It has been a devastating year all around the world. And the art world has not been left unscathed by the coronavirus. But there is light at the end of the tunnel. As vaccines are rolled out, hopes that the pandemic will end this year are high. Museums are being used as vaccine centres as nations race to inoculate their citizens, and early data suggests that the jabs are having an effect. But the aftershocks will be tremendous. The pandemic has thrown into sharp relief existing inequalities that have led to women and people of colour being disproportionately affected by the virus in the art world as much as anywhere else. As we take stock of the global situation on the anniversary of the UK lockdown, we hope that the “new normal” will bring with it some valuable lessons, along with some radical and much needed changes.
A year after the coronavirus arrived on the shores of the US, first on the West Coast and then soon after on the East, nearly 30 million residents have at some point contracted the disease and more than 500,000 have died from it. A startling surge of new cases through the winter was finally contained in February, as the fast-tracked Pfizer and Moderna vaccines started to be administered to the elderly and at-risk communities, with some arts venues serving as vaccination sites. Museums and galleries in most parts of the country reopened last spring or summer, with limits on visitor numbers and social distancing mandates. California has been a notable exception, with its public institutions slowly beginning to reopen; commercial galleries have been operating by appointment.
Most Brazilian museums and galleries reopened in October after closing at the end of March as Covid-19 cases waned for a brief period. The president, Jair Bolsonaro, has urged businesses to remain open, and arts institutions are expected to do so despite a second wave that is currently killing more than 1,000 people a day. Brazil has been hit hard by the pandemic: its mortality figure is exceeded only by the US and India, with more than 295,000 deaths reported since the first case was recorded in São Paulo a year ago. While major events such as the SP Arte fair shifted online in 2020, in-person events are expected to return in 2021. Brazil’s vaccine supplies are limited, and the country has struggled with its rollout—only 5% of the population has received a first dose.
Most galleries in Nigeria remained open in 2020, albeit accessible only by appointment and under strict social distancing conditions. One, called Kó, even launched in September. But most other major art events were cancelled or, like Art X Lagos, moved online when Nigeria experienced a vicious second wave of the pandemic in December 2020. Galleries have been forced to adapt and innovate quickly, ramping up their online engagement. Artists are relying less on galleries to promote their work and are tapping into the current global racial reckoning that is seeing Western institutions becoming more inclusive of Black artists. Emerging Nigerian artists are popping up in more exhibitions abroad than ever before. The Nigerian government received its first batch of four million Astra Zeneca vaccines, and a little optimism is beginning to seep in.
The UK arts scene has faced a disastrous 12 months from Covid-19, with museums and commercial galleries closed for most of the time. The present lockdown in England was extended on 22 February, and if all goes well museums will be allowed to reopen on 17 May. Commercial galleries will be permitted to reopen on 12 April, again if the Covid-19 situation improves. Most live art fairs have been cancelled by organisers or gone online, including the Frieze London fairs which had been provisionally scheduled for 13-17 October 2020. There are different lockdown systems in force in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, although they are similar to those in England. Covid-19 has killed over 126,000 people in the UK since last March. New cases peaked in early January, but have declined substantially since then, thanks to the current lockdown and an ambitious vaccination programme (with 28 million people now having had the first jab).
A worrying spike in infections in France prompted a tightening of regional restrictions from 20 March, including a month-long partial lockdown of Paris. The country has been under curfew for months but, against the advice of the medical establishment, President Emmanuel Macron is fiercely resisting a third national lockdown. This has not helped cultural institutions, which have been closed since late October and are pushing hard to reopen. Though supermarkets and shops have reopened, museums remain shut. Museum directors and art editors have protested against what they describe as a government policy that considers culture a “non-essential” business. Like elsewhere in Europe, art fairs and events have been cancelled or delayed. Art and antique galleries have been forced to close again by the new restrictions, prompting frustration from dealers that auction houses may continue to operate with health precautions.
Italian museums have been forced to close for a third time as a new government order moved all the regions into the two highest risk categories, orange and red, until at least 6 April. However, the measures allow libraries and archives to maintain services by appointment in compliance with health regulations. In January, the government had permitted museums and archaeological sites to reopen on weekdays in regions classified as lower-risk yellow zones, including Pompeii and the Vatican Museums. A handful of Italian museums have offered their spaces to be transformed into vaccination centres, such as the Castello di Rivoli contemporary art centre outside Turin and the Museo Madre in Naples.
Switzerland is living proof that wealth alone is not enough to secure quick access to vaccines. The percentage of the population given a first shot is slightly lower even than the EU average and progress is slow. Since late February, the number of new cases of coronavirus infections has slowly risen. An initial cautious easing of the lockdown took effect on 1 March, but on 19 March, the government postponed a further loosening of the restrictions. Since 1 March, museums have been allowed to open—along with shops including art galleries, library reading rooms and outdoor spaces at sports facilities and zoos. Social distancing and capacity restriction measures are in place, and mask-wearing is obligatory.
The number of new infections in Germany began to rise again in late February and officials say the country is entering a third wave of the pandemic. Vaccination progress is slow due to hold-ups in manufacturing and deliveries to the EU. The government and states have today announced a complete lockdown for five days over Easter—only food shops are permitted to open—in an attempt to stop the accelerating spread of the disease. Since 8 March, museums have been permitted to open as long as the average number of new cases per day over the past seven days is below 100 per 100,000 residents. But some museums were forced to close almost immediately after reopening as new cases spiralled, and more are likely to do so in the coming days. Berlin’s Gallery Weekend is still scheduled to take place from 30 April to 2 May.
