FEATURE STORY MAY/JUNE EDITION 2020: Visual art during Covid-19

Challenging yet generating creative possibilities, Covid-19 restrictions mean galleries are creating an online presence as never before. 

LAETITIA WILSON

♦ Concrete Expanded, installation view, Holmes à Court Gallery @ No 10 Douglas St, West Perth, now on show online until October. 
What do art galleries do in the midst of a pandemic, when overnight they close their doors for an indeterminate amount of time, and their exhibitions and events suddenly have no physical audience? What happens when they not only face temporary closure, but cancellation or postponement of exhibitions, performances and events, loss of funding and income, loss of staff and even the threat of permanent closure?
Negotiating this unfamiliar terrain has certainly had its challenges. Galleries who have had the capacity to rise to the challenges have turned their attention to the online environment. Even more than before, face-to-face has become face-to-interface as physical proximity has been usurped by digital distance. Galleries are negotiating the paradoxical terrain of remaining open while closed, of bringing people together while apart, and planning for a future which might well look very different to the pre-Covid-19 world.
Lockdown has made for a flurry of online activity. This has pushed some galleries into exploring new territory and new ways of engaging audiences, and of remaining connected with their audiences while apart. Other galleries have merely refined their existing online practices. Places like the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the National Gallery of Victoria are offering free art classes for those interested in becoming educated about various aspects of art while in lockdown. The entire Sydney Biennale has gone online providing various ways of engaging audiences, and Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art are offering a program of yoga and meditation for kids and adults.
It is possible, now more than ever, to visit exhibitions virtually in galleries all over the world. Galleries are offering many and varied ways to access art digitally – virtual tours, video interviews with artists, artist videos, art history lessons, art-making lessons, online catalogues for the purchase of art, video chat sessions and podcasts. There is a veritable groundswell of creative activity to engage in.
All of this is important for the overall mental health and wellbeing of not only artists, but also their audiences – people within the wider urban communities and within regional areas. Art is about more than simply beautiful objects; it is about connection with something greater than us, about meaning and reflection on our existence, our place in the world and the state of the world. Art is a critical beacon of hope and inspiration by which to navigate through times of crisis and uncertainty.
Here in Western Australia, now like an island with its borders sealed, most galleries have closed, with a small number remaining open by appointment only. Fremantle Arts Centre is offering virtual walk-throughs of their exhibitions and, following the cancellation of the Revealed art market, a thorough online catalogue is available for the exhibition, among other online engagements. A positive response in sales for Revealed, provides much needed support for struggling Indigenous communities who are vulnerable when they are even more isolated than usual, and when the wider economy is at risk.
Smaller galleries like the city based Art Collective WA are open by appointment and are active in publishing ‘Collective Conversations’ – interviews with artists, including the likes of Joanna Lamb and George Haynes. Such galleries provide a vital ongoing link to, and support of, Western Australian contemporary artists.
The Holmes à Court Gallery in West Perth is also open by appointment. It has seen an expansion of digital audience engagements, with its exhibitions featured online, through virtual tours and across social media. It has also seen the postponement of immediate future exhibitions. This highlights the fact that a digital audience is not comparable to having actual bodies in the gallery space. Galleries, and importantly artists, rely on audiences to access their art via many different means and physical engagement is crucial.
The Covid-19 situation of isolation has made for an impressive and inspiring explosion of creative energy in this flurry of online activity, but it nevertheless has its limitations. When everything is online, a degree of online fatigue sets in. Galleries are essentially social spaces, spaces of connection, and art seen digitally does not compare to the immersive and tangible physicality of art in gallery spaces.
This begs the question of what the role of artists and galleries is in the transition to a post-Covid-19 society. How can we do things differently, foster greater connection, care for each other and care for our environment more proactively? If anything, this unusual time should have given us new perspectives, an opportunity to slow down and consider how we can do better moving forward. With things like international travel restrictions likely to stay in place for some time, this presents opportunities for us to truly focus on the local, and support local artists and artists working in Indigenous and regional communities. This is indeed a challenging time for the arts, but one which also opens up new challenges and new possibilities.
Laetitia Wilson is Exhibitions Manager at Janet Holmes à Court Collection. 
Concrete Expanded, previously on show at Holmes à Court Gallery @ No 10 Douglas St, West Perth is now on show online at https://hacgallery.weebly.com 
♦ Concrete Expanded, installation view, Holmes à Court Gallery @ No 10 Douglas St, West Perth, now on show online until October. 
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