Broadly speaking, things were normal at the beginning of 2020. The art world, like the rest of the world, was going about its business as usual. The advent and global spread of COVID-19 brought with it chaos across the board; suddenly, things were far from normal. Then, as we started to adopt mechanisms to organise our world and keep on moving through the chaos, we started talking about a “new normal”. More than a year on, it is looking likely that some semblance of order will be restored before too long. But, for better or for worse, nobody is expecting things to snap back to how they were before. The version of the “old normal” we return to will inevitably bear the marks of the “new normal” we have come from.
This month, I want to look at the mechanisms and practices I have seen grow in significance across the art world during the pandemic, considering how we might want to hang onto some aspects of them in the new-old-normal world that we are heading for.
As much as I might like to, I can’t write about the last year without mentioning the art world’s turbulent love affair with the online viewing room. Whilst they have arguably been the most ubiquitous feature of gallery programming in the last year, enough ink has been spilled over them for me to want to keep my overview brief.
First we were entranced by them, then (perhaps when we realised that they were not really rooms, and really not very different from other web pages) disillusioned with them. Now, I think we are beginning to settle into a more realistic view of online exhibitions: they can be helpful as a way of looking at, learning about and, for some, buying artworks in lieu of physical exhibitions. They make sense, but they are not groundbreaking.
I hope that galleries learn from this whirlwind romance the importance of keeping good documentation and archives. Through photographs, videos, essays and other media, galleries are able to make aspects of their exhibitions accessible, albeit in a slightly more limited manner, to more people than would ever have access to their physical spaces. If it is documented well, I can visit or revisit the themes and artworks of an exhibition hosted many years ago in a gallery many miles away from me. Not in an online room, but on a simple web page. Many galleries have been doing this for a long time anyway. It doesn’t signify the dawn of a new era for the way that we experience art, nor does it require costly VR headsets and 3D rendering technology - but not everything that is worthwhile does.
Thinking Outside the Gallery
It’s also worth mentioning that the line between what is COVID-safe and what puts us at risk does not straightforwardly follow the line between online and offline. The internet is not the only place to experience art whilst keeping our distance. I have come across many ways that we can enjoy art the “old-fashioned” way without breathing on each other.
For example, Vitrine Gallery and Everybody Lives Gallery both host exhibitions that can be experienced in full from outside. Similarly, Image Dump is a billboard in Shoreditch displaying reproductions of work by emerging artists for all to see. Creating and showing art by post has also become more popular thanks to projects like Going Postal Gallery, Bruton Correspondence School and last year’s Queer Correspondence initiave produced by Cell Project Space.
There are many reasons why someone might not want to enter a gallery space. In the last year, COVID risk has been at the forefront of our minds, but it is likely to eventually become eventually. However other reasons - from physical disabilities to fear of the dagger-eyed assistant at the desk to simple oversaturation of the traditional format - will endure. So, I hope, will one of my favourite things about the art world: its use of experimental formats and novel methods to show work and engage audiences.
The Spirit of Collaboration
A year ago, I wrote about the need for mega galleries to support smaller dealers through this period of uncertainty. I was pleased to see exactly that happening over the last year. David Zwirner’s Platform initiative was a great example, giving emerging galleries from London and New York some valuable online real-estate on the gallery’s website to show (and hopefully sell) some of their artists’ work.
Seeing these leg-ups being offered by the big players is heartening. But something I did not expect, and have welcomed greatly, is the spirit of friendship and collaboration we have seen between galleries across the board in the last year. For example, KOW Gallery in Berlin recently launched Joint Ventures, a year-long programme of exhibitions produced in collaboration with an international roster of dealers including London’s Modern Art and Carlos / Ishikawa. On its Instagram page, the gallery explains that it wants to be “a place for collaborative and friendly activities”.
Galleries have also banded together to stand behind larger causes, using collaborative models to effect changes that extend beyond the showing and selling of art, either by committing to change their own behaviour or by donating to charitable causes. Hundreds of dealers, artists and organisations have signed up to the recently established Gallery Climate Coalition, with the goal of reducing the commercial art world’s carbon footprint by 50% over the next 10 years. Furthermore, LA’s Make Room gallery will host a group exhibition in collaboration with a handful of other galleries including Jeffrey Deitch and Various Small Fires this month, with all proceeds from sales going to Stop AAPI Hate, a non profit organisation that tracks incidents of racism and xenophobia against Asian American and Pacific Islander communities in the United States.
This spirit of togetherness I think we should keep. To think of the commercial art world as a zero sum game is an oversimplification. We have seen that perhaps more than ever in the last year, with galleries finding new ways to support their artists and make the world a better place by replacing a competitive attitude with one of friendliness.
Soon the art world will have the privilege of not being forced to engage in many of the activities I have discussed above. Going forward, two easy options might be to blindly carry them on as the world changes, or pull the plug on them completely. My hope is that we will take a more nuanced approach, thinking about the value of each on their own terms and using them to make sure the “normal” we return to in the coming months is better than the one we left behind last year.