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24 March 2020updated 30 Jul 2021 9:20am

How coronavirus is making virtual galleries go viral

More people are visiting cultural institutions than ever before – even on lockdown

By Sebastian Shehadi

As the coronavirus forces many cultural institutions and spaces to close their doors, consumer appetite for online experiences is booming. Stuck at home, one might as well take a scroll through the Louvre.

The Courtauld Gallery’s virtual tour received 723 per cent more visitors last week than the seven days before: an unprecedented figure, explains the gallery spokesperson. Meanwhile, the British Museum’s online collection page jumped from roughly 2000 daily visits to 175,000 early last week, and is now averaging 75,000 a day.

London’s National Gallery has also tracked increased digital demand, with footfall to its virtual tour rising by 1000 percent compared to this time last year. Similarly, Google Arts and Culture – which provides hundreds of virtual tours for world leading museums – has witnessed rising traffic in recent weeks.

“[Since 2011, our team has made] culture more accessible through technology. We have a range of augmented-reality, virtual-reality, and AI features that are immersive, fun and educational – hopefully people can find these of use at such unprecedented times,” said a Google spokesperson. Google Arts and Culture also boast a highly-rated app, including popular features such as the Art Selfie, which matches portraits and pieces of art to users’ selfies.

Further evidence of audiences’ online shift includes Swiss modern art gallery, Hauser & Wirth, whose virtual viewing rooms have welcomed 200,000 visits over the last three weeks, compared to 1 million views for all of last year, according to president Iwan Wirth.

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Adapting to the new status quo, museums and galleries are stepping up the launch of new or inaugural online platforms. For example, Florence’s Palazzo Strozzi recently released a digital platform called IN TOUCH, showcasing Argentine artist Tomás Saraceno’s major exhibition online.

Supporting the launch, Ai Weiwei sent a video of encouragement in which he stated: “Coronavirus is a challenge of this special time. Many people are suffering. There’s no border. No nationality or different class or religion can really escape from this almost very democratic virus…[We need] to have some kind of positive attitude: stay home and stay together.”

Closed temporarily until the 30th of April, the Kunstmuseum Basel is also finding new ways to raise the visibility of its online exhibitions. “Especially in a time of uncertainty, art is important as a means of reflection and inspiration. That is why we are strengthening our online communication and bringing art to where you are,” a spokesperson from the museum said.

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Similarly, Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum launched its We bring the museum to you online resource, while its YouTube channel is now giving audiences 4K-video gallery tours. Although museums across the globe are improving their digital engagement strategy, the sector remains under immense strain from Covid-19’s disruption. In an increasingly familiar story, the Australian arts industry recently called for emergency state assistance.

Meanwhile, the UK government is in talks with Arts Council England – a public fund for cultural bodies – to help save museums, galleries and theatres at risk of financial ruin. 

Sebastian Shehadi is global markets editor of the Financial Times’ fDI Intelligence. He tweets at @seblebanon