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20 March 2020updated 30 Aug 2021 12:52pm

How the coronavirus crisis is pushing art online

As institutions are forced to close their physical doors, the pandemic has sparked a wave of virtual galleries, museums and music venues.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Since 16 March, when the UK government advised against “non-essential” travel and contact with others to curb coronavirus, public arts spaces across the country have shut their doors. “The safety of our staff, visitors and community is our top priority,” reads the statement from Tate, which closed Tate Britain and Modern in London, and galleries in Liverpool and St Ives, on Wednesday, “until at least 1 May in line with advice from government, NHS and Public Health England.”

With their physical spaces closed, arts institutions are turning to digital platforms, which audiences can access without leaving their homes. The Hayward Gallery, part of London’s Southbank Centre, is offering digital curator-led, walk-through tours of their exhibition “Among the Trees”, while Danish artist Jakob Kudsk Steensen’s Serpentine Galleries show “Catharsis” is available to consume in full online, even if its physical manifestation is now closed. Lawrence Abu Hamdan, one of four winners of last year’s Turner Prize, has taken matters into his own hands, and uploaded his last three films to YouTube, “until the venues that were planning to screen and exhibit the works over the next few months can reopen,” he wrote on Instagram

Looking to more traditional channels, the BBC has announced plans to run “an essential arts and culture service across all platforms that will keep the arts alive in people’s homes” during the pandemic. They envisage “a virtual festival of the arts”, which they are dubbing “Culture in Quarantine”.

Cafe OTO, a performance venue in Dalston, east London, which celebrates “creative new music that exists outside of the mainstream”, is now closed to the public. But instead of cancelling all shows completely, its staff has decided to live-stream its programme of events on its website and via YouTube. “The shows we already have scheduled in will happen, but without an audience,” Hamish Dunbar, the venue’s founder and director, explains, “and we’ll schedule different things in the gaps where events are cancelled – because there are obviously lots of cancellations – and local musicians will play instead.”

On Monday night, Steve Beresford and Thurston Moore’s planned Cafe OTO set was live-streamed; on Tuesday, it was Daniel Blumberg; on Wednesday, Alasdair Roberts. Streaming online makes for “a sense of collective international and UK-wide solidarity,” Dunbar says, “but there’s also got to be a realism about the fact that it’s not sustainable – the people manning our cameras last night were our bar staff. Usually they’re serving pints!”

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The pop-punk artist Yungblud (real name Dominic Harrison), who comes from Doncaster, took matters into his own hands after a string of tour dates in China, South Korea and Japan were cancelled, and a promotional campaign in Europe was postponed. On Monday he performed a gig at 7am PST to approximately 40,000 international fans, and his endeavour was reviewed, as any ordinary gig would be, by the NME. “There were about 6,000 people waiting in the chatroom hours before the gig began, which matches the behaviour of kids who will sleep over outside a Yungblud gig in any given city,” Tommas Arnby, Yungblud’s manager, tells me. “Of course, it’s never going to be the same, but if you try hard enough, there’s definitely some level of intimacy between you and your audience, even if it’s coming through the screen.”

For Yungblud’s fans, who are largely social media-savvy teenagers, connecting with an artist via the internet is typical. For others, more used to browsing a quiet gallery mid-afternoon or catching a local musician in a tiny venue, accessing art via the internet may not come naturally. Watching large arts institutions navigate this digital space is particularly interesting considering last year’s discussion surrounding the place of phones and digital technology in art galleries, which followed an article by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett’s in the Guardian in which she declared that “the proliferation of photo-taking” disrupts “direct engagement with the work”. Similar conversations also exist for gigs: Jack White famously asks his audience members to drop their phones into sealable pouches upon arriving at a concert; at Christine and the Queens’ recent show at Hackney’s MOTH Club, Chris asked fans to put their phones away to best experience the intimacy of the venue.

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Nicholas Kenyon, managing director at the Barbican, tells me that the arts centre has its own “Instagrammer in Residence”, set up to encourage visitors to take photos of the iconic brutalist building and the surrounding estate. It’s a theme they have interrogated in the art they show too. “Last year’s ‘Life Rewired’ season explored what it means to be human at a time when technology is changing everything,” Kenyon says. “The situation we find ourselves in now, as a society, arguably makes us more reliant on technology than ever before, and what we hope to do is find ways to harness technology so that people can continue to access the arts, even if they cannot experience them in person.” The Barbican’s interim digital programme is yet to be announced.

Dunbar is sympathetic to musicians who would not usually enjoy being filmed by an audience member, but sees his initiative at Cafe OTO as working far beyond that: “It will change people’s relationship to technology because it will be a way, until the situation gets resolved, for people to engage with music. That might become a habitual thing afterwards as well.” For the time being, phones are a way for art and music fans to access their cultural pursuits, rather than be distracted from them.

But widespread closures will inevitably see huge financial consequences for all businesses, be they small and independent or globally revered institutions. On Wednesday, executives of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art announced a projected total shortfall of close to $100m and closure until July. With this in mind, it makes financial sense for arts institutions to work to provide content for their audiences: both as way to ask for donations in return, and to remain in the public consciousness. “There are concerns about places totally pulling down their shutters and not being activated in any way, not having any sort of presence,” Dunbar says. Businesses that market themselves digitally will remain in the minds of their audiences – who will then be more likely to visit once they re-open.

Each of the people I speak to emphasises an unwillingness to completely pause operations until further notice, and a desire to ensure their audiences remain engaged with the artistic and community offering their venue provides. “We think of ourselves as a civic space,” Kenyon says of the Barbican. “Our organisation exists to help people and ideas connect so we’re prioritising how we can continue to connect with audiences over the coming weeks.”

Ralph Rugoff, director of the Hayward Gallery, echoes this sentiment: “Art is really all about connecting – connecting ideas in unexpected ways that allow us to refresh our view of the world and our place in it. The need for this is stronger than ever at this moment, and so it’s crucial for institutions to continue to reach out to their audiences.”

By reaching out via digital means, these institutions are also widening their access. The internet is a leveller, and these free gigs, exhibitions and extra resources are available to audiences from all around the world, whether they have stepped foot in these venues before, or whether they could ordinarily afford a ticket.

“Bringing newcomers into the world of art is perhaps more important than ever before, and digital platforms are a hugely powerful tool,” Rugoff says.

At Cafe OTO, Dunbar hasn’t yet had the time to analyse the data which will tell him how many people are tuning into the live-streams. But he knows it’s helping break down barriers: “Some people perceive OTO in a certain sort of way, of being hard to access or something, and if this is a way to break that a little bit, then that’s a positive thing.

“There was somebody from Italy who posted last night: ‘I’ve been meaning to get to Cafe OTO for years, and I finally got there!’ I couldn’t help but laugh.”