Visual Art

The shutdowns in the wake of the escalating Covid-19 crisis have forced art establishments to move fast in creating new and innovative ways to keep galleries relevant when their doors are closed to the public. By Tony Magnusson.

Virtual galleries

An installation view from the virtual tour of KAWS: Companionship in the Age of Loneliness at NGV International.
An installation view from the virtual tour of KAWS: Companionship in the Age of Loneliness at NGV International.
Credit: Courtesy of NGV

When Leigh Robb, curator of the 2020 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Monster Theatres, realised the exhibition she had worked on, solidly, for two years would likely close just three weeks after opening, she immediately went into documentation mode. “It became a race against time,” she says, “to capture as much as we could before everything shut down.”

Working with several filmmakers and photographers, Robb and the staff at the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA) gathered additional footage and images of the biennial exhibits before public health concerns over Covid-19 necessitated closure. She conducted interviews with artists, curatorial colleagues and others involved, while Adelaide-based artist and filmmaker Peter Drew shot a virtual tour.

AGSA is now sharing these digital artefacts on its website and social channels, as well as material from other exhibitions and the gallery’s permanent collection. “It’s a dynamic offering that’s unfolding week by week,” says Robb. “We’re working to offer in-depth encounters with art, artists and other creators in different ways. We’re also creating a comprehensive archive of the biennial on behalf of the artists.”

The gallery is just one of many art institutions across Australia trying to adapt to the reality of life during a pandemic, and asking itself a difficult question: What is the role of an art gallery that no one can visit?

The 22nd Biennale of Sydney NIRIN, led by artistic director Brook Andrew, closed less than two weeks after opening across six sites, including the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) and the Museum of Contemporary Art. Staff have been working furiously to give the public digital access to its offering, which will start to roll out daily from this Monday, April 6.

Because it’s a First Nations and artist-led biennale, NIRIN’s 101 artists and collectives have been deeply involved in the virtual transformation. “Artists are incredibly good at sharing their lives and work through social media,” says Paschal Daantos Berry, curator of programs, learning and community engagement for the biennale. “As visual and creative beings, they’re at the forefront.”

The Biennale of Sydney’s chief executive, Barbara Moore, says: “Artists are contacting us with ideas we hadn’t thought of, so it’s happening right in front of our eyes, in a new and dynamic way.” There will be filmed performances, readings and conversations, as well as playlists, social media takeovers and 360-degree walk-throughs as the biennale’s public program is repurposed for a solely digital audience. “There isn’t one way to capture an exhibition,” says Moore.

This is a lesson galleries around the world have learnt as Covid-19 has spread. They have attempted to adapt, in subtle and dramatic ways, and with varying levels of success.

Now closed, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art is offering a rich, audiovisual tutorial on German superstar Gerhard Richter online, including a scene in which the artist demonstrates his famous squeegee technique. Tate Modern has filmed a haunting, online-only performance by Congolese choreographer and artist Faustin Linyekula, which took place in an empty underground space after the Tate, London’s most visited museum, had closed to the public.

But these are resource-intensive projects: expensive and laborious at a time when galleries that rely on admissions revenue have none. Many smaller galleries simply can’t create a digital experience that lives up to an in-person visit.

The Australia Council has announced a $5 million Resilience Fund for artists, arts workers and arts organisations – but this does not apply directly to public galleries. State and territory governments have also started to offer similar financial support. In South Australia, the government has just flagged some funding for the arts sector – “immediate new grants for artists and a second wave of grants for collaborative artist-based projects for arts organisations”, according to AGSA director Rhana Devenport – the latter of which are understood to be for public institutions that are working with small and medium enterprises and artists on collaborative projects.

For their part, Australia’s largest art institutions are looking to innovate, quickly.

The National Gallery of Australia (NGA) has filmed virtual walk-throughs of its three major exhibitions for the year, and some 97,000 works – 60 per cent of the national collection – can also be accessed online, and an enhanced search tool is forthcoming.

The National Gallery of Victoria, having closed earlier than many other cultural institutions, is already offering virtual, curator-led tours of its two major international exhibitions – KAWS: Companionship in the Age of Loneliness and Keith Haring | Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines – on its website.