Russia’s Covid-19 cases declined dramatically in March, down to under 8,500 a day after reaching nearly 30,000 in December. President Vladimir Putin got his first jab of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine (the first anti-covid vaccine registered in the world) today and a top official said the country might achieve herd immunity by August. A day earlier Putin said that 4.3 million Russians (of 144 million) have been fully vaccinated. Following a mid-November to late-January lockdown in Moscow, things look startlingly normal in Russia’s capital. Restaurants and public transportation are packed, but culture numbers paint a more cautious picture. The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts told the official Tass news agency that it had a total of over 52,000 visitors in the first month of reopening (in masks, on timed tickets), 45% of the 112,600 total for that same period a year ago. Cosmoscow International Art Fair ran as scheduled in September 2020, albeit with five fewer international galleries and the addition of online viewing rooms. The Art Russia Fair, which launched in 2020 just before the virus hit Russia, is on track for 1 to 4 April, followed by the Russian Antique Salon on 21 to 25 April. Da!Moscow contemporary art fair will run 18-23 May.
India has faced one of the most devastating outbreaks with over 160,000 deaths, though officials suspect cases are grossly underreported. Following one of the world’s strictest lockdowns, art galleries in India opened back up on 2 September and museums have been open since 10 November, with standard protocols including sanitisation stations and temperature checks. Several physical events such as Mumbai Gallery Weekend in January have been able to take place, although those involving large crowds such as the India Art Fair in Delhi have been postponed until 2022. While the country is a leading producer of Covid-19 vaccines and is running the world’s largest inoculation drive, uptake is low. This is especially worrying in light of recent reports of a new surge in infections. Last week saw 260,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, mainly concentrated in the region around Mumbai, one of the worst weekly increases since the pandemic began.
United Arab Emirates
This year the UAE has been experiencing its biggest peak since the pandemic began, although in the past weeks the surging number of new cases has been slowly decreasing. The Arab country also has one of the world’s most advanced vaccination programmes. With more than 50% of its population now vaccinated, the country is second only to Israel in terms of immunisation (currently at around 75%). The UAE was the first country to approve China’s Sinopharm vaccine (despite experts’ warnings about a lack of data on its effectiveness and safety), which it started administering at the end of January. The country imposed a super-strict lockdown in March last year, almost completely closing its borders and shutting public spaces including museums. Restrictions were only loosened in late June, although the capital, Abu Dhabi, retained some restrictions for longer. Cultural institutions have stayed open since then but a surge in cases this year, which many blame on international tourists, has sparked fears there will be another national lockdown. Art Dubai has delayed its opening and moved venues. Despite many travel bans preventing international visitors from attending, the heavily reduced fair now plans to take place between 29 March and 3 April in a purpose-built venue at the Dubai International Financial Centre.
Life is almost back to normal in Wuhan, China, where Covid-19 was first detected. The city of 11 million people and much of the surrounding Hubei province underwent a tight 76-day lockdown in late January 2020, and its art museums, non-profit spaces and artist studios closed until summer. Since then, venues including the Hubei Museum of Art, the Wuhan Art Museum and the Union Art Museum have resumed operations. As well as complying with the same mask and health QR codes now required in most public places in China, museumgoers must preregister with verified identification. The government claims that Wuhan has had no local infections since last autumn. So far, 75 million vaccines have been administered in a country of 1.42 billion. This spring, widespread rollouts are planned of domestic vaccines by Sinopharm and Sinovax, which are also being exported to developing countries.
While group gatherings of more than five people were forbidden during the Lunar New Year holiday in South Korea in February this year, arts venues in the capital Seoul remained open albeit at reduced capacity. The city of 9.9 million people is coming off a December spike that peaked at 1,237 cases and 40 deaths a day, falling to between 289 and 621 daily infections, and three to 11 daily deaths, for the first two-thirds of February. Seoul’s marquee event, the Korea International Art Fair, went online for 2020, and the situation for its next edition in October remains uncertain, although the city’s Galleries Art Fair is due to proceed on schedule, from 3 to 7 March. Mandated masks and preregistration are likely to continue.
Museums and galleries around Australia are open, although many are offering timed ticket entry to prevent over-crowding. Social distancing rules are being enforced. Interstate travel is being regulated by various different permit and registration systems, depending on the jurisdiction, and cross-border travellers must check travel alerts before acting on their travel plans. Many isolated or remote Indigenous communities are uncomfortable about tourists visiting them during the pandemic. Government health websites urge people not to attempt to visit one of these communities without checking its Community Action Plan. Melbourne has gone in and out of lockdown this year as clusters have flared and subsided. The National Gallery of Victoria and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image were among those galleries closed during the lockdown. These institutions have now reopened.
Melbourne Art Fair, originally scheduled for February 4-7 2021, was cancelled and will now be held from February 17-20, 2022. In Sydney, Art Month Sydney and The Other Art Fair both went ahead in March 2021 as planned. Voluntary, universal and free vaccines started being rolled out to the Australian population in March 2021. Official figures show the coronavirus has killed 909 people in Australia (820 of them in Victoria). As of March 23, 2021, Australia had 145 active cases (estimated).
• This is an updated version of an article that appeared in the March 2021 issue of The Art Newspaper