Under the Mask of the British Art Gallery: Will You Feel Safe to Venture out into the Art World?
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the better part of this year, you are more than likely aware of the Coronavirus pandemic and the fact that the national lockdown following it has impacted businesses across the UK. The arts sector was one of the places hit the hardest, due to its dependence on physical visits and donations. Galleries and museums were closed for months following the outbreak and have only recently begun the process of reopening to the public. As such, the British art gallery now faces one of its toughest periods of business to date.
Government funding for the arts was proposed in early July, over three months after the start of lockdown, and was considered too little too late by the many smaller venues that have since gone under. Additionally, the plan proposed was seen to favour performing arts over gallery and museum work. In mid-June, however, ArtFund pledged £2 million specifically to galleries and museums in the form of grants and strategic partnerships to support galleries across the UK in reopening and continuing business during the pandemic. Jenny Waldmen, director of ArtFund, commented through a statement on ArtFund’s website:
With this in mind, it has become clear that a return to normality is still far off for many museums and galleries in the UK- but they are determined to pull through. But now, more than ever, the success of the gallery will be reliant on us.
However, with the rise of Augmented and Virtual Reality (AR and VR respectively), it has been shown that apps have potential for exhibit-making in the home and eliminating the need for the gallery. The Art Newspaper discussed at length how lockdown had encouraged the nation to adopt various technologies, such as video calling apps like Zoom and Skype, and how this could translate into bigger technological projects for museums, galleries, and artists.
Listing Acute Art, an app which allows artists to virtually exhibit and sell their work in the home of the viewer or buyer, the Art Newspaper indicated galleries could pick up on this technology to enable members of the public more susceptible to the virus to see exhibitions without risking their health. The easy access of an app, coupled with its greater safety as an experience due to the fact that it requires no physical contact, shows great promise as an alternative to physical gallery visits. It could also facilitate jobs in app development and curation as well as provide an educational experience for children currently undergoing home-schooling.
But with technology comes the condition of having to rely on people having the newest, more expensive, high-performance equipment. Whilst the intention may be inclusive, the financial reality defeats the purpose of democratising the gallery experience. Additionally, this dependence on technology is not ideal, as anyone who has been on a Zoom call knows the frustrating effects of a bad internet connection on the app’s performance. Most galleries, in contrast, are free to visit and do not rely on the Wi-Fi code to provide a good experience for visitors. Many, if not all galleries have also begun to undertake several health and safety procedures to ensure the wellbeing of their visitors and promote an environment which can safely work around the virus.
Regardless of this debate, galleries are still keen to reopen and engage directly with the public, meaning AR could still be quite a long way off. It is the concerns about potentially busy public spaces which make most people pause before going to the gallery nowadays, with the added measures for safety thought to detract from the enjoyment of the experience.
Adhering to the changing times spurred on by the pandemic, many heritage institutions have put in place precautions and procedures designed to maximise safety whilst still allowing for the familiar experience of a gallery visit. Wanting to see how this would impact the visitor’s experience, I visited two galleries in Liverpool, The Walker Art Gallery and Tate Liverpool. Aside from the need to book in advance and carry face masks and hand sanitiser, the experience was still very similar to those I had pre-Covid. However, what hit me the most, was how empty some of these spaces were. While Liverpool isn’t exactly the hub that London is, I did expect for there to be more people around, especially considering it was still the summer holidays. Despite having to book a slot for your visit online, the price was still free and new featured exhibitions were being advertised throughout the city. Additionally, with staff vigilant and sanitising the galleries regularly, the space itself was overall rather safe (not counting the odd idiot who ignored social distancing).
With the emptiness of the galleries becoming more and more noticeable to me, I stopped to ask a member of staff in Tate Liverpool how busy they had been recently. Contrary to my worries, they were very positive in their response. The staff member reiterated the fact that Tate Liverpool was known for being quieter than its branches in London, so they had expected the number of visitors to be fairly small in comparison. For every 600 or so bookings made online for a certain day, around 400 people would come into the gallery – a good result that shows promise for rising numbers in the future. Additionally, the introduction of online bookings gave visitors the opportunity to make donations online as well as in person, providing an unforeseen financial benefit for the gallery.
We also took the time to discuss what new procedures had been put in place, both for the benefit of staff and visitors. Alongside the introduction of daily morning briefings to discuss visitor numbers and boost morale, staff were also recently encouraged to wear masks whilst on shift to match the requirements placed on visitors. Increasingly regular cleaning had also been instituted, in particular the cleaning of entryways, door handles, and hand railings – something I witnessed a few times whilst in conversation with the staff. It was clear that they were keen to ensure the safety of their visitors through a greater enforcement of sanitisation throughout the premises.
Upcoming plans for the future of the gallery also seemed promising. The staff member I spoke to was very animated when they explained how the Tate were still looking to open up new exhibitions to the public and integrate some normalcy back into the gallery landscape. With Coronavirus disrupting the planned schedule of exhibitions for the year, many of those meant to be on show at the moment have been postponed to a later date. With the time between now and the exhibitions freed up, the Tate has been encouraging its contemporary artists to continue working on their portfolios and produce new material for when their exhibition will open. The hope for this is that artists will document the experience of the pandemic, providing a response to a globally shared issue that will resonate with the general public. This notion is quite exciting when considering the line-up listed on Tate’s website, which includes Argentinian conceptual and performance artist, Marta Minujín.
As well as this, the staff member indicated there were possible plans to bring older artworks from the Tate collection into the gallery to form new displays and exhibitions. While Tate Liverpool isn’t strictly a modern or contemporary art gallery, it has been used as such for several years. By introducing older artworks into the collection currently on show, the gallery suggests it may undergo an interesting rebranding that will reintroduce some old favourites from Tate’s expansive collection.
The excitement from the staff in the gallery was incredibly contagious (in a non-pandemic way) and proved further to me that they were determined to come back into the public sphere with a vengeance. Seeing the passion of the staff made their goals seem a lot more believable than what could be conveyed through a generic online statement. It was also a big reminder that behind these institutions was a very dedicated workforce, and they were just as eager to get back to normal as we were.
My experience in both galleries therefore reinforced how important these places were. Regardless of whether you visit every week or once a year, the gallery is fundamental in shaping our view of a particular moment through its facilitation of artists across the world throughout history. They’re something we should strive to protect and encourage to grow.
With that said, be kind to your gallery! Visit them and make donations where you can, they’re more reliant on us than you think.
What do you think about the new safety measure in galleries? Let us know in the comments.