To say that the world is different today from what it was this time just one year ago is laughably (or perhaps sobbingly) understated. The pandemic has changed seemingly all aspects of life, from day to day little things like going out to eat, to the big things like how educational systems will function for months and perhaps even years or decades to come. Accordingly, we have to expect that the art world will be impacted as well.
But what does that mean? Are we talking little changes that are temporary? Or dramatic shifts that will alter the landscape of art as we know it, perhaps irrevocably?
Minute and major, big shifts are on the way.
Change Isn’t New
Before we get into specifics, we might as well put it bluntly: yes, major changes are coming, and not all of them will be good. But not all the changes will be bad, either.
Change is inevitable, and oftentimes we don’t know if that change has been positive or negative until we have had the chance to judge its results in retrospect.
Across the history of art, drastic shifts are rather common. In the last 100 years alone we’ve had a migration of artists flee Europe to escape Nazi persecution, we’ve watched as art has adjusted to the rise of movies and television, we saw how it was created and distributed revolutionised by the advent of computers and the internet, and so on.
In other words, change is inevitable, and oftentimes we don’t know if that change has been positive or negative until we have had the chance to judge its results in retrospect. Right now it seems like the whole world is falling apart—and in many ways that includes the world of art—but it’s impossible to know if there are silver linings on the horizon just yet.
In the meantime, let’s take a look at a few changes that we’re seeing in the present.
Galleries are closing
Like virtually every other type of brick-and-mortar business, art galleries are suffering dramatically due to lockdowns and shrinking economies. In a recent poll of local art galleries by the Los Angeles Times, 25% said they are facing permanent closure while another 14% say closure isn’t out of the question. And that’s just in Los Angeles. According to an international poll by the Art Newspaper, galleries around the world expect to lose 72% of their revenue with 30% saying they do not expect to survive. Small galleries employing less than ten people are the most likely to be impacted.
This poses many obvious problems. Until the situation improves or alternatives are found, artists will find it more difficult to sell their work, and what little wall space remains will likely go to only the most high-profile artists, deepening the already rampant inequality within the field.
While this will certainly translate into a major disruption in the art community, it’s not without potential upsides. More galleries and artists are moving their sales online, which may result in something of a democratising of the market. And sellers are also innovating new ways to connect with buyers by hosting intimate, reservation-only viewings, arranging carefully orchestrated art fairs with plenty of safety precautions, and so forth.
As of now, it’s difficult to imagine what the gallery situation will look like in a few years. All we know is that it won’t be the same.
Art schools are going online
“I can tell you that online art instruction is booming and in-person schools are closing,” Mandy Theis, founder of the art instructional organisation the DaVinci Initiative, told me. “I had to close my school.”
And she’s right. While lockdowns certainly mean booming traffic for online art resources, traditional schools are shutting down. The San Francisco Art Institute—a 150 year old organisation—has announced that it will have no incoming fall class. London’s Royal College of Art has moved its instruction entirely online. NYU Tisch is facing calls for tuition refunds from students angered at having their classes go digital. And the Savannah School of Art and Design in Hong Kong closed its doors without warning.
It’s difficult to know what impact this will have. How long will it take for schools to reopen, if at all? And what happens when an entire generation of young artists lose access to in-person teaching? Will it change art? And how will they network and form communities?
Art production will increase—but likely downsize
For many artists, the opportunity to isolate at home where they have nothing but time to work on their various projects might seem like a dream come true. Stay-at-home orders translate into plenty of time for production.
And as history has shown, crisis provides fertile ground for artistic inspiration. Let’s face it—some of the greatest works of all time were inspired by depression and death, two terrible things that are in excess at the moment.
So perhaps the major upside to COVID—artistically speaking—will be the production of some really great art. It is likely, however, that it will be produced on a smaller scale.
Artists forced to work in confined spaces at home, many of whom are struggling with diminished budgets, will likely reduce the size and scope of their pieces. It’s hard to foresee what that means, exactly, but it’s possible that economised production will result in some great innovations. Necessity is the mother of invention, after all, which is a saying that might be more true for artists than any other profession.
Difficult times for the up-and-coming artist
No one in the art world will be more strongly impacted than unknown artists who are just trying to launch their careers. They’re going to have access to less instruction, less wall-space, and less financing. Suffice to say that the coming years will be difficult for young artists working to establish themselves.
With the art world being pushed online, it provides innovative artists with a bit of technical knowledge a new opportunity to shape the future of how their art is found, and the direction of the art market in general.
At the same time, that doesn’t mean that they’ll be entirely without potential benefits. With the art world being pushed online, it provides innovative artists with a bit of technical knowledge a new opportunity to shape the future of how their art is found, and the direction of the art market in general. In the short term it will mean plenty of time to stay home and work along with a wealth of inspiration, as is almost always the case during catastrophe.
But don’t fool yourself into thinking that it will be without its toll. The mere human cost has already been enormous. Just a few of the artists spanning various disciplines that we’ve already lost due to COVID include John Prine, Ann Sullivan, Manuel Felguérez, Abraham Palatnik, Germano Celant, David Leverett, Gillian Wise, Vittorio Gregotti, and many, many others.
The scope of this tragedy cannot be understated. The human, economic, and institutional losses are staggering, and recovery will be neither swift nor easy.
That being said, if history has taught us anything about artists it’s that they are resilient and graced with the talent to create something beautiful out of something horrible. Great art has always emerged from great calamity, and so it will again.
Whatever happens as the pandemic progresses, take solace in the knowledge that artists will continue to work and inspire us. Exactly how that work will be produced and disseminated is somewhat uncertain at the moment, but art is tenacious.
Someday this pandemic will end, and when it does art will still be there.