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Shifting Museums

Shifting Museums | Simon Mordant

I left Sydney in May 2020, when I saw Australia going into lockdown. Even though Italy was a terrible mess—there were over 30000 cases a day when we arrived and the death rate was running at about 900 a day—we felt safe. We were isolated: we weren't allowed to leave our property; people delivered food; we spent two weeks in quarantine. And then, all through the European summer, people were deeply cautious. Everyone wore masks. And then Italy then went into a six-month lockdown with curfews. We weren't allowed to go beyond the village and only one other couple could visit, a bubble with two households for the winter. I thought it was going to be challenging, but we really enjoyed seeing the seasons change, seeing fruits grow on trees; we hadn't seen it all before. Vaccination rates were soon very high and the government introduced requirements: if you weren't vaccinated you would not be allowed back on public transport or into a restaurant or into a museum. That drove vaccination rates right up. And whilst people remain cautious, masked outside, there's hope that there won't be another lockdown. The U.S. is open but Europeans aren't allowed to travel to America. Europe, Europe and the UK are open,

I've been to London since, and I’ve seen how a lot of museums have responded to the pandemic. I think we will see great art: artists have been locked in their studios for eighteen months producing extraordinary work. During the pandemic, artists may have not been able to exhibit but have been making work. My greatest New York artist friend hasn't left his studio for 18 months, but he hasn't been able to exhibit or sell.

But lockdown, in other ways, has been very efficient. We can have someone from their office in New York or London addressing students and participating in seminars but they wouldn't normally have wanted to spend a week travelling to and from Australia. Art schools have been closed, so students haven't been able to mix with fellow students or had a campus experience. They haven't been able to visit each other's studios. I taught into a Masters course on cultural diplomacy at a university in Rome in 2019 and I'm doing it again this year. There are 22 students from 17 countries but they met only once last year together, right at the end of the course when COVID restrictions lifted. That experience must be awful. The students have paid a lot of money to mix and share experiences from around the world, but they hadn’t been able to actually meet. Some of them were logging on to classes at 2:00am in the morning in their local time zones from their bedrooms.

I think I've continued to stay very connected even through lockdown. All my board meetings have been on Zoom. There've been online viewing rooms. There've been online collector tours. But I think we are at the heart of things a social species. We're not lone rangers. But I don't think I'm looking forward to being in a room with 200 people again, but I want the opportunity to spend time in galleries and museums even though I think that we're going to be cautious about going to concerts and opera. People have had more time: I've certainly read more books than ever before, and I'm a prolific book reader. I think people have thought a lot more. I know that my family has reassessed our priorities.

The Zoom environment is a very productive tool, but it's very hard to build a culture in an environment when everyone's working remotely. This applies to building a culture in an art museum. I am on the board of MoCA the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles and when the pandemic hit, Los Angeles was very badly affected. It had just appointed a new director. He was in the process of building a new team. Then the museum shut, and remained shut for a year. The same for MoMA PS1 in New York, where I'm Deputy Chair of its Board of Trustees: pre-pandemic, we had just appointed a new director, Kate Fowles. No sooner had she put her feet under the table and delivered a new strategic plan, New York shut down. Then, in London, art museums have been smashed, with three lockdowns and many jobs cut. The museum experience is very different: in the UK there is timed entry; you have to make an appointment online; people really want to visit and there are very few in gallery spaces. But I think museums are going to have to reinvent themselves, to rethink their business model. I've been on a committee in Venice rethinking the future of the city, which is obviously very tourist dependent and tourist numbers there have been awful. Out of all this, I think museums are going to have to rethink what their purpose is, instead of trying to increase attendance numbers year on year and compete with blockbuster shows. Instead, they're going to have to become locally important, relevant to local communities and engaging locally. I think people need culture and culture is going to be a part of curing mental wellness issues that are going to emerge from the last two years. Museums and cultural institutions can have a critical role to play, but they have to think local first. At Tate Modern, the Turbine Hall became a vaccination centre.

