The weather warms. Tulips bloom. Coats and long-sleeved shirts go back into the closet. And yet the streets are quiet. Old friends who pass one another on the sidewalk maintain a respectful distance and are careful to keep physical contact to a minimum. Restaurants remain empty, their metal outdoor tables and chairs securely locked in place.
As the world begins to cautiously venture back into some semblance of its “normal” routine once more we find ourselves asking, “Where do we go from here?” Save for the tap-tap of a security guard’s footsteps, museums the world over have been silent for months. Auction houses, famous for their energetic auctioneers and the competitive thrill of bidding against others for a highly desired object, are now having to figure out how to replicate that same charged atmosphere in an age where these high-energy auctioneers are going to be shouting “Sold!” to an empty room.
The war against COVID-19 has been fought in a way that few living today are used to prosecuting conflicts: through collective action. For now, the eyes of the art world are fixed on Europe and Asia as each continent begins the slow, difficult process of rebuilding their respective art industries.
The hardest hit of European nations, Italy, saw its cultural institutions begin to resume operations on May 18 – with tweaks. Visitors to the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Flore (the Duomo) in Florence will be receiving “social distancing necklaces” upon admission which beep and flash if two wearers get within six feet of one another. Face masks are required by law and extra hand-sanitizer stations have been added. Tours will be conducted with a reduced number of people. For the first few days the Duomo has decided not to charge admission fees, as a “gesture…to welcome people once again,” according to director Timothy Verdon. The tech, which does not record personal data and which will be disinfected after each use, is being looked at with great interest by numerous other cultural institutions around the world.
In North America, museums are looking at other ways to raise funds in order to keep their doors open without sacrificing the personal safety of their patrons. As endowments have plummeted, revenue has disappeared and fundraising efforts have ground to a standstill, many museums are now eyeing high-profile pieces in their own collections as a way to bring some quick cash. Recognizing this crisis for what it is, the American Association of Museum Directors is beginning to relax its restrictions against institutions selling off their art to cover anything but the acquisition of new works. Art galleries are beginning to open again, by appointment only.
And yet through all of this, we are also seeing exciting new works of art emerge. In Vietnam, graphic artist Le Duc Hiep has created a propaganda-style poster urging people to stay at home which has since gone viral. In India, folk artists like Kalyan Joshi and Apindra Swain have depicted gods from the Hindu pantheon wearing face masks and observing social distancing. And in Britain, artist Marc Quinn has been creating unique, eye-catching abstract works from news stories covering the COVID-19 pandemic.
Like all of us navigating a post-COVID world, museums and art galleries will be forced to make adjustments to how they have traditionally operated in order to survive. As more and more wondrous artworks inspired by this great crisis make their way onto the market it will be the responsibility of museums, gallery owners, and fine art appraisers to ensure that these artistic time capsules are well cared for. Things will change. And that is not necessarily a bad thing.