Frieze Editors Discuss What the Art World Has Learned in 2020

COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter were two of the major events that signalled the changes that may – and in many cases must – come next year

BY Andrew Durbin, Amy Sherlock, Evan Moffitt, Pablo Larios AND Terence Trouillot in Opinion | 14 DEC 20

Andrew Durbin Let’s start broadly. Has COVID-19 changed the art world forever or just temporarily?

Pablo Larios I see three areas in which COVID-19 has accelerated permanent changes that were already underway in the art world: digitization, relocalization and funding. We’ve become much more comfortable looking at (and reviewing) exhibitions online yet there’s a renewed sense of local attention, too: intuitively, it suddenly matters more what’s going on in your own neighbourhood than an art event opening across the world you won’t see anyway. 

Solomon O.B speaking to a crowd from the pedestal that once hosted the statue of Edward Colston, Bristol, 2020. Courtesy: Getty Images; photograph: Giulia Spadafora/NurPhoto
Solomon O.B speaking to a crowd from the pedestal that once hosted the statue of Edward Colston, Bristol, 2020. Courtesy: Getty Images; photograph: Giulia Spadafora/NurPhoto

Evan Moffitt I would agree with you, Pablo: COVID-19 has mostly accelerated trends that have been ongoing in the art world for the past few years. I also expect to see a fair amount of consolidation amongst mid-sized and blue-chip galleries: the big will keep getting bigger, and the small will bottom out.

AD I’m glum about many of the changes the pandemic has accelerated. I keep thinking back to Kyle Chayka’s piece ‘Can the Art World Kick its Addiction to Flying?’, from this year’s January/February issue, where he writes that the ‘small, scattered art world is kept united by flights and human relationships built on both planned and chance physical encounters’, which he then notes is an ecological disaster. An idealized vision of the post-pandemic, one I admittedly shared in the early days of London’s lockdown, might have been to radically address the art world’s faltering institutions – and lethal addictions. Now, with the vaccine rolling out, I worry that the pandemic only reveals how difficult it is for ‘our’ way of life to adapt without breaking. Things don’t improve under such extreme stressors; they often tend to stop working.

Philip Guston, Riding Around, 1969
Philip Guston, Riding Around, 1969, oil on canvas, 137.2 x 200.7 cm. Courtesy: © The Estate of Philip Guston and Hauser & Wirth.

Amy Sherlock I think the lasting changes from 2020 are less likely to be those that are direct consequences of the pandemic, such as air travel, and more likely to be those that have responded to Black Lives Matter [BLM] and the renewed focus on ongoing racial justice campaigns that we’ve seen in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd and others in the US. It’s interesting to look back at the March 2020 issue, which had a focus on institutional ethics and accountability. It opened with a column by Laura Raicovich, former director of the Queens Museum in New York, about the need for art institutions to confront the histories and hierarchies embedded within them. Scrutiny of those issues and demands for change have only intensified over the course of the year and they’re not going away. I do think that museums and other arts organizations are on a path to structural change – in relation to what works are in their collections, who comprises their staff, the way they engage with different audiences and, fundamentally, the stories they are telling. I’m not saying the process isn’t slow, but it’s happening.

Terence Trouillot I have to say, I’m a little less optimistic about whether these good changes will actually stick. I do agree that COVID-19 has only really accelerated pre-existing trends and, to Amy’s point, there is this extreme focus now on issues around racial justice. But I will say that, as things have slowly reopened in New York, there is a sense that the art world wants to return to its old ways. If we look at the slew of online shows that have surfaced throughout the pandemic – exhibitions that have clung hard to a sense of fidelity for the art-gallery experience – with a few exceptions, they haven’t been all that interesting. I’m wary that things will continue in the same direction.

American Artist, Looted, 2020, for the ‘Sunrise/Sunset’ series on artport, screenshot. Courtesy: the artist and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
American Artist, Looted, 2020, for the ‘Sunrise/Sunset’ series on artport, screenshot. Courtesy: the artist and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

EM I agree, Terence. Even the institutions that had ‘strong’ responses to BLM were fundamentally performative: they staged exhibitions about racial justice or put out messages on social media. How many decided to make top-level hires or change their boards? How many decided to invest their endowments in social-impact funds? The economic recession we can reasonably expect to follow this pandemic will likely make it even harder for cash-strapped institutions to reform their plutocratic structures. Notably, one of this autumn’s biggest controversies – which erupted when, in order to avoid being criticized for racial insensitivity, four museums decided to delay a Philip Guston retrospective organized without input from people of colour – elapsed without those museums ever explicitly committing to hire Black curators. That is performative wokeness at its worst.

