Laura Gascoigne: Pox On All Our Galleries – May 2020

Laura Gascoigne
May/June 2020

At the exit to Tate Modern’s Andy Warhol exhibition, the gift shop


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tills were barricaded behind an airport queue management system. “You’re preparing for an invasion,” I joshed with a cashier as I emerged from the press view on 10 March. “We’re prepared for anything,” he replied.

What they weren’t prepared for was nothing, which – within a week – is what we were left with. Days later they started dropping into the mailbox, the regretful notices of museum closures: the first crack in the dam on 13 March was the Wellcome Collection and the trickle quickly became a flood. The big public galleries with most to lose in visitor numbers hung on longer: on 16 March came news from the National Gallery of the postponement of its Artemisia Gentileschi show, but still no word from a tight-lipped Tate – I had to go on their website to find out they’d closed two days later. Then came the emails from commercial galleries announcing, hopefully, that they were still ‘open by appointment’.

An art world without galleries is a ghostly thing. Commentators attempted measured responses: “It is unlikely that we will hear the refrain ‘business as usual’ any time soon,” was Thomas Marks’ laconic forecast in his April Editor’s Letter in Apollo. As my late mother-in-law used to delight in saying in a menacing tone: “There’ll be some changes made”. Some will be for the worse but, on the evidence so far, some may be for the better.

On the plus side, the media obsession with ‘time-sensitivity’ has gone out the window, with no tears shed over its defenestration by this arts correspondent. It always seemed to me absurd to be hounded from one press view to the next by arts editors so desperate to be ahead of the news curve they commissioned previews of shows one hadn’t seen, only to set off stampedes of sheep into gallery basements to shuffle past redisplays of pictures they could have enjoyed at leisure, and for free, the week before upstairs.

Another hopeful sign: fewer art fairs. TEFAF New York Spring has been collapsed into Fall, Masterpiece London is cancelled and the Ifema hangar that recently housed ARCO Madrid has been turned over to a coronavirus hospital. Biennale-hopping will be brought to a halt when the budget airlines all go bust. Manifesta 13 in Marseilles and the second Riga Biennial are both up on blocks, while the locked-down Biennale of Sydney has gone virtual – like Art Basel Hong Kong, a visitor experience described by Susan Moore in Apollo as “not so different from my recent online grocery shopping” – though easier to access for anyone not signed up to Ocado before the coronacrisis.

It’s an ill plague wind that blows nobody good, as the purveyors of sex toys to the self-isolated are discovering: sales up 13% here, 60% in Italy. Meanwhile virtual reality companies are profiteering from locked-down art lovers clambering onto ‘extended reality [XR] platforms’ to head for the virtual hills. On the heels of the closure notices came an email announcing the April launch of Vortic, a new XR platform for the art world offering “customisable virtual gallery spaces, supported by two seamlessly integrated virtual [VR] and augmented reality [AR] apps.” Don’t ask me what the difference is, I have enough difficulty navigating the real-world real world of RR [real reality]. But for collectors up to speed with these things they open up the possibility of virtual bring-a-bottle private view pyjama parties, with the ability “to make direct real-time enquiries with galleries”. Good that something in the post-Covid-19 Space-Time continuum will

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remain real. Oh and the moolah too, for those who still have it.

Meanwhile public galleries without access to extended reality are struggling to lure audiences online. After the torrent of announcements of RR gallery closures came the drip-drip of invitations to visit gallery websites. My first indication from Tate Modern that something was wrong was the announcement of “an exclusive online-only performance” by Congolese artist Faustin Linyekula originally programmed for the BMW Tate Live Exhibition season but obliged to run on empty in the Tate Tanks. That might have attracted a few performance freaks, but getting the general public excited about online displays is more difficult. For most gallery-goers, visiting exhibitions is about the satisfaction of having been there and done that, just as cultural destinations were for cruise ship travellers in the days before they were all quarantined in their cabins. Scholars and researchers trawl online collections, but the general public only visits gallery websites for information on opening times and prices.

Worse, websites can’t be monetised and even closed galleries haemorrhage funds. A survey by Americans for the Arts estimated that by 18 March the pandemic had cost the US non-profit arts sector $3.2bn – to put that in perspective, just under half the 2018 GDP of Malawi. The Met is expecting a shortfall of $100m on its annual operating budget of $320m. “We very much hope that the cultural world of New York can survive this,” its president Daniel Weiss told The Art Newspaper ­– an expression of hope that didn’t sound that hopeful.

Is it curtains for culture? For smaller institutions with no discretionary resources or endowments, prospects are bleak: in America it’s feared that a third of small rural museums may not reopen. Here the prognosis for independent institutions outside the charmed circle of National Portfolio Organisations is grim. As for small commercial galleries operating on a shoestring, the expectation that a third will close sounds optimistic. While White Cube was reopening in Hong Kong on 17 March, they were battening down the hatches. Rent holidays only prolong the 404 Not Found agony. As for wage packets, there was cold comfort to be taken from ACE’s announcement on 24 March of a £160m emergency response package, of which £50m is reserved for non-NPOs and £20m for individual ‘creative practitioners and cultural workers’ – including writers, translators, editors, freelance educators and curators, all adepts at filling out applications.

How much will be left over for artists? (The portal for Round Two closes on 30 April: quick or you’ll miss it.) As for Rishi Sunak’s promised handouts, the most self-isolated of the self-employed will be last in line. The only good news is that the Artists’ General Benevolent Institution, which sends out an annual begging letter to buyers of its Christmas cards entreating them to bring its services to the attention of indigent artists of their acquaintance, will finally come into its own. There’ll be queues stretching around the Burlington House courtyard into Piccadilly.

There’s no silver lining to this poison cloud, except the faint hope that when it lifts it will leave behind a medicine bottle labelled ‘Drink Me’ whose effects will make everything in our bloated art world shrink. No more Brobdingnagian new museums, brain-numbing blockbusters and backbreaking biennials, and no more money to piss away on pointless public art. With a post-COVID-19 depression hanging over us will anyone shed tears over the postponed unveiling of Heather Phillipson’s whipped cream sculpture on the Fourth Plinth, with its cherry, fly and surveillance drone on top? “I wanted to make a monument to hubris and impending collapse,” the Cassandra of the Cornetto told the Financial Times. It was called ‘THE END’; now it may never come.