BY Chris Sharratt in Opinion | 24 MAR 20

A Desperate Time: How the UK Art World is Responding to the Coronavirus Lockdown

It’s the most vulnerable that are set to suffer the most and, in the topsy-turvy value system of contemporary art, that means artists and other freelancers

BY Chris Sharratt in Opinion | 24 MAR 20

Covid-19 may have forced galleries to close their doors but there is no shortage of frenetic, urgent action in the UK art world as it deals with the impact of social distancing. Things are moving fast, and they need to: this is a crisis that is threatening everyone – from the individual, self-employed artist trying to work out where the next paid work is coming from, to the arts organization CEO whose income streams have shrunk to zero overnight. Business as usual is no longer possible. In an address to the nation yesterday, prime minister Boris Johnson announced a UK lockdown to be enforced by police, with strict restrictions on people’s movement.

Just as in wider society, it’s the most vulnerable that are set to suffer the most and, in the topsy-turvy value system of contemporary art, that means artists and other freelancers. All are facing a desperate time of cancelled work and existential uncertainty. Many have taken to social media already to vent their despair and frustration, as planned-for work disappears and the prospect of new commissions evaporates. Exhibitions, talks, residencies, lecturing – all have swiftly (and understandably) fallen away. As the artist Marianna Simnett states on Twitter: ‘Emergency procedures have and will continue to cause a great deal of cancellations for artists. My income, and [that of] many others, has taken a substantial hit as a result of the current situation.’

Marianna Simnett, Blood, 2015, video still. Courtesy the artist and the Jerwood/FVU Awards

One key call from artists is that cancelled events shouldn’t mean cancelled fees. Some galleries and sector-support organizations are already committing to this principle. Matt’s Gallery in London, for example, has stated that it will ‘honour our commitments’ to freelancers and ‘try to minimize financial hardship’. Arts Council England (ACE) meanwhile has issued a statement via its website to ask that all funded organizations pay the fees of those who were due to deliver events. Today, ACE announced a GB£160 million emergency response package to support artists, freelancers and arts organizations during the crisis. Its national portfolio of organizations, which includes many major public galleries, will continue to be funded under ‘relaxed conditions’, despite not being able to deliver the agreed level of programming. Similar commitments have been made by Creative Scotland and Arts Council of Wales.

As the UK Government continues to drag its feet on the issue of compensation for the self-employed, there are increasingly loud calls for much more to be done to support freelancers. While employees will continue to receive 80 percent of their salary during the current lockdown, the UK’s 5 million self-employed workers are currently only entitled to receive Universal Credit, at a rate equivalent to statutory sick pay of GB£94.25 per week. Artists without gallery representation or a foothold in the art market are particularly vulnerable.

Peter Liversidge, ‘The Sign Paintings’, 2014, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Matt’s Gallery, London

Hand in hand with the issue of financial survival is the rush to stay afloat culturally and creatively – for closed doors to open up new opportunities to share artists’ work. Some are responding quicker than others. Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead has moved fast to turn its website into a digital space that reflects the different aspects of the programme at this multi-gallery venue. The recently opened Abel Rodriguez exhibition is extensively represented, from a full video of the show to text panels, an exhibition guide, close-up views of works and a 16-minute film. Other shows, including the current Judy Chicago survey, are similarly documented. There are also plans to create an online public programme of talks, study sessions and discussions.

Other major art spaces are responding by adapting their digital plans. A spokesperson for Hayward Gallery told frieze that the London venue is planning ‘curator-led, walk-through tours’ of its current ‘Among the Trees’ exhibition as well as interviews with artists in the show and ‘more in-depth looks at particular artworks’. The National Gallery says it is having to ‘modify existing content formats that we were thinking about and adapt them to the current situation’; it will continue to share films and other content about its exhibitions, even though they are closed to the public. Tate Modern has, so far, posted a specially filmed presentation of Faustin Linyekula’s My Body, My Archive (2020), which would have formed part of this year’s cancelled BMW Tate Live Exhibition programme, originally scheduled to take place 20–29 March. It was recorded without an audience in the gallery’s Tanks space. At LUX, the artists’ moving-image agency, there are plans to start a weekly online screening series with works from its collection, as well as online crit groups, discussion forums and a ‘weekly creative activity’ set by LUX artists. Director Benjamin Cook explains that a temporary online curator has been taken on ‘to develop an online native programme, thinking critically about the current rush towards the digital space’.

Abel Rodriguez, Terraza Firme III, 2019. Courtesy: the artist and Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead

Commercial galleries, too, are turning online to varying degrees. Sprueth Magers has announced on its website that ‘video chat exhibition tours’ are being offered; Hauser & Wirth has launched a new series of ‘online exhibitions, original videos and experiences’, which began with a live Martin Creed gig streamed on Instagram from the artist’s house; Lisson Gallery is hoping to host cancelled or postponed exhibitions through its website and ‘to explore different technologies to engage audiences anew’. At Edinburgh’s Ingleby Gallery, housed in a gorgeously converted category A listed former place of worship, the challenge of connecting with art audiences in the digital space is, says Richard Ingleby, ‘almost exclusively about content rather than being about alternative ways to attract sales’. Posts from artists’ studios, a new online-only exhibition for April, and the development of a ‘virtual gallery experience’ are all being planned.

One artist represented by the gallery, the poet Alec Finlay, has taken to his blog to launch a ‘Covid-19 Creative Tool-kit’ featuring suggestions on how to stay creative whilst self-isolating. The Turner Prize-winning artist Keith Tyson, meanwhile, has launched #isolationartschool on Instagram, aiming to act as an online hub for ‘projects, lessons and tips by artists to help people get creative while housebound’. Amidst all this uncertainty, hardship and panic buying, social distancing is also providing a platform for closer collaboration. With the near future looking so bleak, any silver lining is welcome.

Main image: Faustin Linyekula, My Body, My Archive, performance and installation, 2020. Courtesy: the artist and Tate

Chris Sharratt is a freelance writer and editor based in Glasgow. Follow him on Twitter: @chrissharratt