Museums plan for a busy year despite Covid-19 uncertainty

6 January 2022

Surreal times: masked visitors at the UCCA Center for Contemporary Art’s Maurizio Cattelan exhibition in Beijing last November Photo: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Written by Lee Cheshire, published originally by The Art Newspaper, 1 January 2022.

As the Covid-19 pandemic enters its third year, the only certainty is that nothing is certain. But the museum directors and head curators we spoke to about the year ahead are confident in their ability to adapt to whatever the year throws at them.

“It’s a question of pricing in some uncertainty to your planning,” says Philip Tinari, the director of the three UCCA Center for Contemporary Art venues in China. Dealing with rises in cases, such as the one that caused UCCA Dune, its seaside outpost 250km from Beijing, to close for a month in August last year, has become a vital part of an exhibition organiser’s job. “We need to anticipate that there may be situations like that in 2022—but not to let that stop us planning and executing an increasingly ambitious programme.”

Lara Strongman, the director of curatorial and digital at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Australia in Sydney, agrees. “Uncertainty is marking everything we’re doing at the moment,” she says. “Will we be able to secure the loans? Will we be able to sort freight out to Australia? Will an artist be able to travel internationally to come to their show—or even inter-state within Australia? I’ve been describing it as Schrödinger’s exhibition programme, where things are both happening and not happening at once.”

“[It’s] Schrödinger’s exhibition programme, where things are both happening and not happening at once”Lara Strongman, MCA Australia

Everyone in the sector has got used to playing what Strongman jokingly calls “five-dimensional chess”. A change in exhibition schedule in one museum can cause rippling effects across the world, as touring shows are shunted, works of art are in the wrong place and people are unable to travel. Despite this, most of the institutions contacted by The Art Newspaper were able to announce the exhibitions they have planned for 2022. Programmes are as full as ever—in some cases fuller, as postponed shows are squeezed into schedules.

There also does not seem to be a reduction in the scale of exhibitions, despite doubts about whether the viability of expensive blockbusters, with correspondingly high visitor targets, would survive in a post-Covid world.

London alone will see big shows of Vincent van Gogh (at the recently reopened Courtauld Gallery, 3 February-8 May), Raphael (National Gallery, 9 April-31 July) and Paul Cézanne (Tate Modern, 6 October-12 March 2023). Other likely blockbusters include Donatello in Florence and Berlin, and shows on Versailles at the Louvre Abu Dhabi and Pompeii at the Tokyo National Museum.

In a world where visitor numbers have been depressed, it seems the audience-grabbing blockbuster is more vital than ever. UCCA opens the year with a big Matisse show, and Tinari says such projects are an important piece of the puzzle for the institution. “Not only revenue-wise, but in terms of generating the visibility that we need to execute the entire programme. These become moments we can hang the entire project of the institution upon, that allow us to reach new audiences.”

Alex Nyerges, the director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) in Richmond, Virginia, is even more bullish. “We are not getting out of the blockbuster business,” he says. “One of the advantages of being a director for 40 years now is that I’ve gone through at least two or three waves where the prognosis has been: ‘the blockbuster is dead’. That’s not ever going to happen.”

However, Nyerges stresses that programming blockbusters does not stop museums giving a platform to new artists. “We can redefine what a blockbuster is. It doesn’t have to be Monet, it doesn’t have to be Ansel Adams.” The VMFA’s 2021 exhibition The Dirty South, about the influence of Black art and music in the American South, had 30% more visitors than expected, and is opening at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, in the spring (12 March-25 July). “It’s going to bring in many, many new visitors, people who have never come to the art museum. And why? It’s about putting Black art on a pedestal, showcasing it, lauding it for what has always been there but mainstream art museums have ignored,” Nyerges says.

Getting visitors back

All this means that the VMFA is now getting back to its pre-pandemic visitor numbers, Nyerges says, “plus the new digital audience, which is unreal.” Like many other museums, the VMFA ramped up its digital output during the initial lockdowns, but is now trying to find ways to incorporate this more holistically into its programme, finding areas where it can live alongside the physical experience rather than simply providing a digital facsimile of the in-person visit. Streaming the museum’s sold-out in-person talks has been an early success, allowing for much larger audiences.

In museums elsewhere, visitor numbers are edging up, but are sensitive to local and national lockdowns. International visitors have decreased almost everywhere, creating challenges for institutions that relied heavily on them. MCA Australia’s Strongman is optimistic about summer in Sydney though. “People were enormously keen to get back in [to the museum, after the lockdown ending in October] and we’re experiencing visitor growth day-on-day at the moment.”

Visitors are also back at Pirelli HangarBicocca in Milan—one of the first areas to feel the brunt of the pandemic—which in 2022 will have shows on Anicka Yi (17 February-24 July), Steve McQueen (31 March-31 July) and Bruce Nauman (15 September-26 February 2023), among others. After the initial lockdowns “people were hungry for culture”, says the museum’s artistic director, Vicente Todolí. The institution is entirely funded by the multinational tyre manufacturer Pirelli, which means Todolí can be fairly sanguine about reduced visitor numbers. But as a former director of public institutions, including Tate Modern in London, Todolí issues a word of warning. “The [museums] that were more dependent on entrance tickets… they are in trouble. They will have to be rescued, otherwise I can’t see how they will survive.”

But Covid-19 is not the only factor driving visitor numbers in the long term, Tinari says. “We are in moment right now in China where there is an increasing appetite for contemporary art and culture.” UCCA has recently opened a new branch in Shanghai, called UCCA Edge, which this year will feature shows on Thomas Demand (2 April-19 June), Henri Matisse (16 July-16 October) and a group show of young Chinese artists (12 November-12 February 2023).

Strongman sums up the situation. “It takes something like [the pandemic] to show how important art museums are as places to think differently about the future. Places to re-engage with things that are critically important in life. And places to reconnect with people and culture after this period of privation we’ve all experienced during lockdown.”