As much as we want to swiftly move on from 2020 and never look back, art historians will undoubtedly be studying it for years to come. And when they do, they will likely have to debate which art moment was more significant: the day all museums and galleries went dark ahead of the first lockdown, or the afternoon in June when protesters toppled, defaced and pushed slave trader Edward Colston’s statue into Bristol’s harbour.
The pandemic has left most, if not all, institutions in a state of emergency. The impact was immediately registered at the world’s largest museums, with 80 percent footfall declining almost overnight. Even with partial reopening in the coming months, costs will outweigh revenues and with most museums lacking a financial safety net, many will simply never recover.
The consequences have been quick to emerge: the loss of thousands of jobs, cancellation of major shows and swift deaccessioning of historic works. International blockbuster exhibitions, like Artemisia Gentileschi at the National Gallery in London, which are prohibitively costly, were either delayed, cancelled, or underwhelming in the audience they managed to attract. While we may mourn the likely reduction in museum activity next year, let’s take a moment to remember the best art moments of 2020, particularly the ones that will leave a lasting impact moving forward.
The public toppling of the statue to the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, UK, amid the Black Lives Matter protests, was high among the year’s most potent images. This inspired people around the world to take further action and protest everything from public statues to colonial artefacts in Western museums as well as galleries’ abuses of power to unethical sponsorships. Despite the pandemic, activists organised, protested and began to effect change.
With 2020 being a year when most artists’ uncertain careers became starkly evident, institutions and makers were quick to reach out in support. Most emblematically, #artistsupportpledge used social media to create a culture of community support and ended up netting its founder, the artist Matthew Burrows, an MBE.
As museums are likely to move away from expensive blockbuster loan exhibitions, most are doubling down on their permanent holdings. During the pandemic, endless resources were invested into telling their stories online, while the drama around deaccessioning works of major museum collections sparked passionate debate and underlined the deep connections between works and their publics.
Germany’s cultural policy
Despite the criticism that the German government faced when they decided to close museums in the second lockdown, the country’s federal and state governments responded far better than other European countries to the arts’ potential devastation. German culture minister Monika Grütters provided generous, dignified and swift support funds.
From new digital commissions through to virtual museums, extended reality apps and online viewing rooms, the art world has vastly accelerated its digital adoption. And while much of the outcomes remain to be seen, huge investments mean it is unlikely to lose momentum. New digital art centres—teamLab, Culturespaces, PaceX—are also leading the trend.