“We are seeing an overwhelmingly positive response from audiences to our virtual content,” says director Tony Ellwood. “Many people have been saying how uplifting the virtual experiences have been during this time.”

Bendigo Art Gallery director Jessica Bridgfoot says she’s thankful the gallery had already filmed interviews and a virtual tour of its next exhibition, Bessie Davidson & Sally Smart: Two artists and the Parisian avant-garde, before the lockdown.

“This exhibition had been planned for well over 18 months, and over the course of a lifetime for Sally [Smart],” says Bridgfoot, adding that Smart travelled to Paris to retrace Davidson’s life and work. Now, it exists only in digital form, online along with a video excerpt of a new dance piece by Smart that explores Davidson’s relationship with painter Margaret Preston.

But closure has given the gallery’s small team a chance to rethink online engagement. “We don’t always have the time to brainstorm and activate in this way,” says Bridgfoot. “This is an opportunity for us to attract a whole new audience online while entertaining our existing audience.”

The value of entertainment, and escape, in this moment, has also been recognised by the National Portrait Gallery. Director Karen Quinlan is eager to direct art-depleted audiences to Portrait Stories, a series of short videos in which prominent Australians, including Jessica Mauboy and Cadel Evans, discuss their life, achievements and the experience of sitting for portraits – by David Rosetzky and Matthys Gerber, respectively – that are now part of the national collection. The gallery has also created a 14-stage portrait masterclass, which is available online. “It’s fun, free and you can even upload your self-portrait to our website and show the world your work,” says Quinlan.

Heide Museum of Modern Art’s website is sharing instructions and a video tutorial that guides viewers through the process of creating their own miniature caravan. The design is inspired by the museum’s latest acquisition for its sculpture park, Pont de l’Archevêché by Bob Jenyns, itself based on Albert Tucker’s DIY caravan, which he constructed in his Paris hotel room and lived in for months on the banks of the Seine.

The Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA), meanwhile, has filmed a whimsical “Planet Protector” family-friendly tour of its major exhibition Water, including Riverbed, a 110-tonne rock-bed installation by Icelandic–Danish artist Ólafur Elíasson.

In Tasmania, the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) has taken an approach that manages to retain aspects of the unique and slightly weird experience of being in the gallery. “Living artwork” TIM, whose real name is Tim Steiner, is being live-streamed as he continues to turn up daily and sit on a plinth for six hours, minus the odd toilet break. The tattoo that covers Steiner’s back, designed by Belgian artist Wim Delvoye, has been sold to a German art collector; when Steiner dies, his back will be skinned and framed. “He’s not the artist,” explains a MONA spokesperson. “Wim Delvoye is, but the idea to remain in the gallery was Tim’s alone. Since 2011, he has sat at MONA for more than 3500 hours.”

TIM’s presence in the empty gallery seems to embody the sort of isolation we’re all dealing with at the moment. It’s a poignant statement of defiance – the show must go on – yet it also alludes to the anxiety of infection and the separation of bodies in a time of panic, themes quite new to this evolving, living work of art.

Around the country, galleries have one eye firmly fixed on what comes after this pandemic. The NGA is proceeding with plans to welcome more than 60 paintings from Britain to Canberra for its summer blockbuster, Botticelli to Van Gogh: Masterpieces from the National Gallery, London, which is still slated to open on November 13.

AGNSW has rescheduled the exhibition of its major awards – the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman prizes – rather than cancelling the flagship event. “We are pleased to be able to plan for this later in the year, when art will be needed more than ever,” says the gallery’s director, Michael Brand. Back at AGSA, the gallery’s staff are already starting to look to next year, “forging ahead with curating projects, programs and exhibitions for 2021”, according to Rhana Devenport.

“Right now the AGSA team is working hard to ignite new ways we can both directly support artists, while devising and launching new digital environments that link art and people,” says Devenport. “We are part of a radical revisioning of how public cultural entities operate and the urgency of our work has never been more real.”

“We can’t cancel culture,” says the Biennale of Sydney’s Barbara Moore. “Artists are working too hard and they need our support.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 4, 2020 as "Virtually showing".

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