Response of the museum sector to the coronavirus pandemic

Posted on: April 10, 2020 by

In a blog post last week, we discussed the many ramifications of the Coronavirus pandemic on contracts. The effects are being felt by businesses and individuals in all sectors across the globe, and museums are certainly not immune to the challenges presented. The inevitable cancellations of exhibitions involves disrupting contractual arrangements on many levels, from loan agreements to staff contracts, insurance provisions to ticket sales.

Artemisia Gentileschi’s ‘Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria’ (1615-1617) at the National Gallery (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The National Gallery’s ‘Artemisia’ exhibition, due to open on 4th April, was an early casualty, its postponement being announced some time before the current lockdown conditions were in place.  The Director cited “logistical and organisational reasons”, which no doubt included the fact that many of the works to be shown could not be moved from their home countries. Resolving the resultant contractual anomalies is often best achieved by negotiating mutually agreeable variations – though in these times of continuing uncertainty, this is far from a simple task.

The cancellation of exhibitions, however, is but one of a raft of complex challenges museums now face. Many have been sharing their experiences on social media, with news of closures, staff cuts and funding concerns being reported across the world. A survey conducted by NEMO (the Network of European Museum Organisations) on the impact of Covid-19 on the sector found that some museums were reporting a loss of income of 75-80%, with weekly losses adding up to hundreds of thousands of Euros. Amongst the most sombre of announcements was that of the Irish Museum of Modern Art which notified its Twitter followers of a request by the Irish Government to facilitate the construction of a temporary mortuary in its grounds.

There was little to lift the spirits of the museum community in the Netherlands, which awoke on 30th March to the shocking news of the theft of a Van Gogh painting from the Singer Laren museum in the north of the country. The thieves had taken advantage of lockdown conditions to stage an early-morning break-in. The stolen painting, The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring (1884), was on loan from the nearby Groninger Museum and is reported to be the only Van Gogh in its collection.

Van Gogh’s ‘The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring’ (1884) (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Thankfully, however, some heart-warming stories have emerged, as museums strive to play their part in these unfamiliar and unsettling times. Staff in many institutions have lent a hand to gather up gloves, masks and aprons, usually used for conserving works of art, for redeployment as much-needed protection for frontline health workers. On slightly more familiar territory, museums of all sizes and interests have offered new digital experiences, from educational tools to virtual tours. An Instagram post by Denmark’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art showing a new David Hockney iPad painting of daffodils poignantly entitled Do remember they can’t cancel the spring spread a welcome note of cheer.

Strong support for the efforts of the sector to weather this unprecedented storm has been provided by Arts Council England (ACE), which announced a £160 million emergency response package. Such a decisive measure was required, according to ACE’s Chief Executive, for individuals and institutions in the cultural sector facing “the most serious challenge to their existence since the Arts Council came into being at the end of the Second World War”. In Germany, the Government was quick to pledge support to arts institutions, the culture minister describing artists as “not only indispensable, but also vital” to the democratic society of the country which “needs its unique and diverse cultural and media landscape”.

Those who work in, support and enjoy museums will need little convincing of the crucial role they play in the wider cultural landscape. As Tristram Hunt, Director of the V&A, commented in The Art Newspaper last week, “when the virus finally dissipates, citizens will want to know that their collections are safe and that they can return to … see objects of profound importance to their sense of self”. Even in these darkest of days, the positive and uplifting power of art and culture will undoubtedly continue to shine through.