Major museum leaders talk ‘Covid normal’

Feature

As cultural institutions in Sydney reopen this week, and Canberra and Melbourne aren’t too far behind, the months of lockdowns across Australia’s east coast are easing—and people are already booking their gallery tickets. Our major art museums are adapting to this new ‘Covid normal’, with all of its impacts and opportunities.

During the last few months audiences have mourned the inability to visit blockbuster exhibitions like the National Gallery of Victoria’s (NGV) French Impressionism from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and Goya: Drawings from the Prado, and the Art Gallery of New South Wales’s (AGNSW) Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings, which all had to close before the end of lockdowns.

“That was very depressing,” says AGNSW director Michael Brand, “as it really is one of those once in a generation opportunities… you would almost never believe you would have that opportunity [to secure those loans and artworks], and it was only open for two weeks.”

Yet the ongoing uncertainties of forward programming are being tackled head-on. Approaches include focusing on collection-based exhibitions for the immediate future to minimise the impact on contemporary artists, delaying international exhibitions by a few years, and extending existing programming, such as the National Gallery of Australia’s (NGA) landmark exhibition KNOW MY NAME.

Yvonne Audette, The long walk, 1964, purchased 1993. Part of the National Gallery of Australia KNOW MY NAME Part 2 exhibition.

 

“No one wants to see the cancellation or curtailing of exhibitions,” says NGA director Nick Mitzevich, acknowledging that it is important to respect the scholarship and technical expertise that goes into the development of projects. So “we extend, and we kick the ball down the road so that we don’t have to cancel anything.”

The winner of all of this is the transition to online engagement. “Everyone’s talking about the digital,” says NGV assistant director Donna McColm, “but for many organisations, the kind of rapid change that we’ve gone through would have taken an enormous time.”

For audiences, social media has become the tool of choice, enabling increased dialogue and connection, and an ability to interact. This has provided a platform for museums to test different approaches and to be more playful and responsive. Importantly, it has also necessitated a letting go of high production values and the desire to get things ‘right’.

For smaller institutions however, the time and resourcing of this digital ‘pivot’—and the fact that it has very quickly become an expectation—remains an ongoing challenge, particularly as institutions begin to reopen. “I never want to curate a collection-based opening exhibition remotely again!” quips Shepparton Art Museum (SAM) director Rebecca Coates, who has also been working on the launch of the new SAM, designed by Denton Corker Marshall, which is set to open late November—delayed from March 2021.

Shepparton Art Museum. Image courtesy of John Gollings AM, © John Gollings Photography.

 

Delivering a major building program is challenging at the best of times, but doing so in a pandemic has called for new levels of ingenuity. The Victorian regional community of Shepparton has been particularly hard-hit during 2021 through its cycle of lockdowns and reopenings. Given the key role that Shepparton’s large Indigenous community has had and will continue to play in the new SAM and its programs, allowing this extra time has been vital. At one stage in Shepparton’s most recent Covid outbreak, more than two-thirds of the city’s entire population were in isolation. As a practical demonstration of support for its community during this time, SAM had art activity packs included in care packages that were distributed to locked down families.

By contrast, the AGNSW’s new Sydney Modern, designed by SANAA, remains on schedule for a late 2022 delivery despite a few interruptions due to shutdowns and the subsequent lower numbers of construction staff allowed on site. But the pandemic has also meant that the construction industry must equally take new and unexpected approaches: in the case of Sydney Modern, this meant developing an understanding of where the project’s expert tradies live. Given a lot of the project’s construction workers come from Sydney’s LGAs (Local Government Areas) and were unable to leave the boundaries of their community during lockdown, tactics included moving the stone cutting to a newly built facility in the LGA where the expert workers resided so they could continue.

Aerial image (detail) of the Sydney Modern Project as produced by Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa / SANAA (c) Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2021.

 

A concern for staff is shared by all our museum leaders, along with recognition that there is an increased personal and broader management responsibility during this time. “I think the importance of wellbeing, and of really getting to know your team outside of work—what their homes are like, what their families are like, what they are like as fully rounded people, and the trust and openness of that—will be one of the great positive changes of the pandemic,” says Rebecca Coates.

Many museum leaders keep in close and regular communication with their staff in online meetings and through more informal catch ups, and have been open to doing things differently. “The pressure of working remotely is not just one pressure, but multiple,” says Nick Mitzevich, “particularly for people that have young families. In the last two years, half of the gallery’s team have either been inundated by smoke or in lockdown.”

As Louise Tegart, director of the Art Gallery of Ballarat acknowledges, “The impact of mental health both on staff and visitors has been a huge issue and one that could be foreseen, but probably not the range of it—there’s not a commonality in that.” Tegart is worried for her staff given the increasing levels of public aggression her front of house team have experienced when the museum has reopened. Now that staff must check visitors’ vaccination status, she is concerned this will escalate. Surprisingly, during Ballarat’s recent reopening, front of house staff have also had to turn away large numbers of visitors from a locked down Melbourne who have come to the gallery on a day trip only to be refused entry.

However, all remain buoyed by the promise of being able to do what their museums do best—share their collections and programs with audiences IRL. “I don’t see long term damage [from the pandemic],” says Michael Brand. “We are a fantastic, open non-commercial public space where people can expand their minds and meet interesting people and just have a joyous time or a contemplative time or a meditative time. I don’t think that’s ever going to go away and I think people will appreciate more and more coming into contact with the original works in a three-dimensional space rather than online.”

As NGV’s Donna McColm optimistically sums up: “We are excited to be part of the recovery of the community. Art and culture have a role to play in healing the community and we are ready and primed to go.”

Please note galleries in Melbourne and Canberra are still closed with lockdown restrictions.

Linda McCartney: Retrospective
Ballarat International Foto Biennale
Art Gallery of Ballarat
15 September – 9 January 2022

Maree Clarke: Ancestral Memories
National Gallery of Victoria – The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia
Until 6 February 2022

Camille Henrot: Is Today Tomorrow
National Gallery of Victoria (NGV International)
Until 30 January 2022

Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now
National Gallery of Australia
Until 26 January 2022

Shepparton Art Museum
Reopening 20 November

Matisse: Life & Spirit, Masterpieces from the Centre Pompidou, Paris
Art Gallery of New South Wales
20 November – 13 March 2022

Kelly Gellatly