Last summer, the Tate art galleries in London offered two, distinctly memorable exhibitions; one showcasing the largest volume of Aubrey Beardsley drawings in 50 years, the other a thorough walk-through of the life and style of Andy Warhol. Both exhibitions were held within the boundaries of Covid-19 restrictions, yet both offered a promising entry back into normality. Despite masks being worn, hand sanitiser creeping into nostrils and the often awkward attempts at trying to keep one’s distance (coupled with simultaneously careening one’s head in an attempt to see the more miniature of Beardsley’s drawings), the exhibitions were transportive. Shuffling along whilst listening to crackling audio-accompaniment had never been such a tonic.
As rumours of lockdown easing edge their way back into the headlines, art galleries will find themselves opening their doors once more. Yet, it does seem that the art gallery as we know it is already compelling enough a business model and proposition that it need not change to draw spectators and consumers in once more. The cost of reconceptualising an art gallery would probably struggle to break even, or to win over art-lovers accustomed to the standard ritual of the art gallery stroll and gift shop finish.
However, although many art galleries have continued to prioritise and maintain the compelling, in-person experience of gallery visiting, the pandemic has also been a significant challenge for many creative institutions and smaller businesses. In the first half of 2020, global art gallery sales fell by 36%, with smaller venues being notably hit the hardest. Large galleries, such as the Tate, are able to work with corporate partners for collaborative support (the Andy Warhol exhibition, for example, was sponsored by Bank of America) and have far larger, dedicated followings. Smaller peers cannot be so ambitious with their partnerships. In the earlier months of the pandemic, it was predicted that around 10% of galleries would close permanently. It is likely to be higher now.
Therefore, is now the time for venues to take the plunge into devising new gallery experiences, and to gamble with public taste? The bigger question is, naturally, how to achieve this, and whether or not digitalisation is the way forward as consumers are increasingly offered virtual viewing experiences. Not only do many galleries now offer online experiences, such as gallery tours, but virtual-reality art can too be hugely profitable. KAWS, an American artist and designer, has created augmented reality sculptures in collaboration with Acute Art, where he hosted his first VR exhibition in March 2020 in 11 major cities across the globe. Alongside the exhibition, he sold initial ‘editions’ of his virtual art for $10,000. Changing a traditional art gallery and viewing experience to follow a similarly innovative VR route is not entirely feasible for the majority of business-owners, despite how this form can withstand Lockdown closures. However, it will be exciting to see what more alternative art venues could possibly brainstorm in the near-term future.
Although art galleries have undergone severe financial strain and have been made undeniably vulnerable, crisis can provoke adaptation. 2021 will thus be an illuminating year, where I’m sure I am only one of many who hopes for art galleries’ doors to be wide open and, perhaps with a few post-Lockdown surprises.
Image Source: Rugby Art Gallery and Museum