On July 6, Mona Lisa will once again smile at its admirers as its home, the Louvre, opens its doors for visitors after over four months. The elbowing crowds that famously surround her will be absent. Walking in to visit her will require subscribing to the rules of the “new normal” — a mandatory face mask, temperature check and a pre-booked online ticket. While that might seem to be a deterrent to some, Mona Lisa perhaps has graver concerns.
Arguably the most famous painting in the world, the Leonardo da Vinci portrait has not been spared by the COVID-19 contagion — last month, Stephane Distinguin, founder of the tech company Fabernovel, reportedly suggested that France should sell the over 500-year-old masterpiece for at least 50 billion euros to deal with the economic fallout of the coronavirus crisis. The wild idea astounded most, but others were not averse to giving it a thought. After all, France’s embattled cultural sector could use some funds.
With its steepening COVID graph but easing lockdown, India is drawing protocols for its museums to open, and art galleries are preparing for business in the coming weeks, but doing only that will not signal a return to normalcy for Indian art which was at a critical stage with rising international attention and growing diversification of its collector base. Broad support, financial and infrastructural, has now become integral for sustenance.
While the probable domestic losses from the global debacle are yet to be estimated, the worldwide assessment of the damages offers warnings of impending doom. Two studies by UNESCO and the International Council of Museums (ICOM) confirm that nearly 90 per cent of museums the world over “closed their doors for varying lengths of time” during the crisis and nearly 13 per cent of these may never reopen. “The museum field cannot survive on its own without the support of the public and private sectors. It is imperative to raise emergency relief funds and to put in place policies to protect professionals and self-employed workers on precarious contracts,” urged ICOM President Suay Aksoy. Though some countries, including the UK and Germany, have rolled out relief packages for the arts, the funds promised will probably not suffice.
It took not more than a couple of weeks, starting February, for the contemporary art market to realise how the global art network was crippled by travel restrictions. Biennales, art fairs and big-budget exhibitions began to be cancelled. With the fear of a pandemic looming, art became a prodigal luxury. To curb losses, like every other sector, it went virtual. But not everyone embraced the digitised canvases. In the era of the digital renaissance, the Getty Museum Challenge to recreate classic masterpieces might have taken the internet by storm, but high-value artworks failed to find buyers. Gallery sales are now reportedly limited to their regular patrons. Online purchases suggest a generation gap, with older collectors’ evident reluctance.
The virtual museums and online viewing rooms might have democratised art as far as viewing is concerned and turned us all into virtual globetrotters, but ironically the very makers and keepers of art are threatened by their economic fallouts. The giants are bleeding. For commercial galleries and auction houses solely dependent on sales for revenue, it is perhaps worse. Several art handling firms have furloughed most of their staff. According to the American Alliance of Museums, museums in the US are collectively losing at least $33 million a day — most of the major institutions, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art, have announced layoffs and pay cuts. The Network of European Museum Organisations has also estimated “three out of five museums reported losing an average of 20,300 euros a week due to closure and travel halt”.
With the gradual lifting of restrictions, the sector might be attempting to bounce back but its ability to do so depends on several unknowns, including market liquidity, the very enthusiasm and ability of its patrons, and the world at the end of the pandemic. The art market has taken hits before, but a blow like this is unprecedented. Will the art world as we know it come back to life after the interregnum? Perhaps not. Will art survive? Certainly. Possibly with new learnings and purpose.
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