Art is plumpy-nut for the soul. It goes in through your eyes, dances around your brain, ties up your neurons in a neat bow and packs them off to your soul as positive emotions, generally leaving you in better shape than it found you.
We hope you’ll forgive this facile explanation of decades of neuroscientific study of the effects of art on the brain, but just throwing it out there to bring the importance of visual art into focus in the wake of the shuttering of every gallery on the planet for several months.
The implications of these closures are undoubtedly grim. We spoke to Eleanor Costello a London-based Arts Communication Professional, “Museums really depend on visitor numbers to get funding. They also depend on people to come in, buy tickets, go to shops, and go to cafes. To be closed for 6 months of the year for most museums is kind of a killer.”
Though there has been an allocation of £1.57 B in funding, that, Eleanor says, is heavily weighted towards London, and towards live venues. Having worked in both large and small, regional and national establishments, she’s aware that the smaller and more regional spaces will gasp for air for the foreseeable future, if they can even survive.
The tunnel is undoubtedly dark, but there is a twinkling digital light emerging. Having previously neglected the online space in favour of pushing the in-person experience, museums and galleries have now been forced into exhibiting their collections online, a tactic that has proven to be a surprise hit with museum and art websites reporting thousandfold increased in traffic. Online exhibiting is proving to have multiple benefits including, engaging with a wider audience and giving people the opportunity to engage in art in a different way. The most surprising thing to happen though is surely the inversion of the assumption that online exhibition would negate in-person visits. Eleanor explains: “People thought if you put a video of an exhibition online people wouldn’t go to the live exhibition but it's proving to be the opposite. They’re watching the videos and then wanting to go and see it in person. It’s also opening the art up to international audiences. This is a really positive thing to have come out of this situation.”
This begs the question of the quality of the experience of online versus in-person, a seeming no-brainer in favour of in-person you’d naturally assume. But art history professor Noah Charney makes a convincing argument if not favouring online, certainly validating it, alongside some MIT neuroscience that claims, “our brains appear to be more stimulated when looking at augmented reality and virtual reality digital reproductions of art when compared to looking at the real thing”.
Indeed Charney says he found new details in a billion-pixel digital image of The Ghent Altarpiece, a painting about which he’d written a book, than he ever could have by looking at the work in person. “I believe that, from a scholarly and touristic perspective, a virtual experience can be enlightening and is certainly a great way to “see” art that you might never be able to visit in person.”
But the romantic in me, as in Benjamin, would say: if you can, see it in person. If you can’t, see it any way you can.
The threat of COVID and the subsequent change in visitor numbers forced a shakeup in the way the bigger art institutions are doing things. Large exhibitions were initially suspended once things became untenable in March but now they’ve had to adapt their model completely. Large museums tend to change exhibitions every three months, but now they’re extending them. This is cost effective but it’s also a way of making sure that the people that want to see the exhibition, can come and see it because space is limited so tickets numbers are down.
As Eleanor explains, collaborating within international institutions is no longer as feasible, “The crazy blockbuster exhibitions that would draw hundreds of thousands in footfall are not possible.” There’s a consensus that the new art world will look much different, with a return to a slower, “less macho” scene with a smaller carbon footprint hopefully on the horizon.
The upside of keeping the heavy hitters at bay is that spaces are relooking at their own collections and how to market them, and also moving the dial on their target demographic from box-ticking tourists passing through a city, to local denizens who are looking to rediscover the culture in the places they’ve taken for granted as residents. “I think it's important for them to encourage people who are actually living locally, to go and see these things. It’s something that was always a priority but now is something they have to focus on,” explains Eleanor.
The slowing of the art world will hopefully also create more room for younger, local artists to come through. This along with the adoption of more acceptance to online art, made by people who might not be seen, can be viewed by people who otherwise might never have seen it.
Support your local art scene, look up small galleries and see what they have coming up and give them the patronage they need, support the platforms bringing younger and more stylistically diverse artists through the ranks.
Because earth without art is just... eh.