The world’s museums and galleries have been closed for months. But, in China, they are gradually, and tentatively, beginning to re-open. For art lovers, it’s a moment to celebrate. At the same time, there are undoubtedly questions about safety: what measures are museums taking to protect their visitors from the virus? Will the experience still be enriching? Do people want to meet in a confined gallery space? Let’s take a look at how China is leading the way out of art’s lockdown.
Following government guidance, China’s museums and galleries have taken remarkable steps to create safe spaces for the public. Physical and practical transformations include one-way entry routes, limited viewing slots, online booking systems and plexiglass barriers. Inside the museum, there are no more headphones, paper maps or group tours. Directors have also increased cleaning budgets to ensure that museums are cleaned several times a day.
Many institutions have reduced capacity, too, operating at fifty percent to keep their visitors socially distanced. Xiang Liping, who is Head of the Exhibition Department at the Power Station of Art in Shanghai, explains just how seriously they are taking new safety protocols: “Institutions must keep ventilated and air-conditioning has been forbidden. Visitors have to make a reservation, and the museum is controlling numbers, limiting it to 1000 per day. The museum also provides wash-free sanitizer and disinfects its spaces regularly”.
APP FOR ENTRY
Visitors also have to abide by some strict rules. Face masks are mandatory, and everyone must have their temperatures taken at the entrance. All visitors will have to show the ‘Health Kit’ app, which tracks travel history and health stats; only if it lights up as ‘green’ are they allowed to enter. Social distancing will also be enforced, with security guards ensuring that people keep at least 1.5m apart. So, no more crowding around a masterpiece.
Many museums are responding, with revised programmes that reflect upon the global pandemic. Beijing’s UCCA Center for Contemporary Art is opening its doors with an exhibition “Meditations in an Emergency”. The show will bring together 26 Chinese and international artists reflecting on the role of art during a time of crisis. Similarly, commercial gallery, BANK, just opened with a solo show by Geng Yini called ‘Virtual Power’. The artist explores the timely conundrum of Virtual Power in an increasingly alienated world.
THE ‘NEW NORMAL’
While some galleries are embracing a Covid-themed programme, other organisations are steering clear of this cliché. Charlie Dutton, who is Director of BACA Art Centre and Nook Gallery in Beijing, will celebrate what artists have created during the crisis, across a range of themes, with a new show called ‘Waiting for Connection’. An artist himself, Dutton is also showing a selection of his abstract paintings in Nook Gallery, which he turned into a studio during lockdown.
“A sense of normality is what we are all driving for”, says Dutton. A return to normality is what galleries want, and a ‘new normal’ is already evolving. The gallery experience has undoubtedly altered. “I think it’s going to be a more solitary experience than it was before”, says Philip Tinari, Director of UCCA.
The ‘new normal’ includes embracing digital opportunities. During the pandemic’s peak, museums and galleries curated a digital offering, with online exhibitions, virtual events, Private Views by Zoom and new social media content.
In February, Shanghai’s commercial gallery BANK/MABSOCIETY launched ‘Pure Beauty’, an online group exhibition that used beauty as an antidote to the pandemic. It was shared on WeChat, Instagram and Facebook, and its success took the gallery by surprise:
“We garnered lots of media attention for this as well as a few sales. We realised that this year was going to be strange and have been transferring the energy we would normally put into installing, shipping, and manning a show towards the digital realm”.
This online offering is set to continue, especially whilst institutions operate at reduced capacity.
SMALL & LOCAL
Although real-life exhibitions are opening, international travelling shows and art fairs remain paused. The major art fair, Art Basel Hong Kong 2020, has been cancelled. Instead, the focus in on city-wide festivals, such as Gallery Weekend Beijing, scheduled to run in May.
Similarly, big blockbuster shows, attracting large and international audiences will not be possible. Instead, museums are planning smaller scale, intentional shows. Local events, for people in their own cities, will become increasingly important.
Luckily, people are already proving that they want to visit the re-awakened art world. “There is a strong sense that people want, and are very happy, to visit with friends and resume normal life”, says Xiang Liping.
BANK’s launch event of Geng Yini’s “Virtual Power” show also had an incredible reception, as Mathieu Borysevicz, who is Director and founder of the gallery, shares: “On May 9th we opened our first ‘real' show since the epidemic started and we had a surprisingly fantastic turnout. During the course of the 3-hour reception we had around 450 guests. I think people really were itching to get out, see something new and this awesome show provided the catalyst!”.
Other art leaders believe that people will want to engage with art, more than ever, now. As Charlie Dutton says: “I really do hope that what we learn from the last few months is the importance of the tangibility and reality of art”.