some solutions. Many curators and gallerists understand the costs of what they do. Insurance on big named artists having their works transported and exhibited is sky-high. This is a cost that can be cut by featuring national artists. Unfortunately, staff can also be a saved cost. One thing that’s certain is that when doors do re-open, it will be a before and after comparison. There will be no continuity from what once was. The process will be long and arduous, with many people suffering, let alone the industry as a whole.
What is a country without its culture? Without its art? What is a country without its health? Without a stable job market? The pandemic still exposes more daily questions than experts offer answers. It’s only a case of time, of time-scale, until we can truly understand the implications of this truly unprecedented epoch.
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