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Art institutions suffer through the pandemic

Stefan Dege
February 2, 2021

Museums around the world are struggling to cope under COVID-19 lockdowns. While some have turned to online exhibits, others are doubting whether they can survive.

Niederlande - Rijksmuseum, Reichsmuseum in Amsterdam
Image: picture-alliance/M. Brandl

Located near Hamburg's famed but now shuttered fish market, the Hamburger Kunsthalle museum is in lockdown yet its walls are freshly adorned with paintings by Italian master Giorgio de Chirico (1888 to 1978). His dreamlike cityscapes painted between 1909-1919 were a forerunner to surrealism, and can now be enjoyed via a virtual online tour. The exhibition opening was also live streamed to the public.

De Chirico is "the painter of empty spaces, the painter of nightmares in the midst of society," said Kunsthalle museum director Alexander Klar at the opening of the "Magical Reality" exhibition.

Also featuring works by Carlo Carrà, Giorgio Morandi, Alberto Magnelli and Pablo Picasso among other, the show has been made available to the public in the midst of a crisis. Yet countless museums, galleries and exhibition venues around the world are struggling to adapt to the ongoing COVID-related closures.

an angular abstract painting
De Chirico's surreal cityscapes can be viewed by the public online Image: VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021/Mart, Archivico fotografico e Mediateca

Exhibits only a mouse click away

According to arecent survey conducted by the International Council of Museums, about 95% of all museums around the world were closed due to the coronavirus. Art institutions reacted differently to having their doors shut. Some had to put staff on leave; others laid off up to half of their employees. Many museums successfully focused on expanding their digital archives and social media activity.

The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam typified the shift online. The home of masterpieces by Dutch Golden Age painters such as Rembrandt and Johannes Vermeer, the museum had two million fewer physical visitors in 2020. But during that time, the museum's digital audience grew rapidly. After an extensive overhaul of the Rijksmuseum's website, its social media followers increased by 23% to 1.4 million.

But while 5.5 million visitors also stopped by the museum website to view art at the museum, are online ticket receipts financially sustainable in the long term?

Crunching the numbers

The Louvre in Paris has addressed this question by turning to fundraising campaigns to limit the financial damage it suffered during the pandemic. About three quarters of its annual visitors stayed at home in 2020, especially travellers from remote countries like China and US. Despite a major Leonardo da Vinci exhibition in the spring of 2020 when it reopened, the Louvre is predicted to have lost around 90 million euros in revenue last year.

In response, the world renowned institution has been ramping up its online content. The gallery hosted and live-streamed a new years eve concert featuring star DJ David Guetta. It has also raised million euros via art auctions, and has distributed the documentary "A Night at the Louvre: Leonardo da Vinci" online — and in cinemas when they are reopened.

Meanwhile across the Atlantic, museums in the US face similar challenges. The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) reported in July that up 12,000 museums in the US could close.

"There is no financial safety net for many museums," said AAM president and CEO Laura Lott in a statement. "The permanent closure of 12,000 museums will be devastating for communities, economies, education systems, and our cultural history."

Frankreich Louvre Museum Paris
The Louvre Museum in Paris is having to improvise during the lockdownImage: Gao Jing/Xinhua News Agency/picture alliance

"Museums are safe spaces"

COVID-19 is also hitting Germany's museums, with the lockdown of cultural institutions extended until at least February 14, 2021.

Susanne Gaensheimer, director of the Düsseldorf Kunstsammlung NRW museum, told the Süddeutsche Zeitung daily newspaper that museums could actually reopen as they offer ample space for social distancing.

Museum directors, movie theaters and cultural workers have repeatedly highlighted the fact that there are no proven infection chains of the coronavirus that have originated from such cultural venues.

In a letter to the federal and state cultural authorities, the directors of leading museums in the country have pleaded for a reopening of the museums: "Our concern is the containment of the pandemic, but at the same time a reopening of the museums adapted to the respective course of the coronavirus," the letter read.

Germany's federal minister of culture Monika Grütters has shown some understanding, stating that since cultural institutions in Germany were the first to be closed during the coronavirus pandemic, they should "not be the last to reopen."

The President of the German Museums Association, Eckart Köhne, meanwhile stresses that "museums are safe spaces," adding that many of them have "no financial cushion" to survive after months of forced closures. "In the wake of the pandemic, we must begin a profound debate about the future role of museums," Köhne said.

Struggling to postpone current shows

Meanwhile, curators and exhibition teams are working overtime to extend some of the current exhibitions until doors reopen.

Cologne's Museum Ludwig is trying to further postpone its "Andy Warhol Now" exhibition, which had to be moved from its original opening date from last year to early February 2021. But this is unlikely, as the artworks are already scheduled to be taken to Canada and the US.

Hamburg's Kunsthalle meanwhile is more fortunate. More than 50 lenders involved in its Giorgio de Chirico show, which previously ran at the Musee D'Orsay in Paris, have agree to postpone the show. "We experienced an incredible sense of solidarity," the exhibition's curator Annabelle Görgen-Lammers told DW.

It is uncertain, however, for how long that solidarity may last. For the time being, the exhibition is scheduled to run until April 25. "And no one knows how the pandemic will further develop,” said Görgen-Lammers.

For the time being, the works of the Italian painter can still be viewed online. "The alternative would have been to leave everything in storage and send it back unseen," Görgen-Lammers said.

"But we have an obligation to show the works. Culture is important in such times of crisis."

Translated from the German by Sertan Sanderson