What does it mean for museums to rethink their models? Attendances are going to be down for a long period of time before tourism picks up and before people are comfortable in public spaces. And as I said, I think we're all going to have to rethink what our purpose is. In Europe, governments have been incredibly supportive of culture. Germany gave five billion Euros in grants to cultural institutions, and private donors haven't gone away. They have stepped up more than ever. Cultural institutions need to survive, and a burden has fallen on private philanthropy given that corporate support is challenging because most corporations have been challenged themselves. I've been surprised that private philanthropy has gone up quite substantially even while paid attendances are down. The other sources of income are retail, cafes, restaurants, and function spaces. At the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, a large part of their income was from functions. They've all been stopped. A lot of art museums employ artists and their income has been hit: both art sales and and day jobs have gone even though many commercial galleries say that people are spending more on art because they're not able to go on holidays. I think the large middle tier of commercial galleries have been under pressure for a long period of time, and yet they're a critical part of the art ecosystem because they're the ones that bring artists forward, advocating and promoting them and investing in art fairs, paying huge rents, attending art fairs that are really expensive. I'm anxious about the loss of those private gallery spaces and I'm equally anxious about the pandemic’s impact on art schools and on many artists who can’t pay their bills.

But I think that art museums are going to have to change more broadly. They will have to answer to the need for diversity. I think they're going to have to change their boards. They're going to have to change their staffing. I sit on the Hope for Diversity Inclusion Committee at MoMA and there, the work that's been done is extraordinary not only in terms of changing the board but changing the leadership team and changing the programming. Many institutions have very few women artists in the collections, very few people of colour in their collections. And when you look at their boards, they're mainly white men. And so I think we must see long-overdue change. They are grappling with diversity, audiences, collections and donors, but if you want to find a broader donor base, you've got to have a broader board, and you've got to have a broader leadership group. My successor at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney has Lebanese origins and she's been fantastic. But we have to to skill people up to get diversity in curators and art museum directors. We can't just say we want a diverse directorate. We've got to provide people with capability, identifying the next generation of leaders and investing in them. You know, it's something we did 20 years ago when we recognised corporate boardrooms were all male and white. We went out of our way to find women that were coming through who could be invested in, trained and supported and mentored. We need to do the same in the creative sector. And we've got to have a national apology to Indigenous peoples, along with constitutional recognition. There was such a lost opportunity in the national response to the Uluru Statement from the Heart. We were offered goodwill but the Statement was not treated as it should have been.

I read the online art bulletins and I get hundreds of emails a day from galleries and I do actually read them all. I don't look at their online viewing rooms, but I do read everything. I would never have thought I'd buy a piece of work without seeing it. The online viewing experience was completely alien to me even though I've been collecting for over 40 years. One of the first artists I ever knew was Alexander Calder. I absolutely fell in love with his work, but could never afford to buy one. Then out of the blue, a work that I'd seen a number of years ago became available but I couldn't physically see it. But I got condition reports and everything else, and it became an online purchase. I actually didn't think twice about it, though I'm not sure I'd ever do it again. Of course, freight and shipping costs have gone through the roof, for art museum to ship works for blockbuster shows or borrow from collectors. The cost of freight is two or three times what it was.

The 2020 Biennale of Sydney opened and then shut very quickly. I didn't manage to get to Cockatoo Island but I did visit most of its Sydney venues. I think none of the international curators made the trip to see it. They were all blocked. The Australian Pavilion at the Biennale of Venice is shuttered. The Australia Council-sponsored program for Australian donors to go to the biennale may not go ahead even though I thought Australians would be desperate to get to Europe by next April.

The opportunity to spend eight months thinking has been a huge benefit for cultural leaders because they never have time to really immerse themselves in rethinking how they connect with the community and what they stand for. Those that have taken that time are going to come out of this with a really re-energised institution, like Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev who lost the chairperson of her museum’s board to COVID early on, with whom I will spend time to understand how she has connected with her community in Turin. People like her at the Castello di Rivoli in Turin, and Kate Fowles at PS1, and Jessica Morgan at Dia just outside New York are very, very talented leaders who have used the last 18 months to really think about their institution’s futures. And many young people just don't feel that big art museums like the Museum of Modern Art are attractive. But, oddly enough, when I was in London recently I really surprised myself. I saw Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience. Every person in the art world who I spoke to said, don't go. But I did, and it was an amazing experience because it was absolutely packed with hundreds of mostly young people, totally absorbed. The audience was deeply connected. Then they exited to a room where visitors made Van Gogh paintings themselves. Now, I think our art museums are also going to have to think about how to engage an audience like that of people who never go into a museum. I was completely surprised.  

Given the next generation are technology driven, they're not, unlike us, going to want to spend three hours in one room at a museum. So I think that's yet another reason art institutions are going to rethink, because if they want to be connected to the next generation, they're going to have to think about how they show things and how they engage.

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