When in March 2020 the concert halls and opera houses fell silent, and the museums and galleries shut their doors, I expected ArtMuseLondon to take something of a sabbatical. What was there to review if culture in London, and beyond, had closed down for the foreseeable future?
In fact, this year has proved unexpectedly rich and the ArtMuseLondon reviewers have kept themselves busy with reviews of new recordings, livestream concerts and operas, online music festivals, and books, together with artist interviews and a number of “think pieces” on cultural subjects. The site is beginning to gain a significant foothold, receiving praise for its long-form articles written by a small team of people who each write knowledgeably and with a distinctive voice. This year, we were delighted to welcome Adrian Ainsworth to the regular reviewing team, and we have enjoyed guest articles by Doug Thomas, Sarah Mulvey and Chris Davies.
The restrictions imposed on cultural life (and indeed our daily lives in general) in response to the pandemic forced musicians, ensembles, venues, artists, galleries and others to adapt quickly to the new situation, and it was quite remarkable to see how much material was being pushed out online to satisfy an audience starved of culture during the strange (but curiously sunny) months of the first lockdown. It was also very clear, almost painfully so, that musicians were determined to keep the music playing, not only to entertain their audiences, and attract new listeners, but also to confirm that they were “still here”. Because for many musicians and artists, their creative activities are inextricably linked to their identity and are their raison d’être. As a concert pianist friend said to me in the early weeks of the first UK lockdown, “Without concerts, I feel like I’ve lost a limb”.
Additionally, musicians, artists and other creatives felt unfairly ignored and abandoned by government, which offered meagre financial assistance while also, insultingly, suggesting that these people were “not viable” and should seek employment outside their chosen profession.
But for audiences, this year has proved something of a bonanza. Livestreaming has taken a great leap forward, with a broad range of concerts, from small-scale “at home” recitals (some literally from the musicians’ living rooms) to multi-player/singer and orchestral performances, social-distancing permitting, and some brilliantly edited performances via Zoom. The speed at which musicians and others have adapted to new ways of doing things has been impressive, along with the audio-visual technology used to beam these performances into our own living rooms. Of course it’s not the same as attending a live concert – how could it be? Yet watching or listening those early Wigmore Hall livestreams in the summer, one felt a sense of community through the many comments shared via platforms like Twitter, and these performances have kept us in touch with the musicians and the music we love.
It is also encouraging to learn that audiences for classical music have increased, especially amongst younger people, perhaps because they are able to easily access music via the platforms with which they are most familiar (YouTube and the like) rather than having to attend a concert hall where the etiquette of classical music can, for the ingenue concert-goer, feel stuffy and intimidating. Whether these young listeners will go to live classical concerts remains to be seen, but it’s a positive step forward in gaining and retaining new audiences.
Alongside livestream concerts, I discovered the online art exhibition, thanks to Victoria Miro gallery, which presented Grayson Perry’s new show, The Most Specialest Relationship, via the Vortic Collect app. I had hoped to get up to London to see this exhibition in person, but the online experience was pretty good, allowing one to zoom in on objects to see the finer details.
Initiatives such as Wigmore Hall’s livestream series and the return of a limited audience, when permitted, have given other cultural organisations and practitioners the confidence to reopen and return to what they do best. Those who are most agile and adaptable have fared better – smaller venues are more flexible with regards to seating, for example, and may have lower overheads. Museums and galleries, long used to offering timed entry tickets and extended opening hours for the most popular exhibitions, have adapted quickly – and for visitors, exhibitions are delightfully uncrowded, allowing one to better appreciate the art on display.
Of course we want our concert halls, opera houses, museums and galleries and other cultural spaces fully open again, and with the right safeguards in place there is no reason why this should not happen. I am hopeful that we will be something close to a return to “normal” by the summer of 2021.
Meanwhile, some of my cultural highlights this year include:
Picasso on Paper at the Royal Academy – I was pleased to be able to see the RA’s spring blockbuster before the gallery was forced to close
Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk – A sumptuous, elegantly designed exhibition at the V&A celebrating the kimono
Jonathan Biss at Wigmore Hall – the last live concert I attended in London, back in February. But what a performance! The memory of it will stay with me for a long time. Fortunately, I had Jonathan Biss’s complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas to occupy and distract me in the early weeks of lockdown
Igor Levit: Encounter – another thoughtful, serious and engrossing release from Levit, who became one of the “heroes of lockdown” for his nightly recitals from his home in Berlin.
Bertrand Chamayou: Good Night! – a charming album of lullabies for piano, including new music and some lesser-known pieces
Pavel Kolesnikov’s Goldberg Variations – an intimate, thoughtful and exquisitely executed recording of one of the most iconic works in the keyboard repertoire.
And some exhibitions I hope to be able to see in 2021:
Francis Bacon: Man & Beast – Royal Academy of Arts
Jean Dubuffet – Barbican Art Gallery
Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirror Rooms – Tate Modern
Paula Rego – Tate Britain
Marina Abramović – Royal Academy of Arts
Frances Wilson, editor & co-founder of ArtMuseLondon