Galleries in New South Wales are allowed to reopen from 1 June. Some are waiting a little while, for example the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) will open on 16 June and White Rabbit on 6 June. But the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) opened on 1 June, one of the first to invite people back inside after the Covid-19 lockdown.
There wasn’t much warning. The lifting of restrictions was only announced on 20 May but AGNSW director Michael Brand says the gallery is ready and adhering to all regulations and advice.
The main change is the extension of timed ticketing to manage the flow of people into the building. Free bookings can be made online and, once inside, visitors can stay for as long as they like. People arriving without tickets won’t be turned away but may need to wait for a later time slot if it’s busy.
That’s the biggest unknown. “There’s a lot of interest and we’re getting a lot of positive comment, but whether that means tens, hundreds, thousands [of visitors], you just don’t know,” Brand says.
He’s been watching the reopening of European museums closely. “They’ve been getting something like 20 to 25 per cent of normal crowds,” he says, but notes it’s difficult to judge from that how audiences are really feeling or what will happen here.
There’s also the issue of AGNSW’s geographically diverse audience. “Normally, 25 per cent of our visitors are international visitors. They’re not going to be there.”
The gallery is planning for this uncertainty by rostering plenty of visitor experience staff. The entry has also changed, with the cloakroom closed (there will be a self check-in area for umbrellas) and another door opened to create a separate entry and exit.
The Chiswick restaurant is closed, as are the water fountains, but coffee and simple snacks will be available at the cafe and the bookshop will also be open.
Staff members in contact with the public will have masks but, beyond asking for contact details during booking, AGNSW is choosing not to impose many restrictions on visitors. “The main thing is to give people confidence,” says Brand. “We’re following government advice. We’re not taking temperatures and we’re not requiring that people wear masks.”
But, as the Covid-19 situation is a changing one, Brand suggests checking the website for the latest advice before visiting.
As he explains, the movement of people through the gallery will be managed through a combination of visitor experience staff and people self-policing. And Brand adds that gallery audiences are already used to waiting their turn to see popular works.
Tours and events are off the cards for the moment, but the gallery’s dynamic online lockdown project Together in Art has been so successful that Brand says they’ll be looking at “ways of building that into the ongoing personality of the institution.”
The gallery reopens with extended views of Shadow Catchers and the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, plus a new exhibition, Some Mysterious Process, curated by Brand from the gallery’s collection. The popular Archibald Prize exhibition has been pushed back, and dates for the Arthur Streeton exhibition will be confirmed shortly.
“The good thing about opening on Monday [1 June] is that it gives us a number of months to get used to having the building open under whatever the new regulations are, as they evolve, before we get the bigger crowds for the Archibald and the bigger ticketed exhibitions.”
It has been a challenging time for all art museums but Brand is confident. “We’re a strong institution,” he says. “We’re there to work for the public, work for art, work for artists. We enjoy doing it – and it’s even more fun when there are people in the building.”