AD Artists, art workers and activists did the important work many of our institutions were incapable of doing themselves. Earlier this year, Ana Tuazon surveyed the younger artists of colour who have abandoned decrepit distribution models in order to reimagine how art circulates and how artists are funded. She writes that these artists want ‘to lead a revolution of ideas through relationships, not objects’. To your point, Amy, I’m doubtful about the ability of institutions to improve; many seem on the point of breaking because, fundamentally, they emerged under conditions that inhibit the accountability art communities are now demanding of them. But, if anything, 2020 has restored my faith in the changes made possible by collective action.

Jana Euler, Radieuse, 2016, installation view, Musée Grobet-Labadié, Marseille, 2020. Courtessy: the artist and Manifesta 13; photograph: Jeanchristophe Lett
Jana Euler, Radieuse, 2016, installation view, Musée Grobet-Labadié, Marseille, 2020. Courtessy: the artist and Manifesta 13; photograph: Jeanchristophe Lett

EM Do we think that digital projects – online education, exhibitions, etc. – are a way forward for artist/activists to offer new alternatives to these older models? It’s hard to start an institution without significant funds, and literally impossible to do so IRL right now. But I find it difficult to endorse the internet as a utopian space these days, when accessing a broad public means employing social-media platforms and video-conferencing tools that are controlled by exploitative corporations and the state.

TT I am very hopeful that digital projects will have a tremendous impact on how we engage with art moving forward: they have also been crucial to our social experience during this period. American Artist’s Looted (2020) – in which all the images of artworks on the Whitney Museum’s website were temporarily replaced with pictures of plywood as a comment on both the BLM protests and the historical colonialist appropriation of cultural artefacts by Western museums – serves as a successful example of this. There’s also Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley’s incredible Black Trans Archive. I feel as though we are still only scratching at the surface when it comes to the potential of these digital projects, but they have already raised issues not only around race, but also around accessibility.

Azikiwe Mohammed Approximate Weight Of My Hair From Birth To Age 35, 2020 bronze and kitchen scale, 29.2 x 17.8 x 11.4 cm. Courtesy: the artist and David Kordansky, Los Angeles
Azikiwe Mohammed, Approximate Weight Of My Hair From Birth To Age 35, 2020 bronze and kitchen scale, 29.2 x 17.8 x 11.4 cm. Courtesy: the artist and David Kordansky, Los Angeles 

AS One thing I will take away from this period is a renewed understanding of art as a collective experience. By that, I’m not just referring to ‘socially engaged’ art. I mean that, in a certain sense, art exists as a shared interpretation – or offers that possibility, at least. I’ve found it hard to engage with art at a digital remove. For me, art attains a certain level of reality when I am able to discuss it with people. Whether we agree or disagree, the way we communicate an artwork – be that in conceptual, formal or affective terms – gives it meaning; and that exchange of ideas often happens in an immediate and casual way. Finding the settings in which to do that has been difficult through the pandemic and extended periods of lockdown and, I have to say, I really miss it.

PL I agree: biennials and art fairs tend to get a lot of flak but, after days of concentrated viewing and discussion, explaining to others why something impacted you (or didn’t) and hearing their responses is an irreplaceable condition of shared experience. Art is larger than the sum of its parts. I’m thinking of the many exhibitions we didn’t get to see this year: biennales like Manifesta, for instance, as well as countless museum and commercial gallery shows that remain unseen in situ. Yet, perhaps somewhat controversially, I would argue that large numbers of artists, editors, gallerists and curators had been suffering from a sense of fatigue and over-exposure. Without wishing to downplay the tragedy of this year, the chance to regroup and re-focus has, for many, actually been quite positive.

Nicole Eisenman, Close to the Edge, 2015, oil on canvas, 2 × 1.7 m. Courtesy: © Nicole Eisenman and Anton Kern Gallery, New York
Nicole Eisenman, Close to the Edge, 2015, oil on canvas, 2 × 1.7 m. Courtesy: © Nicole Eisenman and Anton Kern Gallery, New York

AD We’ve had to contend with a shifting calendar full of delays and cancellations. I think we’d be remiss not to discuss the effect this has had on how we make the magazine. 

EM The print edition of frieze is put together in London, but I’m based in New York, so most of my work has always been done remotely. Lockdown forced us to further improve the systems by which we did that – for which I’m grateful – but it also made us examine and redefine editorial relevancy. Rather than focus our coverage on key events or large institutional shows, we’ve had the opportunity to feature artists whose work speaks to this current moment on many levels.

I also want to second Pablo’s point about the importance of slowing down. The fast-paced global jet-set that Chayka wrote about will probably never return to the way it was, because there won’t be a market to support it – and that will be a win for environmental sustainability. But slowing down has also meant, at least for me, that I’ve been able to take my time and really look closely at art – when I’ve had the privilege to see it in person – and remember why I fell in love with it in the first place.

