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By Lara Brunt
Back in March, as museums and galleries around the world shuttered their doors and art fairs and biennials were postponed in response to the growing COVID-19 crisis, cultural institutions quickly pivoted online with virtual exhibitions and gallery tours, while industry professionals assumed the closures would be weeks-long and temporary.
Yet, as galleries and museums reopen after months of lockdown, the devastating impact of the coronavirus is starting to emerge. According to a study by the Comité Professionnel des Galeries d’Art, one-third of French galleries may be forced to permanently close their doors before the end of the year, while a UNESCO study has found that 13 per cent of museums worldwide may close permanently because of the pandemic.
Cultural institutions in the Middle East are also grappling with the fallout of COVID-19. “We have to see what unfolds, as it’s still really early days,” says Antonia Carver, Director of Art Jameel, the not-for-profit organisation that runs Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai and supports artists and creative communities across the region. “While we’ve all been focusing on the health crisis, there’s an economic crisis already under way, which won’t go away for some time.”
Like the UAE’s Ministry of Culture and Knowledge Development, which launched the National Creative Relief Fund to provide financial grants to individual artists and creative businesses, Art Jameel quickly introduced a scheme to support artists affected by the pandemic. The organisation received more than 500 applications from across the region for micro-grants of 1,000 to 2,000 USD.
“It was affirming to see the level of productivity and the ways in which artists are approaching this moment, and keen to reflect and really consider the big questions of community, society and how we work together at this time,” says Antonia.
Many artists, along with curators, collectors and art lovers, are also pondering what the post-pandemic art world will look like across the region. Will physical galleries cease to exist? Will we embrace new ways of thinking? Are art fairs a thing of the past?
One thing is apparent – digital is here to stay.
“Digital is obviously a great enabler in terms of distribution and deepening experience – being able to take works out to a broader community and, for those who can visit in person, to have the added benefit of a deeper engagement through more resources and materials that can add to that physical experience,” says Antonia.
Like many institutions, Jameel Arts Centre had to rapidly expand its digital offerings as stay-at-home measures were introduced. The centre, which reopened on June 3 after more than 11 weeks in lockdown, produced a new digital resource every day and launched around 15 online workshops. “We always had a digital strategy in place, but we saw it as something that would gradually unfold and this period made us fast-track all that,” Antonia says.
However, unlike many museums and galleries, Jameel Arts Centre decided not to do virtual tours, partly out of concern that audiences might become hooked on experiencing art through their laptops once the crisis eases.
“The really great thing to observe is that people have not lost their enthusiasm for seeing art in the flesh,” says Antonia. “I’m a big believer in that we have to be very careful not to let virtual become something that’s kind of normalized. If artists are setting out for people to see and experience their works physically, with all the texture and meaning behind those works, then I think we have to make sure we’re staying true to the nature of those artworks.”
Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s This whole time there were no land mines at the Jameel Arts Centre. Photography by Brent Galotera, courtesy of the Jameel Arts Centre.
But as audiences continue to seek out virtual art experiences, the question remains who will pay – and be paid – for it. Like media, there needs to be a change in the way art audiences consume content online, she says, while the ethics of digital labour need to be considered. “Everybody’s doing Zoom talks but are artists and curators, particularly those who work freelance, being paid like they would if they were sitting in a room?” she asks.
Global crises have long inspired artists, from Edvard Munch’s 1919 “Self-Portrait After the Spanish Flu” to Olafur Eliasson’s climate change-themed “Ice Watch” in 2015. So can audiences expect to see a wave of pandemic-inspired pieces when they next visit a gallery?
“Obviously there’s a tendency now to read everything through our COVID goggles, whereas artists weren’t necessarily thinking of those things at the time. I feel we’re too much in it [at the moment] to really be able to produce art that’s addressing these things directly,” Antonia says.
Curators and organizations should also be careful not to put the onus on artists to be reporters or psychologists, she adds. “They should be able to make work in the way they’ve always wanted to make work. That’s what gets them through this period and gets all of us through this period.”
Increased collaboration between regional and international organisations has been a positive consequence of the crisis, says the director. “We’re sharing best practices and ideas about budgets, funding and navigating the practical challenges of COVID, and also starting to think about how to collaborate on projects going forward, so that’s been really good to see,” she says.
As the former Director of Art Dubai (from 2010 to 2016), Antonia is also acutely aware of the challenges facing the region’s art fairs. When this year’s edition of Art Dubai, planned for March 25–28, was postponed to March 2021, organisers swiftly launched an online catalogue, but galleries reported sales well below targets.
Antonia believes it will be some time before virtual fairs replace physical ones. “People don’t want to see fairs disappear, as they’ve realised even more than ever that these are very important meeting points,” she says. “Maybe someone will come up with an online sales platform where we really feel like we’re physically with the work, but I don’t think the tech is there yet.”
Originally from the UK, Antonia moved to the UAE in 2001 and has been involved in the regional art scene ever since. After joining Art Jameel in 2016, she oversaw the opening of Jameel’s contemporary art centre in Dubai, while Hayy: Creative Hub in Jeddah is due to open in 2021.
Despite the current turmoil, she is optimistic about the future of the arts in the region. “Particularly in Saudi right now, there’s increased awareness from governments of the soft power of creative industries, so hopefully that also translates into more support for artists and not-for-profit entities. There’s also a kind of DIY spirit among artists, in terms of setting up their own collectives and groups and really pushing forward in ways that are really refreshing,” she says.
For information about Jameel Art Centre’s current exhibitions, including Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz’s first solo exhibition in the region, visit jameelartscentre.org
Lara Brunt is an Australian-British journalist. She has previously written for The Telegraph, Lonely Planet and World Traveller.
The views of the authors and writers who contribute to Sekka, and the views of the interviewees who are featured in Sekka, do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Sekka, its parent company, its owners, employees and affiliates.