By Cherry Irvine: Arts Columnist
The reporting of the scheduled reopening of England’s museums and galleries last week mostly stuck to the doom and gloom rhetoric of the coronavirus crisis – that many of our beloved institutions are close to financial catastrophe. This is true for businesses across the country and museums are no exception with Ian Blatchford, chairman of the National Museum Directors’ Council, estimating that national museums may lose half their self-generated income in 2020, equivalent to £145m. The government’s announcement of the £1.57bn rescue package for the arts this week will be a welcome relief. However, museums still face the same challenges as pubs, hairdressers, and shops to attract the same levels of footfall pre-pandemic. Unlike these businesses, art institutions had the unique opportunity to engage their audiences virtually during lockdown. The success of The Getty Museum’s social media challenge that asked its followers to recreate famous artworks at home, demonstrates how museums could still engage with the public in a novel and fun way. Other institutions opened their collections to the public through virtual galleries. Anyone can delve into the online collections of the Tate or the National Gallery and discover new and lesser-known artists from history. Have those who curate these galleries done the same?
Lockdown gave British galleries the perfect opportunity to reassess the presentation of their collections, which artists are chosen to grace their walls and how their art is displayed.
Perhaps curators will question their choices after the Black Artists and Modernism National Collection Audit found shockingly, only around 2,000 works by black artists in the UK’s permanent collections. Art by women has also been systematically neglected. The V&A owns a rich array of works by the Neoclassical painter Angelica Kauffman, who was a hugely successful portraitist in the 18th century. Her highly refined portrait of Princess Augusta Charlotte from 1767 is of the same calibre of her famous contemporary Thomas Gainsborough, yet the painting sits in storage.
Under-representation of woman and BAME extends to all areas of national museums, from those they recruit to those who visit. By displaying works by such artists permanently on their walls, institutions can begin to address this problem. Museums and galleries can survive this financial crisis if they learn to adapt and attract new audiences. The Getty Museum challenge proved that art is as popular as ever. Now that people can finally physically return to galleries it is important that they are not the same as we left them, but that they showcase under-represented artists both historical and contemporary.