Culture in a time of coronavirus

2020 got off to a flying start, culture-wise, with the Royal Academy’s remarkable Picasso on Paper exhibition, and our quartet of reviewers were eagerly looking forward to a busy year of exhibitions, concerts and opera. On one trip to London, I managed to fit in not one but three exhibitions in a single day – David Hockney at the NPG, Leon Spillaert at the RA and the ravishing Kimono: from Kyoto to Catwalk at the V&A. And then, in the third week of March, when the full impact of the coronavirus began to be felt in the UK, our beloved concerts halls, opera houses, museums and galleries shut their doors. Soon after the country went into “lockdown” (a horrible word derived from the act of confining prisoners to their cells), a situation in which we remain at the time of writing (May 2020).

Almost overnight, musicians, ensembles, opera companies and venues rushed to get material online, offering livestream exhibitions and performances, from multi-player broadcasts of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy to solo recitals from musicians’ living rooms. The major museums and galleries, who have offered online content for some time, including virtual tours, have also been quick to put out more material for would-be exhibition goers to enjoy from the comfort of their homes. The message is clear – the venues may be closed but the music and art go on.

As some European countries start to ease their lockdowns, imposed in reaction to the virus, museums and galleries are tentatively exploring how they might accommodate their visitors in an age of social distancing. The art critic Waldemar Januszczak explored this in a recent article, pointing out that managing a queue into a museum or exhibition is no more difficult than a socially-distanced supermarket queue, and emphasising how art and culture nourishes the soul. If anything, managing museums and galleries should be fairly straightforward. For some years now, the big popular exhibitions have sold timed entry tickets to avoid (in theory) spaces becoming overcrowded. This could be easily implemented more strictly to ensure social distancing is managed within a gallery space. And there’s another benefit – the spaces would be less crowded, offering one an opportunity to better see the art. To accommodate a reduced flow of visitors, museums and galleries may have to extend their opening hours – again something they have already done with late night openings, especially for the very popular exhibitions

.…is the experience of shopping in a supermarket substantially safer than visiting an art exhibition in carefully controlled gallery circumstances? Would it not be possible to transpose the ground rules of safe shopping at a supermarket to safe queuing for an art exhibition, and then for visiting it?

– Waldemar Januszczak

Museum shops and cafés may have to remain closed which will inevitably impact on revenue, since these are both significant income streams for museums and galleries; on the other hand, browsing a museum shop should be no more hazardous than shopping at Tesco…..

But until the museums and galleries reopen, we must be content with virtual tours, a selection of which you can view here:

Aubrey Beardsley at Tate Britain

Andy Warhol at Tate Modern

Concerts and opera involve gatherings of people – and in the case of the very large venues, gatherings of 1000s – in confined spaces, and research indicates that coronavirus is more easily spread in confined spaces. Squaring the social distancing circle will be a logistical headache for venue managers, not only in terms of seating arrangements in auditoria but also in social spaces such as foyers and bars in order to protect audiences and staff. It seems realistic to say that we will not return to concert- and opera-going as we knew it pre-pandemic, at least in the medium term.

While small ensembles – the piano trio or string quartet, for example – can manage social distancing fairly easily on stage, large orchestras can not, and this will inevitably impact on the type of repertoire performed. Mahler’s symphonies just don’t sound right without the requisite large orchestral forces (though Schoenberg commissioned a reduction of the 4th symphony from Erwin Stein for his Society for Private Musical Performances). This will cause a major rethink amongst concert managers and programme planners about what kind of repertoire is appropriate for smaller forces and could bring opportunities to present arrangements of large-scale works, lesser-known repertoire and even new music.

In addition, foreign performers and orchestras may not be able to travel due to restrictions, and this will inevitably impact on programmes and programme planning. The Proms would not be the same without the prestigious international orchestras and performers which the festival attracts, yet these limitations should not necessarily be seen in a negative light and maybe this is an oppotunity to celebrate homegrown talent – of which we have plenty!

Venues rely heavily on their audiences for ticket revenue and perhaps the greatest challenge is encouraging people to venture out to concerts again. People are, understandably, fearful of catching the virus. Additionally, classical audiences tend to be older, the “at risk” group, and may feel anxious about attending a concert. With reduced audience numbers, there will be reduced ticket revenue. Alongside this, concert venues may have to reconfigure seating to observe social distancing guidelines: people may have to occupy every other seat or in a tessellated formation. This will of course lead to reduced ticket sales and loss of revenue, and ticket prices will, inevitably, have to increase in order to meet venue running costs and musicians’ fees. Given the devastating economic impact of the pandemic, people simply may not be able to afford to attend a concert or opera in a prestigious venue.

However, the current and future scenario should not be regarded as all doom and gloom, not by any means. Situations like this always present opportunities for those who are willing to think and act creatively, and it will be interesting to see how cultural institutions and organisations act in the coming months.






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