Friday 27 March 2020

A Cynical Take on the Artworld's Response to the COVID-19 Outbreak

At the time of writing we are a few weeks into the regulations that many governments have issued to contain the outbreak of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes the COVID-19 disease. Essentially all countries in Europe have imposed some limitations on public life, ranging from to situations where all people are mandated to stay in their homes to situations where life is allowed to continue 'as normal', but where gatherings of more than two or three people are forbidden and physical distance is to be maintained in public.

Normally I tend not to comment on any current events, as they rarely allow you to take in all the information and make a sound and balanced assesment. That being said, I have noticed some peculairities in the specific reactions that many art spaces have had in response to this outbreak. I don't wish to question anybody's personal motivations or integrity, I merely would like to provide a plausible explanation for some of the facts.

On March 12th, 2020, the Dutch government issued the first set of measures to curb the spread of the disease. Amongst these was the prohibition of any gathering of more than a 100 people. In their explanation they explicitly mentioned museums as one of the places that would thus have to close their doors. I have my reservations about this, as I can think of only a few museums where I would be in one room with a hundred people. Nevertheless, I can understand the need for clarity and it makes sense to say that all museums should close, especially since many of them are heavily subsidised or otherwise rely on some kind of sponsorship that isn't directly related to their visitor numbers.
Closing museums in this situation thus makes sense both medically and financially.

So far so good, but then something happened that I was quite surprised about.
On the same day that the museums were ordered to close, again on the premise that they will generate crowds of more than a hundred people, I received many, many, notices from non-profit art spaces and some commercial galeries that they too had decided closed their doors.
Now I believe many of my readers are regular visitors to exhibitions and therefore can attest to the simple fact that very often when you visit an exhibition you will find yourself alone in an empty room. This even being the case in the larger non-profit spaces or galleries. It should go without saying that you can't spread any diseases when you are alone, in fact that's almost the definition of a quarantaine. Even now, when measures in the Netherlands limit the size of groups to three people and stipulate 1.5-2 metres of distance between them, it seems like it would be easy to maintain the regulations in most of these spaces.
It therefore is unintuitive to me that these spaces would close their doors for the sake of everybody's safety and health, like all of them asserted.

In fact it stumped me a little bit, until I realised that all of them acted not in accordance with rational, objective judgement about health and safety, but they acted in their own best interests, primarily from a financial perspective.
Most non-profit spaces for example have a set amount of funding for a certain amount of time. They tend to receive these funds upfront and so they have a fixed amount of money to spend. No money, or a neglible amount of money, is coming in during any period and the only variable in their financial situation is thus the amount of expenses. Besides rent, the biggest expensive for many spaces is their staff. Again, I can't speak for everybody, but in my experience this staff often has little security. Many of them work as independent contractors on specific projects. If such a non-profit space thus closes their doors, they don't have to pay these people, which in the end allows them to have more money left over from their fixed budgets. For a space like this it thus makes sense financially to remain closed, at least for a short period, even if the health benefit is insubstantial at best.
A friend of mine runs a small theater and he confirmed this when he told me that he was now in the strange situation where they have more money to spend being closed than being open.

Some of the smaller non-profit spaces have had bigger decisions to make. Their funding is often smaller, more limited in scope and with continuation in the future less secure. They thus have to make a bigger decision about whether or not to stay open, as their decisions today can influence their ability to survive in the future. As a result, I've seen that the response of these spaces was somewhat delayed, with their announcements coming a few days after the some of the bigger spaces, not uncommonly with a longer explanation of their motivations and plans for the near future.
It's worth noting that one of these spaces decided to close their doors to the public, while at the same time announcing that they would allow artists who would want to work in 'isolation' to stay at their guest home for a month. If there is a single thing one shouldn't do to prevent a disease from spreading, then it's introducing people into a new environment for a few weeks. Even if this artist is only given the keys to their accomodation and there is no other interaction with the staff of the space that invited them, they still need food and other commodities that they will have to get into contact with local people for. These are all people they would otherwise not have come into contact with. With an incubation time of up to two weeks, their stay of a month is also perfect for maximising the possibility of exposure. If the person was infected before leaving, but not showing symptoms yet, then that's the perfect opportunity to transfer the disease to a new area as they will remain there for the expected course of the disease. Likewise, if the person gets infected by coming into contact with someone they otherwise wouldn't have come into contact with, then they are in the perfect position to travel back to their usual environment before even knowing they got infected and introduce the infection there. Closing your doors for the handful of visitors you get a week but simultaneously inviting people in a situation with the greatest amount of impact for spreading a disease does not make any logical sense.

For commercial galleries it is more difficult to see why they would close their doors, as they rely on a public for their income and any visitor is a potential customer.
Many galeries have thus opted to allow visitors to some degree. Some of them have kept their regular opening hours, while forgoing openings and other such public events. In most cases, this seems to me the most lucid solution, as visitor numbers tend to be low in such art spaces and as long as there is no talking between visitors and the person sitting at the desk, risk of infection is virtually zero.

A bigger number of galeries have opted to only be open by appointment. This might seem like a good idea, as it offers strict control over the number of people who enter the space, but upon some more reflection it becomes clear that while the number of people one comes into contact with is possibily lower, the nature of the contact is much more close and it's that proximity that poses the risk of infection.
However, the financial benefits of being open by appointment are two-fold. First there is the fact that you no longer have to make sure there is somebody at the gallery during regular opening hours. This either opens up time for yourself to pursue other things or saves you money as a gallery assistant can stay at home. The other benefit is that you remain available to your most loyal customers. If there is somebody who was planning to buy a work, they are more inclined to ask to see the exhibition than a regular visitor who just wanted to see the show. So also in this case the potential income as a gallery stays roughly the same, while their costs might go down.

A keen reader remembers that I mentioned that some galeries did immediately close when the museums were forced to and I owe an explanation for them as well.
From all but one of the galeries that closed by their own decision, I have received an invitation to their online viewing room of Art Basel Hong Kong. Why these bunch of pictures on a computer screen are still linked to artificial exclusivity in the form of 'preview days' is beyond me, as well as why it's not called Art Basel Server in Belgrado, but it does make clear why they are not worried about losing visitors. Many of their potential customers don't visit their gallery anyway, they either buy at fairs, through an intermediary or based on what they see on the website. If you have an international reach like they have, making actual exhibitions and opening them to the public is in many ways a symbolic custom.
The only gallery that closed and wasn't included in such an 'exclusive on-line event' was one where I know the gallerist to be the co-founder of a data-processing firm. To him the gallery thus is probably not the only substantial source of income and spending some time in other persuits might even be more profitable.

So those are my views on the way many of the art spaces have responded to the recent outbreak of COVID-19. Again, I don't wish to badmouth the decisions of any individual, as this is an unprecedented situation that none of us have a perfect or proven solution for. Nevertheless, I do wish to point out that many perceived good intentions are just as easily explained by self-intersted financial motivations and that those spaces who do stay open aren't necessarily throwing caution into the wind, but could even provide some welcome relief in otherwise stressful times and thereby having a greater health benefit than if they would close completely.