Exhibitions in Times of Covid

Posted: September 15th 2020

by Maria de Peverelli, Curator and Collections Manager

In the past few months, I have been asked many times which aspects of my work as curator, collection manager and art advisor, has been most impacted by COVID-19.

The answer has always been the same: exhibitions.

It has been nearly six months since the first museums in China started closing their doors due to COVID-19. Closures have spread worldwide since as the virus swept the globe.

Curators, exhibition organisers and museum directors have had to remain flexible and be prepared to act, in particular when exhibition planning involved partner institutions and inter-museum lending.

Museum exhibitions normally take an exceptional amount of planning which goes from the curatorial concept, to contacting the lenders, filling out loan agreements, getting insurance coverage, shipping, unpacking and checking, hanging, displaying and interpreting the art works.

Since March, museums had to think not only about the security of their staff and their collections but also about dozens of works of art borrowed from institutions and private collections around the world.

After the first month, when it became clear that COVID was not going to go away quickly, it was all about figuring out different scenarios: never be able to re-open an exhibition that had just been launched, extend its terms, cancel a planned one, revise the concept and, above all, define the financial and practical implications of any of these options.

Whatever new arrangement, very delicate negotiations with the lenders had to follow.

Holkham Hall has been no exception. As a lender to small and large exhibitions, locally and abroad, it has faced loans being cancelled (The Ramsey Psalter was supposed to be part of an exhibition at the Chatteris museum), exhibitions postponed or extended (the exhibition Feast & Fast: The Art of Food in Europe (1500-1800) at the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge, which was supposed to end on April 26, was extended until the end of August), works having to be returned to the UK within a very specific window of time because of travel restrictions in the country of departure (The Origin of Coral by Claude Lorrain which was on tour in Japan since October 2019), works “stuck” in different parts of the world that could not come back.

Ramsey Psalter (Chatteris Museum): exhibition postponed to 2021
Ramsey Psalter (Chatteris Museum): exhibition postponed to 2021

Noble Cookery Book MS674 (Fitzwilliam)
Noble Cookery Book MS674 (Fitzwilliam)

Claude Lorain, The origin of coral (Japan Tour)
Claude Lorain, The origin of coral (Japan Tour)

The concerns, shared by every other lender in the world, were mainly about the physical safety of the artworks but also about the terms of the loan agreements and the insurance coverage which had to be extended or updated. The amount of work involved, both on the side of the borrower and the lender, has been unprecedented, as every single loan had basically to be re-negotiated.

If there is any kind of silver lining in this situation, it has been one of solidarity and helping each other in finding common ways to overcome and approach similar issues so as to satisfy both the lenders and the borrowers’ concerns and responsibilities.

Making sure, for instance, that all loans were kept in darkened, climate-controlled galleries throughout the shutdown; that the borrower’s conservators regularly checked the situation; that all lenders to an exhibition agreed to the extension of a show to allow the borrower to recuperate, at least in part, the investment made in the project; that the risks involved in couriering kept into consideration the different travel restrictions of countries and museums around the world to protect the health and safety of their staff.

Virtual couriering, through Microsoft Teams, has, for instance, been used by museums around the world and it is well possible that it will become the norm for the future, thus considerably reducing organisational costs.

The system has been used both for the Origin of Coral by Claude Lorrain exhibited in Osaka and the Noble Cookery Book exhibited in Cambridge (see Laura Nuvoloni’s blog of 12 August 2020). In both cases, the Lender’s couriers were invited to supervise the de-installation of their loans through a virtual meeting at a scheduled time and could discuss, step by step, with the local conservators and art handlers, the condition check and packing of the object in question.

Both works are now safely back at Holkham.

The Origin of Coral is going back up in the Landscape Room at Holkham
The Origin of Coral is going back up in the Landscape Room at Holkham

On a more positive note, exhibitions are still being organised and opened in various countries, a sign of hope for the future of public art institutions.

Holkham is again lending to one of such exhibitions.

Two paintings by Claude Lorrain, Landscape with Argos guarding Io and Landscape with Erminia and the Shepherds, usually hanging in the Landscape Room, will be shown in the exhibition Arcadia. A Paradise Lost, opening in Stockholm at the end of September, together with works from the National Gallery in London and the Louvre in Paris.

The excitement of the borrowers was such, when they were informed that the loan had been accepted, that they decided to use the images of both paintings in all their promotional material. One cannot but wish them success with the exhibition!

Claude Lorrain, Landscape with Argos guarding Io
Claude Lorrain, Landscape with Argos guarding Io
Landscape with Erminia and the Shepherds (Stockholm)
Landscape with Erminia and the Shepherds (Stockholm)

The paintings being safely installed in Stockholm's National Museum
The paintings being safely installed in Stockholm’s National Museum

So, what might be the future of exhibitions?

This current pandemic offers an opportunity to rethink how to continue to serve audiences along with generating revenue.

While audiences often have strong ties to the collections of their local museums, most visitors seek out new experiences and ideas stemming from special exhibitions. With international and even domestic travel limitations, museum audiences are likely to become hyperlocal with increased appetites for engaging, dynamic experiences in their backyards.

Moving forward, museums might start thinking of creating “must-see” exhibitions, with a very strong focus on their own collections.

While still focused on generating revenue, this approach will shift the emphasis from attendance numbers to visitors’ needs and interests.

As major international loan exhibitions are being cancelled, especially those with multiple lenders, high insurance costs, and complex shipping and logistical concerns, keys to future success may include single-lender collection presentations, incoming traveling exhibitions, thought-provoking collection activations, but also sharing objects kept in storage, create partnerships with other institutions, contemporary artist projects and last but not least increase the sharing, also online, of their permanent collections. These approaches will minimise the overall costs and perhaps, most importantly, they will contribute to reducing the carbon-footprint of exhibitions (a concept that is very much in line with Holkham’s general concerns about conservation of natural resources and wildlife).

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