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Museum Doors Shut & Galleries Close: The Impact of COVID on the Art World

Illustration by Himarni Brownsword

As the ongoing epidemic of coronavirus has been internationally felt, the British government and public wavered between two extreme sentiments: war-time effort or denial of the pressing reality. New measures have been announced to limit non-essential contact and unnecessary travel in order to slow the spread of the outbreak in Britain as the global death toll increases. UK citizens (and Courtauld students) are experiencing the effects of the virus with the announced shutdown of museums and libraries.

Museums and libraries have started to close for the protection of the health and wellbeing of visitors, staff and the general public. There is a growing reliance on accessing museum and library resources through online collections. The British Library closed its physical site near Kings Cross on March 17. Senate House Library closed on March 20. The V&A Museum publicly announced its temporary closure on March 18th. The Royal Academy announced its temporary closure starting at 18:00 on March 17. Those unlucky museum-goers like myself will have to wait to hopefully catch a glimpse of the current exhibition Picasso and Paper. Tate has shut all four of its galleries around the United Kingdom, including Tate Modern and Tate Britain, since March 17. The National Gallery closed to all visitors from March 19 until May 4, hopefully. Unlike the majority of museums, the Queen’s Gallery announced its temporary closure to the public starting on Saturday, March 21. This announcement comes a few days after Buckingham Palace pronounced the cancelation of future royal events as the Queen made an early return to Windsor Castle for health precautions. As the week came closer to an end, members of the public rushed to see the current exhibition, George IV: Art & Spectacle. For those who didn't get a chance to see the exhibition, you will have to wait until May.

As we wait for this vacuum of time to pass, there will be a large economic impact on the museum industry. The National Gallery has postponed the upcoming exhibition on Artemisia Gentileschi that was originally planned to open on April 4. This blockbuster show is the first major exhibition devoted to showcasing the Italian artist, meant to display 29 paintings, including two versions of the iconic Judith Beheading Holofernes. While those who are interested in the gynecological anatomy of the female body will have to wait until June 6 for Periods: A Brief History at the Vagina Museum in Camden. The postponement of headline exhibitions that streamline large volumes of visitors and revenue will create a large financial burden for museums. Similarly, the recent shutdown and cancelation of major events will place an economic loss on the commercial art market.

The closure of art fairs and auctions will result in a loss of revenue for the art economy. Christie's postponed the South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art sale, A Lasting Engagement: The Jane and Kito de Boer Collection, and Contemporary Art Asia Online sale due to the global impact of the virus on clients, employees and businesses. TEFAF Maastricht closed a few days early due to an exhibitor contracting the virus. Frieze New York has been cancelled in light of local, national, and international health authorities. Art Basel Hong Kong offered online viewing rooms in lieu of being unable to physically hold the fair. These virtual viewing rooms, which lasted from March 20 to March 25, provided visitors to view curated exhibitions online from the comfort of their homes. Can digital substitutions spur financial spending in the commercial art market long-term? I guess only time can tell.

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