The British prime minister Boris Johnson’s roadmap to easing lockdown, first delivered in a pre-recorded television broadcast on Sunday and followed up with a more detailed dossier on Monday, has been met with confusion by many in the art trade who simply want to know: when can we reopen?
The Art Newspaper can now report that date could be as early as 1 June after trade associations announced this morning the government has agreed to recognise galleries and auction houses as “non-essential retail”, and part of phase two of the easing of lockdown, beginning 1 June (subject to infection rates falling).
Johnson’s 60-page dossier—titled Our Plan to Rebuild—contains no specific reference to galleries or auction houses. But art trade associations including Lapada, the Society for London Art Dealers (Slad) and The British Art Market Federation (BAMF) have been lobbying the government to establish clear guidelines for a safe return to work.
Following a call with the department for digital, culture, media and sport (DCMS) this morning, Freya Simms, the chief executive of Lapada, clarified that art galleries and antiques shops would be categorised as non-essential retail businesses. She adds: “From tomorrow, anyone who works back-of-house who cannot work from home can go back into an auction house or gallery to do things like cataloguing or photography. Customer facing staff will be part of phase two, probably in June.”
However, the DCMS tells The Art Newspaper that cultural organisations, including museums, “will be considered as part of the third step [not opening before 4 July] outlined in the government's roadmap plan”.
The DCMS also clarifies that auction house staff and dealers would be allowed to visit clients or prospective clients in their homes, providing appropriate social distancing can be maintained. Simms says that a second call with DCMS is expected, focused purely on logistics and procurement of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
BAMF chairman Anthony Browne, who was also on the call, says: “Our prime objective is to get the wheels of commerce turning as quickly as possible. If art businesses had the same strict social distancing requirements imposed upon them as we’re seeing with the essential businesses such as supermarkets, then the market could adopt them and get going much more quickly, even if they are onerous.”
Some details as to how this might work in practice are included in the government's "guidelines on working safely during coronavirus", published last night (available to read here). Browne predicts that wearing masks when going into auction houses and galleries will become “the new normal”, and adds: “It’s going to be a very different world, but we’re all going to have to get used to it.”
Browne points to a decree issued in France last week, allowing the reopening of auctions with a maximum of ten attendees but no limit to staff in attendance, providing they keep to a certain distance apart. “It’s helpful from our point of view, another government finding a solution. What we’re proposing to the DCMS is not dissimilar to what the French have done. It’s better to have complicated restrictions and adapt to them and get your business going.” Browne says he has stressed to the DCMS that “live auctions can function without a room full of people bidding. They do not need to be crowded events”.
A Christie’s spokeswoman says the auction house remains closed to the public and continues to encourage those who can work from home to continue to do so. She adds: “Under the current guidelines, we will now be able to pursue certain select, key activities on site to support our sales [such as some photography and cataloguing]. We will commence that on a phased and considered basis, complying with the government’s workplace guidelines at all times.” Meanwhile, a Sotheby’s spokeswoman says the most recent guidance “has not fundamentally changed what we are able to do right now, but we are hoping to be able to increase the flow of property through Sotheby’s, while continuing to adhere to our own comprehensive policy for safe working practices, based on the government’s guidance.” The auction house is now waiting for further announcements from the government, “which will help determine when we can resume live auctions”.
Christopher Battiscombe, the chairman of Slad, believes that the art trade will be able to adapt more readily than other businesses. He says: “The good thing about art is that the client doesn't need to touch it. In some ways the art trade can handle this more safely than others.”
Some aspects of the market, such as crowded private views and art fairs, will “be off the menu for some time”, Battiscombe says. “Clients can be invited to galleries on an appointment-only basis. Exhibitions can also be photographed to sell online, so there will be a mixture of approaches.”
Bona Montagu, a partner at Skarstedt, which has a gallery in London’s St James’s, says the gallery is wary about putting staff and visitors in any danger: “We will ensure when people visit the gallery that they can do so in a safe way. But at least it means there's a way forward, which was very unclear up until now.” She adds: “There are certain things that are particular to our industry, such as transport and warehouses, where there are some unresolved issues because art handlers can't always maintain social distancing. So, they are still trying to work those things out.”
The majority of art shipping and handling firms have been running skeleton teams since lockdown began at the end of March, with most employees on furlough. The current furlough scheme was due to end in June, although the UK chancellor Rishi Sunak announced today that it will be extended to October, with the rate of support cut from a maximum of 80% of salary to 60%.
Shippers are also looking to June and July for business to start picking up, although gradual change is already afoot. From Wednesday, Gander & White is restarting one of its fleet of ten trucks in London only. “It will only have two people on board—there are usually three—so they can sit apart, and they will have full PPE,” says Cliff Vernon, the UK contemporary division director at the shipping firm.
He believes the first “real tangible change” will come on 1 June, when some staff will return to work. “There are currently no plans to bring much of the office back yet, as there simply is no work being passed on from the galleries, who remain very much closed for business,” Vernon says.
Simon Sheffield, the chief executive of the shipping company Martin Speed, echoes this reliance on demand. “There’s no point in having people back if there’s nothing to do, demand isn’t really going to be there before July,” he says.
He adds that a “small team” of six or seven staff has been operating out of the shipping firm’s Heathrow warehouse during lockdown “undertaking exports, imports and deliveries—subject to government guidelines”. For now, Sheffield says, “we will remain as we are, servicing clients’ requests. There’s not going to be a huge amount of business until museums and galleries formally reopen.”