Art in the time of COVID-19: How art galleries are adapting to closing their doors

In Art Collecting, Art Galleries

If art could be reduced to a single concept, it’s connection. Whether that be connection of an individual to a piece, concept or artist, a piece to wider ideas in the real world or a connection between individuals beholding the same piece of art. Given the global closing of doors enacted to keep the pandemic’s ravages to a minimum, this has of course affected our relationship to arts greatly. But not only in the fact that many are interacting with less art in person, but that it has fundamentally changed how we interact with that art. With the physical space, dedicated time and means of really immersing yourself into an art space being notably absent.

As such, for the past six months the arts, for viewers, curators and creators, has been secluded to the online realm, as galleries remained firmly closed. That said, since 10 August galleries in the UK have begun to, timidly, allow art lovers back inside. This makes it the perfect case study to take a look back at how the art world adapted to an online-only presence, and what it looks like emerging from the other side.

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Online Exhibitions

One of the most rampant attempts to keep art alive and present was online exhibitions which, essentially, took existing or upcoming exhibitions and digitised them through the use of photographs, videos and, occasionally, guided tour elements. This was my far the most common approach to keeping art relevant.

Mayfair’s Hauser & Wirth launched this in full force, focusing on photographic representations of their exhibitions, consisting largely of painting and sculpture. Alongside this were the usual exhibition staples including an opening summary and notes on particular works.

Similar galleries, like the Lisson Gallery and Edinburgh’s Ingleby Gallery, took on similar approaches, presenting their current exhibitions in this new online format. But this, of course, has its down sides. Exhibiting sculpture through photography is extremely limiting, even when specialist exhibition photographers take the photographs—something which is difficult given varying states of lockdown. And, due to the quality or presentation of the photographs one’s ability to look closer is often hindered.

Of course, it’s difficult to expect a gallery-like experience at home, but with options like 3D scanning to create an interactive render or place within a 3D/VR world being readily available there are certainly better ways to approach the online exhibition of sculpture. But, again, given the limitations of lockdown it’s easy to understand why these may not have been possible.

LUX, a non-profit collective focused on artists’ moving image, had somewhat of an advantage in its works are image based, and thus well accustomed to being viewed on screens. As such they introduced weekly screenings of works alongside discussions and critical statements. Of course, this medium is already well suited to home viewing, but adapting arts to new environments often requires the consideration of what media will and will not work.

Presenting a Gallery, Virtually.

In this way, galleries such as Sprueth Magers or the landmark Hayward Gallery took note, offering curator-led walk-through tours of current exhibitions. This allowed the art to be moulded into a medium well suited to home viewing (video) while also permitting multiple and extensive angles of any given work alongside curatorial information and description.

This isn’t to say this approach is perfect, as it requires numerous decisions on the part of the viewer—whether they want to hear the curation, whether they rewind and pause the video to look a little longer—but these decisions certainly produce a more meaningful experience than viewing a single photograph of an artwork.

Thus, the virtual walk-through presents quite a good alternative to physically inhabiting the gallery space. However, some may fairly argue that an online exhibition should be an exhibition tailored to the online space, not one which attempts to replicate the gallery space, online. Here, the options for VR or navigable online spaces presents itself, again, as a good option.

For the less tech-savvy these modes of presentation may seem daunting, but given the prominence of services like Exhibbit, Ikonospace and many others, 3D rendering galleries has never been so user friendly.

Extending Curation

A select handful of establishments have taken this opportunity to extend their curatorial licence, presenting a collection of curated suggestions far greater than they would be able to present at any one moment. A great example here is London’s ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts).

Here, the ICA offered a collection of what they dubbed “ICA daily”, where each day a member of their curation team would pull together a handful of noteworthy items for individuals to interact with. This included arts to watch, read, listen to and view alongside links to art movements/events to support, join or apply for.

For me, this was the most valuable approach taken by any gallery, as the wealth of arts, ideas and styles carefully picked on a daily basis ensured that a wide variety of styles and influences were presented and accessible on a daily basis.

This, coupled with the fact that the daily care-packages were occasionally curated by guest curators/artists, kept the content fresh, relevant and exciting to visit.

It’s easy to question whether this is really the role of a gallery space, as the curation provided by the ICA wasn’t of an exhibition but more closely resembled a carnival or variety show, where they would introduce different acts. But, as said by Richard Ingleby, the founder of the aforementioned Ingleby Gallery in Edinburgh, the online presence of galleries at this time is “almost exclusively about content rather than being about alternative ways to attract sales”. In such a way, the ICA’s dedication to new, fresh and exciting content certainly ticked this box.

Art Audience vs Art Collectors

The different approaches which we’ve touched on do have different ramifications for audiences and collectors. The daily curatorial approach provided by the ICA strongly favours audiences instead of collectors, while more traditional online exhibitions or recorded walk-throughs both provide more utility for art collectors. With select galleries offering ‘video chat exhibition tours’ for both viewers and collectors, this approach may serve collectors the best, supplemented by the online exhibition.

But when discussing art collection we definitely have to discuss the art world en-masse which, given the economic downturn, may not be seeing the brightest future.

Art has always been an icon for the rich and powerful, but over the past 20 years there has been a period of discombobulating growth for art collectors, collections, soaring auction prices, art fairs and the expansion of galleries and museums. Beyond the need to exhibit online, an economic downturn throws all this growth into question—whether it is sustainable. Commercial gallerist David Zwirner has mused that “it got out of hand, especially the market: crazy auction prices and the rest. The infiltration of value into the perception of art, art being regarded as an asset – all that needs to be rethought.” And he, maybe rightfully, does have some fear for the future exclaiming “There’s going to be a lot of pain, especially for smaller galleries. And, of course, artists.”

With many galleries and many of the workers within it being in a rather precarious position, it’s unclear what the future may hold for (especially) smaller galleries. One forecasts has suggested that a third of French galleries could close by the end of 2020, suggesting a slightly smaller art world lies ahead of us.

Perhaps remaining a strong online presence will show a correlation with galleries’ survival and success as they emerge from their dormancy—but it’s still too soon to tell.

Unsustainable Past, Sustainable Future.

Editor of The Art Newspaper, Alison Cole, has argued that this past “‘normal’ was unsustainable”, through “the endless expansion, the mega-collectors, the purchasing of big trophy objects. I think we’re entering a period of less is more. I hope it’ll be less macho.”

But this isn’t a statement of gloom. Although the future for the art world may look a little grim, it’s clear that the audience for art is ripe. Given the dominance of online spaces in COVID-era, people have been creating, sharing and starting up art platforms left right and centre—producing images, videos, physical artworks and memes alike. And in such a way Cole has said “art is really useful at the moment. Whatever comes next, we have to cling to that”.

And if this future pertains to one of downsizing, online exhibition/distribution and virtual experience so be it. The galleries we have looked at have already taken a firm step into that future, and to relatively good effect. Although it’s clear that equipped with the experience gained from what was, for many, the first foray into wholly online exhibition, it can work and it can provide audiences with good experiences of artworks. But, to achieve wholly online exhibition spaces, we will need to continue to remove ourselves from the contemporary practices of the physical gallery. And, ultimately, this may have further ramifications on the art itself, creating greater distinctions between the original and the exhibition.

That said, it’s important to remember that online exhibitions will never eclipse physical exhibition, but should stand apart on it’s own two legs. But, with galleries having timidly reopened and receiving record low visitor counts, due to the lack of both domestic and international visitors, it’s clear that, for now, galleries will need to continue doubling-down on online presentation. For some that may be a daunting step into the relative unknown but for others it will be an exciting time to innovate and create a new status-quo while doing so.