Three gallery leaders talk COVID-19 challenges

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As major art galleries begin the tough process of postponing or cancelling on-site exhibitions in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, online innovation that connects art and communities may be the lasting legacy beyond the coronavirus pandemic, say leading gallery directors.

Planning has required gallery directors to juggle different speculative scenarios about when governments will allow cultural institutions to re-open, with the green light still likely to be accompanied by the maintenance of social distancing. They face philanthropic and corporate sponsorship falling away as a world recession bites.

“You have to plan for a more extreme lockdown and plan for a lightening of those restrictions,” says Rhana Devenport, the director of the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA). “It’s incredibly fluid and you just have to be resilient and responsive.”

Installation view: 2020 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Monster Theatres featuring A Dickensian Country Show by Karla Dickens, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide. Photo: Saul Steed.

Arts leaders are mindful many artists are struggling on low or no incomes. “There’s a tremendous focus on arts at the moment because everyone is in isolation,” says Devenport. “It’s never been tougher for artists, but their art has never been more present in terms of their value and role in the community.”

Devenport had to make the wrenching decision to cancel the exhibition Phenomena: Art as Experience, which had been due to open in July and required art to be freighted to Adelaide from New Zealand, Japan and the United States. Yet she is confident Tarnanthi, the biennial festival of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, will go ahead as planned in October.

“We’re listening to what the government is saying, and six months [closure] has been said for a number of weeks but people haven’t picked up on that so clearly,” she says. “We’re imagining Tarnanthi will be able to go ahead in October but you don’t just flick the lights on and 2000 people flood in the door; there may be ongoing restrictions …

“The premise of [Tarnanthi] is in place, the artists are working and, frankly, this is exactly what they need. It’s going to be really tough for the Aboriginal communities and really tough for the arts centres; it would be very hard for them if the art fair [as part of Tarnanthi] didn’t continue. There’s no reason at the moment it shouldn’t but we’re looking at all possibilities.”

Like many institutions, the gallery is visualising its big shows online through virtual tours and artist video interviews, namely the 2020 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Monster Theatres. Yet dates are a juggling act: the Biennial had originally been due to close in June, but if the gallery is allowed to reopen in August, it may be extended. However, if the gallery has to wait until September or later to reopen, it’s unlikely the Biennial will reopen.

Devenport is watching with keen interest as museums and galleries make the most of online. “It’s all about accessibility and at the moment we’re really led by our public programs team,” she says, citing the gallery’s new home-inclined programs.

The “next wave” will be commissioning artists for work through web portals, with AGSA considering “how can we work with artists in new ways and tool them up to use other methodologies and technical avenues to present their work and conceive of work for the digital sphere”.

Similarly, the director of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), Tony Ellwood, says the gallery is officially closed until late June, awaiting further advice from government. Until then, online offerings will keep being added, including virtual tours of the Petrina Hicks exhibition and Japanese Modernism, plus a preview of the upcoming Destiny Deacon exhibition, which will now open at Federation Square in mid-September. Yet Ellwood cautions that any on-site opening dates are “speculative at this stage”.

The major Pierre Bonnard retrospective exhibition that had been due to open at the NGV in June, with 150 works sourced from around the world, about half from exhibition collaborator the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, will now not be seen for another three years—in winter 2023. “We were just at the point of having to go ahead with crating and freight, but as we were making that decision, the [pandemic] was getting worse, so it was becoming self-evident this just had to stop.”

Yet the collective goodwill from institutions and private collectors about the postponement had been “incredible”, says Ellwood: “Seeing the list of works and knowing how good it is, they didn’t want to see it not be realised.”

Online, Ellwood has been inspired by the “playful” self-generated content offered by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, as well as MoMA’s “profound interviews with staff”, a push towards more “authentic” content. “The most interesting thing has been how the digital environment has become more personal, more sensitive towards the broad community,” he says.

Ellwood says he has never seen such an “outpouring of affection and emotion from people who have missed and value the collection” at NGV, which is developing ideas to support living artists in the community.

“What’s uppermost in our minds is: how can we reshape things to make sure we’re servicing the needs of our artists?” he says.

The director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA), Liz Ann Macgregor, says the impact of COVID-19 and the looming recession is having a “disastrous” impact on artists. About 40 per cent of staff at the MCA are artists as well. “If you look at what the Australia Council has done, it’s disproportionately hitting the visual arts,” says Macgregor. “It’s very unfortunate in the context of the [COVID-19] crisis, where artists are so dependent on bar work or bits of funding here or there.”

Like the AGSA, the MCA was informed in early April that it would no longer receive four-year funding from the Australia Council after 2017-2020—but each would receive transitional funding in 2021. While both the AGSA and MCA receive separate funding from the Visual Arts and Craft Strategy, there has been dismay from both institutions and many other small-to-medium arts organisations at the loss of four-year funding, magnifying the impact of gallery, museum and performance space closures.

“People look at an organisation like ours and they see, ‘oh, big institution’,” says Macgregor. “In fact, we’re on a knife-edge. We only get 22 per cent of funding from government. We trumpet this great model we have, but of course in a crisis like this, our venue hire—which is a very significant proportion [of income]—has disappeared. Nobody’s getting married and there aren’t any corporate functions. Sponsorship has gone down. We’re particularly vulnerable compared to state and national institutions.”

There are going to be many competing causes for philanthropy, she says, with COVID-19 and the recession so soon after the bushfires. “I know there are many philanthropists who will continue to support, but there are many others who simply won’t be able to. Lack of core government funding is a very big issue here.”

Meanwhile the Lindy Lee exhibition that had been due to open in July, curated by Macgregor, has had to be postponed to a date to be determined.

Online during the closure, the MCA is offering a selection of artworks and interviews with artists. “We are prioritising keeping on our creative team and especially most of our artist educators—not all, but most of them. We’ve lost our front of house casuals but we’re keeping on artists who have been working with us on our creative strategies. They’re working very hard on turning creative classes into online content.

“As we go through this, and we need things like mental health stimulus, we’re going to need that special content designed by our artist educators.

“We want to get way beyond just putting artworks online and talking about them; we want to give people the opportunity to learn from an artist, to learn how to be creative, to learn how to think differently about the world.”

Steve Dow