Like almost every industry, the art world has been upended by the enduring global pandemic. After all, art is meant to be seen, but how will we view art now if we can’t go out freely and see it for ourselves. Many museums and galleries across the E.U. are shuttered again with a second lockdown in place, offering advanced online viewing rooms and virtual tours of exhibitions instead of in-person viewing. And yes, some galleries are open but with restrictions in place, many have opted to have appointment only viewings primarily for buyers- which mind you, isn’t a lot of us. Or they’ve shifted to timed visits to regulate capacity. But these experiences just aren’t the same as before- the freeing element that initially draws us in is absent. The same question emerges over and over: is it worth it to visit these exhibitions? Let’s face it- going out to see art isn’t essential like braving the pandemic to get your necessities, like your groceries. How much of an art enthusiast are you? For many, art viewing and gallery hopping is therapeutic – the space, quiet, and inspiration. We go to revel in the energy and stillness emanating from art and the stories that come along with the visuals. And we show up, literally, to support the artists. But it’s not the same with that slight feeling of guilt having gone out during a pandemic or looking online at photos of art on a computer surrounded by distractions and noise. It’s the rejuvenating escape we expect walking into art spaces. It’s an experience– and we go for that specific experience. As viewers navigating these changes, what will fuel us to keep the art world alive?
With art fairs like Frieze London and Art Basel Miami going online this year, we will have to wait and see what 2021 will look like. But in many places, shows are still going up, art is still being made and people are still buying. Art and the industry around it doesn’t just go away. Celebrated Pakistani-American contemporary artist Shahzia Sikander‘s show opened this November at Sean Kelly Gallery in New York, but didn’t fail to mention to me how slow foot traffic has been amid a pandemic- she has never seen anything like it- and she’s been involved in the art world since the 90s. Even if open to the public, galleries are emptier than they’ve ever been. So, no surprise, the people actively involved in the art world have shifted to encompassing less of the general public to primarily the wealthy elite. Buyers will continue to buy and collect regardless of the accessibility, because the rich are still rich and can spend, and will largely be the ones to keep the art world above water.
If the art world wasn’t already elitist and deemed largely inaccessible to the average person, well, Covid has deepened those cracks and is undoing a lot of the work gone into trying to close them these past years. Not to mention the widespread layoffs at art institutions and the shrinking workforces everywhere due to the pandemic. There’s barely room left for people who want to get their foot in the door of the art world right now. Everyone in the creative world is biting their nails looking at the scope of the financial repercussions of this long-lasting pandemic. But with these vulnerable cracks open, there’s room for more discussion and change- vulnerability is when great upheaval occurs best. Now more than ever, there’s a spotlight on contemporary artists and narratives confronting issues like the widening social divides or racial inequity deeply rooted in the U.S which is becoming increasingly publicized, due to the pandemic accelerating the unraveling of social, health and economic crises.
Art dealers, gallerists and curators are faced with a resurgence of immense pressure and a call for more diversity, visibility, equality and equity. This change might not be such a bad thing after all, with more eyes on institutions than ever before. Let’s press them to do the right thing, even after the pandemic. Art has always sought to critique the rules of capitalism and the 1 percent. Artists want their work to be seen by the greater public not just dealers and collectors. So what can we do? It’s up to us to do our part as outsiders to show up and keep art spaces inclusive even in this changed landscape, or we run the risk of only the mega art institutions and already art ‘stars’ to come out on the other side.
New voices and art forms emerge after wars, economic crashes, and global crises. Following the pandemic, we will resurface with an even stronger desire to amplify the voices that need to be heard. We’ve seen exhibitions open in recent months like that of Nina Chanel Abney or Tyler Mitchell that confront race politics and lesser explored nuances of the black experience in America. Community engagement and support is as important as ever so that artists’ stories reach everyone, even if the experience looks and feels different. Let’s continue to show that we are still present, while socially distant, whether through an online viewing room, shares and reposts on social media, or showing up to an emptier than usual exhibition opening. Upcoming artists and important art needs to make it through these times, so the gap doesn’t widen to the point where the under-represented and disenfranchised feel completely uninvited to the art world. If one thing is guaranteed, creative passion never dies, even in a worldwide pandemic. Art lasts forever; let’s make sure our unending love for it does too, even in the toughest of times.