Apollo Magazine

Staying the distance – on museums and the art world in a time of crisis

We'll need to find ways to be together while alone during the coming weeks and months

A Lady Writing (detail; c. 1665), Johannes Vermeer. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

A Lady Writing (detail; c. 1665), Johannes Vermeer. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

The following is a version of the editor’s letter from the April 2020 issue of Apollo.

‘They flash upon that inward eye / Which is the bliss of solitude’. Wordsworth, like many of his Romantic peers, was partial to being alone. Those lines – yes, on daffodils – hail its imaginative opportunities, pulling together creative vision and a type of happiness that is dependent on solitude, so that as you read and re-read the words the two things become versions of one another. As Seamus Perry reminds us in the April issue of Apollo, however, in an essay about Wordsworth and painting, the lines were concocted by Wordsworth’s wife, Mary – and as such, they leaven solitude with a type of company or kinship.

Finding ways to be together while alone is a challenge that many, if not all of us, are likely to face in the coming weeks or months as the coronavirus pandemic plays out. At the time of writing, several European nations have followed Italy’s lead in placing their entire populations in quarantine, while restrictions on movement and public gatherings are in force in many other countries. On Monday the UK government advised the British public to avoid all non-essential social contact and warned that those most vulnerable to the virus will soon be asked to stay at home for three months or more; now London is preparing for a quarantine that has yet to be officially announced, but which many media outlets expect to come into force tomorrow.

It feels incidental to speak of the effect that the pandemic has had on the art and museum worlds, or at least to single them out, given that the virus has impinged on the lives of the entire global population. But for those of us for whom museums, in particular, are a touchstone in that world, the international wave of museum closures has been a disquieting corollary of the wider situation – as well as a reminder of the liberties and opportunities that such places stand for. Many, if not all, of the museums and exhibitions discussed in our April issue closed temporarily after those articles had been prepared for press: the Knoxville Museum of Art, LACMA, Louvre Abu Dhabi, the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden, the Musée d’Orsay, the Muzeum Susch, the Fondation Beyeler. It is hard to comprehend such measures in peacetime, let alone process the anxieties that attend them. But I hope that our readers will find some distraction, perhaps even solace, in reading about exhibitions and collections from afar and devising imaginary or future excursions.

It is to be hoped, so far as is possible, that curators and other museum staff working remotely will be able to bring collections to their house-bound audiences by making use of digital platforms. In a time of plenty, such projects have sometimes – though not always – seemed extraneous to the core work of the museum; in a time of constraint, they must prove central to it. Video content or events, digital archives, museum websites and social media accounts may never replicate the experience of walking through a gallery, but they will be able to keep us in touch, for a time, with the collections we most prize.

The current restrictions will no doubt have severe financial consequences for public institutions and their contractors and for art businesses – as well as for artists, many of whom may usually thrive on solitude but will be only too conscious that it doesn’t pay the bills. Writing on the Apollo website Chloë Ashby has described how the delayed opening of Albertina Modern in Vienna is costing the museum some €60,000 a day. The Met has projected that it is likely to be closed until July and has warned that it is facing a $100m loss during the crisis ­– and that only includes guaranteeing salaries until 4 April. When it comes to the art market, auction houses may be able to stumble on with some online sales and, in the midst of gallery closures and art fair cancellations, those art dealerships that can afford to have been swift to launch online viewing rooms. But will there be any demand? Perhaps some of those collectors who are now well and truly living with their collections will feel prompted to add to the throng.

It is too early to say what the art world will look like when the pandemic is over, although it is unlikely that we will hear the refrain ‘business as usual’ any time soon. For now, we are all obliged to hunker down with our books and our screens, and catch up on some of the reading and viewing that, until a few weeks ago, we lamented not having time for. As I left the Apollo offices on Monday to head into my own version of this strange new world, the last thing I did was to squeeze Françoise Gilot’s memoir and a new book on Bruegel into my bag (as if the unread books on my shelves weren’t company enough). Perhaps they will be the subject of my editor’s letter next month.

Over the coming weeks, the Apollo website will continue to publish articles about how the crisis is affecting the arts, as well as plenty that try to look away from it. Our Apollo Briefing newsletter (every Sunday) will be retuned to focus not on upcoming exhibitions but to draw attention to the digital museum projects we think most valuable. And we will be launching a third editorial newsletter, in addition to our Weekly Highlights (Friday) and Apollo Briefing newsletters, which will bring together articles from our archives in what we hope will be illuminating and unexpected combinations. Working title: Museums of the Mind. In print, you may see some temporary changes to regular features – particularly those that preview the art market and upcoming events – but we will endeavour to keep publishing elegant, rigorous articles on everything from antiquities to contemporary art. Please keep us company by letting us know what you think about any of our editorial content via email (I’m on thomas@apollomag.com or it’s editorial@apollomag.com to contact the whole editorial team). Find ways to support institutions and artists, even if simply by engaging with their work. Read and re-read. And trust your inward eye.

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