On Monday of this week, Boris Johnson advised the UK to curtail any unnecessary social contact, and recommended working from home except where necessary. This followed similar measures called for by numerous governments around the world, and largely only served to underline the choices made by galleries and arts institutions in London and globally.
We have seen precautionary measures taken by hordes of privately owned commercial galleries over the last month, and last week TEFAF Maastricht closed its doors four days early due to an exhibitor testing positive for coronavirus. The knock on effects of isolation and quarantine are widespread; immunocompromised artists have found themselves unable to make work or exhibit , threatening their livelihoods; and industry employees at all levels are finding themselves in precarious positions as the future of the art world seems uncertain. We’re always told how small the art world is, but I’ve really seen this to be true in these times. It has been heartening for us to see the rise of a community around the world, and the number of candidates and clients who have reached out to check on us is a reminder of our interconnectedness. Within LWAI we are now working from home, but continue to push on and make arrangements for the future. If you’re in the same position, remember the importance of communication, overcommunicate if you have to, and of sticking together to support your sustained goals.
In London multiple galleries have switched to appointment only opening hours and are working remotely, starting with Sadie Coles HQ and swiftly including all major galleries. These actions form part of a multinational plan from these institutions, who have also shut up shop across their various outposts in Europe and the US. In New York, the government is offering interest free loans to buy up businesses of under 100 employees who have suffered more than a 25% decrease in sales, and businesses of under five employees are eligible for grants to cover 40% of salaries. In the UK, the Chancellor has announced £330bn of loans for businesses at risk, along with further aid and steps to secure renters and mortgage holders.
With so much financial precarity, as well as concerns for public health, the effects on the arts sector are looking to be extensive, but the sort of innovative solutions expected of our creative industries are appearing. While major institutions and museums close here and abroad, you can still visit many national galleries online, and Google Arts and Culture’s tours of International Museums remain available. Institutions are now promoting digital online tours of the mega exhibitions that have had their openings cancelled, and online gallery tours are proving valuable investments.
The art world has been notorious for failing to keep pace with other industries when it comes to digital technology. As Artsy pointed out in their 30 year celebrations, by the late 90s few major galleries had computers or internet connections and it wouldn’t be amiss to say that even today we’re still a wary industry. Over the past year we have seen an uptick in clients bringing digital specialists in house, but external agencies are still expanding at a rate slower than traditional marketing and PR firms. Now, as we’re unable to meet in the flesh or see art in person, it’s looking likely that art businesses will turn to that long-neglected sphere to retain sales and audience figures and it is likely that these changes will continue in future with jobs in digital becoming more and more commonplace.
As a slew of major events are cancelled, the Hong Kong edition of Art Basel has revealed that they are offering online viewing rooms for over 2000 pieces instead of hosting a physical fair. Following suit from David Zwirner’s ground-breaking 2017 viewing room, Basel have had the infrastructure in place to do this for a while, but by bringing these online viewing rooms to the public for the first time, they are now taking steps to change the nature of the art fair game as a whole. In the face of crisis, it’s in the interest of the art world, public and commercial, to cast its nets far and wide to remain afloat and seek out interested audiences and patrons. Critics have noted that in these virtual spaces, galleries are forced into a transparency uncommon in the industry, and with prices listed openly this could mark a shift in the Blue Chip market’s historic elitism.
In researching for this post I learned of the current show at Philadelphia’s Mütter museum, on the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. Diving down that rabbit hole, reading what I could find and searching through the exhibits, I found myself somewhat comforted, in the same way people seem to be comforted by rewatching Contagion on Netflix, by the hope that we will still be here after the museums reopen, that one day this might form an exhibit we can look back on as a time of change. With all things considered, we as a company and as an industry are continuing to make plans and to adapt in the face of adversity in a way that could mean exciting new ways of working in art in times to come.
by Rory P Brooks, Recruitment Consultant