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Depleting gallery-goers: will museums survive?

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Covid—19 is a veritable Futurist; that is to say that what a few brown-shirted, decadent, Italian thugs failed to do, the Pandemic has almost accomplished. 

‘We must destroy the museums,’ Filippo Tomasso Marinetti wrote in his manifesto. They failed to do so. Is it possible, then, that Covid—19 might not only have infected and killed innumerable people, but that it might have had the same gangrenous effect on our belovéd museums and art galleries. 

The Art Newspaper’s 2021 visitor figures, which record the figures of over 370 museums, have offered a little optimism on the global scale. Overall, the number of visitors rose from 54 million in 2020 to 71 million in 2021. That’s mostly due to fewer days of Covid-related closure (an average of 106 days compared to the previous 145); a return to something almost resemblant of pre-pandemic tourism has helped as well. 

This might sound hopeful—indeed, in some instances, it is—but the financial implications of such diminished attendance are most evident when 2021’s data is compared to that of 2019, the last ‘normal’ year. The Louvre, for instance, is the annual chart’s perennial victor—the Art World’s answer to Bayern Munich’s league record—and has found itself in first place again. But with only 2.8 million visitors, it’s receiving significantly fewer visitors than in 2019, when it played host to 9.6 million excited gallery visitors (or else, 9.6 million eagle-eyed phone cameras snapping away at the Mona Lisa). 

The scale on which museums run themselves, one imagines, is matched to their expected annual turnover. Museums—barring a few, notable exceptions (such as, probably, the Louvre and its Abu-Dhabi counterpart)—are not fiendishly capitalistic. Most of their profits are reinvested. 

They’ve survived Covid because of state subsidies and generous philanthropists. But as governments begin to withdraw Covid-support—and as most of these ‘generous philanthropists’ are too chummy with Putin—the Museums must hopefully wait for global tourism to recover to its pre-pandemic levels. 

But who knows how long they’ll have to wait? Is it Godot they’re waiting for? The Second Coming? Or something as inevitable as a new season of the Premier League? They can’t quite be sure. 

What’s more, there are only two galleries in The Art Newspaper’s top 30 which have shed visitors since 2020—which, need I remind you, was the worst year of the Pandemic. Both of these galleries are British; in fact, they’re our two leading out-and-out galleries: the Tate Modern and the National Gallery. The former is down 19% from the previous year, the latter a shocking 41%. 

How can this be, you wonder. Well, a National Gallery spokesperson has blamed it on tourism levels and a lack of blockbuster exhibitions. The former, as I’ve already mentioned, is a significant issue; but shouldn’t it have affected all galleries equally? And, moreover, shouldn’t its impact on the nation’s biggest, most successful, most commercial galleries in the nation’s capital be minor in comparison to its effects on smaller, regional ones? The tourism excuse doesn’t quite cut the mustard. 

And exhibitions? Let’s consider 2021 at the National. The two, covid-postponed blockbusters of 2020, Titian: Love, Desire, Death and Artemisia, were so pushed back that they extended into January 2021. Moreover, 2021 saw more exhibitions at the National than the previous year: and, I dare say, both The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Durer’s Journeys and Poussin and the Dance were of equal, if not more, mass appeal than the aforementioned two. That’s not to forget Conversations with God: Jan Matejko’s Copernicus, which was free to visit and had glittering reviews. 

It’s difficult to put a finger on the problem. And I can’t quite believe it’s Covid; especially since the National was much celebrated for its excellent response to the Pandemic. It was, in fact, a pioneer of Art in the Age of Covid; the viewing routes—which were excellently curated—it introduced to the permanent collection to prevent clustering were quickly mimicked by several other galleries. But it also, I fear, can’t solely be because of a dearth of tourists, since this particular fall in visitors since 2020 is so out of proportion with that of other galleries and is so against the global trend. 

Why, then? I don’t know. A decline in interest? The increasing accessibility of artworks online? When, years after its publication, Evelyn Waugh reflected on writing Brideshead Revisited—one of whose predominant themes is the decline of the English Country House—he called it ‘a panegyric preached over an empty coffin.’ In this case, we know why the coffin’s empty; it’s because the puzzled autopsist is still at work.

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