Protests in Poland, 2020. Courtesy: Archive of Public Protests; photograph: Rafał Milach
Protests in Poland, 2020. Courtesy: Archive of Public Protests; photograph: Rafał Milach

TT I have to say, as someone who has felt overwhelmed by the art world at times, the pandemic has eviscerated that problem for me. Partly, this has been due to the fact that things have slowed down, but more importantly because there seems to be a more concerted to fostering community during these trying times. And what I mean by this, is that in this moment I’ve met with more support and connection from my friends and colleagues (fellow writers and artists especially) than I have in quite some time. It  has become a lifeline. I haven’t been working at frieze for long but, even in that short time, I’ve felt a sense of community that I honestly don’t think I’ve experienced before in the art world. 

EM I wonder if we will look back on this period as having been good for art writing, which can involve a lot of solitary reflection? When galleries and museums were closed over the summer in many parts of the world, we commissioned a series of essays for our September issue, inspired by Italo Calvino’s ‘Six Memos for the Next Millennium’ [1985–86], which reflected on art in interesting ways.

SHAWNÉ MICHAELAIN HOLLOWAY, mirror-mirror_ (newGen_TechEdit) blackbitch1.png , 2015, PNG. Courtesy: the artist.
frieze no. 213 – September, 2020 featuring Shawné Michaelain Holloway, mirror-mirror_(newGen_TechEdit)blackbitch1.png, 2015, PNG. Courtesy: the artist

AD A writer friend of mine told me that lockdown gave her almost insurmountable writer’s block, unlike anything she’s ever experienced in her life. Normally, she would spend all day writing in her office; then, at night, she would see friends for drinks and dinner. The intimate relationship between those two parts of her day, how necessary they were to one another, had never struck her as acutely as it did in lockdown. That was true for me, too. My brain felt useless in terms of writing criticism during this past year.

EM I agree in terms of criticism, which always benefits from robust public debate. But I do hope that the confluence of multiple crises affecting society at large – political, cultural, epidemiological – has forced the more insular parts of this industry to recognize that there's more to the world than just the art world. I hope that realization can seep into criticism for a long time to come and can force us to contend, in a much more serious way, with structural inequities. Much will depend on whether the institutions best equipped to support critical work – magazines, museums – rush a return to ‘normal’ or take this opportunity to foreground public interest.

Tate Strike, 2020. Courtesy: Tate United
Tate Strike, 2020. Courtesy: Tate United

AS To make a very obvious point, the crises of this year have shown us many times over how fractured and inequitable the ‘art world’ is – to say nothing of the world at large. I’ve been reminded time and again of how dependent the entire ecosystem is on precarious labour – from casualized university and gallery staff to artists themselves, many of whom have seen their sources of income evaporate during lockdown. When I think about the news that has dominated the UK arts scene, it’s been the six-week strike at Tate about the proposal to lay off more than 300 staff from their commercial arm – the most diverse part of the organization, which includes some of its lowest-paid employees. [The strike ended in October, when Tate reached an agreement with the Public and Commercial Services Union.] Or the decision to cut nearly two thirds of the employees at London’s Southbank Centre, which is in dire financial straits in part because its commercial tenants – including big restaurant chains like Wahaca, Wagamama and Yo! Sushi – refused to pay their rent for months.

EM In the UK, the existence of government funding for the arts means that the public can pressure their representatives to preserve or increase something that already exists. To some extent, however small, this thinking has been ingrained in the political culture. In the US, 80 percent of museums have said they won’t survive another year, and the government isn’t doing anything to support businesses, institutions or individuals. Given his safe, centrist picks for cabinet posts, president elect Joe Biden isn’t likely to expend political capital to put artists on the government payroll, in the vein of the 1930s Works Progress Administration. At the same time, I wonder whether a crisis of this magnitude is the only thing that can alter the way we think about cultural funding structures. Will the prevailing sense of economic desperation force the art world to fall back on old habits, or will it drive society to demand dramatic changes in the way the arts are supported? How much must we lose for those demands to finally be met?

Main image: Offices and shops around the Black Lives Matter Plaza are boarded up in anticipation of protests on election night on November 3, 2020 in Washington, DC. Courtesy: Getty Image; photograph: Eze Amos

Andrew Durbin is the editor-in-chief of frieze. His book The Wonderful World That Almost Was is forthcoming from FSG in 2025.

Amy Sherlock is a writer and editor based in London, UK.

Evan Moffitt is a writer, editor and critic based in New York, USA. 

Pablo Larios is an editor and writer. He lives in Berlin, Germany.

Terence Trouillot is senior editor of frieze. He lives in New York, USA.