Art thrives on being in the public eye. Museums and galleries are currently closed, art fairs have been cancelled or moved into the digital space. LMU art historian Burcu Dogramaci describes in this interview how art institutions and artists are coping with the coronavirus crisis.
Art institutions have been in crisis mode for almost a year now. Has the coronavirus crisis been equally hard on all institutions?
Burcu Dogramaci: Basically, yes. Many institutions have had to close for weeks now, not just the big museums but the galleries, too. Only the online auction market seems resistant to the crisis and is prospering—people are still buying, sometimes at very high prices.
Is the art scene heading into a depression?
Burcu Dogramaci: The freelancers and gallery educators working for many institutions have suffered hugely, and privately funded institutions and collections—such as those in the United States—are also struggling with heavy losses. Overall, the mood is one of paralysis, everyone is just waiting to see what comes next. The next few months will reveal whether or not it turns into a lasting depression. What is for sure is that this is a real shake-up, especially for the big museums. It is increasing the pressure on each institution to look inwards—which means it could also lead to new perspectives. Museums must now think even harder about what their function can be in the 21st century, in an age when everything is highly digitalized. The coronavirus crisis is calling many things into question.
Large museums are often described as very cumbersome. Exhibitions have extremely long lead times. Is this an area where the effects of the coronavirus crisis will still be felt long into the future?
Burcu Dogramaci: A lot of things are currently on hold, so there will certainly be problems around loans. But major museums have other problems to contend with when it comes to their audience. The question is whether all the visitors, especially older people, will come back after the COVID-19 crisis. Or will they prefer to avoid such places for the time being? The same with school classes—we don’t even know if they will come back anytime soon.
More than ever before, art has retreated into the internet space since the outbreak of the pandemic. Are we seeing new forms of exchange with the public?
Burcu Dogramaci: Retreat is an interesting word in this context. Ultimately, art can reach more people through the internet. But we do perceive a digital offering as a form of retreat because we are used to museums being places that we can experience physically, and this has been the successful model for a very long time. The crisis made it clear just how unprepared museums were for the changes that have occurred. Digitalization was not at the level it could have been. I’m not just talking about digitalizing the collections, as some museums are currently doing. I’m talking about how digitalization can be used to communicate art and reach audiences differently. So far, museums have lacked the human resources to think about new concepts, and the situation is similar to that in schools, where there was little preparation for online learning. In many areas, COVID-19 is like a magnifying glass that makes structural deficits more visible.
Does that mean the crisis is also an opportunity?
Burcu Dogramaci: The problem existed before the crisis began. In museums, a very small number of very highly skilled people decide what the public is going to see, which exhibitions are going to be put on. The situation is different to how it is in the theater, for example, where there is a direct response from the audience. In museums, the dialogue with visitors is still stuck in the realm of art communication and museum education, too much so. Contact with visitors, including the question of what the public actually wants to see in the museum and how society is represented there, is not really something that many of the larger museums have focused on to date. Society itself is becoming increasingly diverse, and in many cases this is not yet reflected in the exhibitions and topics that museums cover.
Will museums need different expertise in the future?
Burcu Dogramaci: Yes, and things are already changing here. Take the new “Dive in” program from the German Federal Cultural Foundation, for example: this is all about digital interaction and developing new digital tools. The Lenbachhaus in Munich recently advertised for a Community Manager for digital art communication, albeit on a fixed-term contract; the person’s job is to create an open space where the public and the museum can interact directly, with both sides working together to define what this digital space should look like. The aim is to enable new voices to be heard in storytelling. This is a bold step and it shows that the institution is thinking about its own role.
And these ideas go beyond the rather basic approach adopted at the beginning of the pandemic of simply streaming the otherwise cancelled exhibitions online.
Burcu Dogramaci: Yes, but I don’t want to just gloss over the issue. The basic problem is that museums and art institutions are supposed to preserve the original object and show it to the audience. This happens locally, in person; people want to get up close to an object. This is a challenge that’s not so easy to solve with digitalization. But what we can do is offer additional forms of experience. Digital exhibitions are certainly not a solution: exhibition viewings thrive on exchange and conversation; when it’s virtual, we become passive spectators.
What new formats have museums come up with? In your piece for the CAS blog, you write about the J. Paul Getty Museum’s invitation to the audience to ‘do-it-yourself’.
Burcu Dogramaci: I thought that was a pretty great idea. It came about at a time when a lot of people were stuck at home in lockdown. People were asked to recreate works from the museum using everyday objects. They would upload pictures of their creation and other people could comment on it and rate it. It was very entertaining. I felt that giving people the opportunity to do this was inspiring them—it gave them a space where they could share and communicate with others in uncertain and depressing times.
So you think this goes way beyond being passive spectators, as people usually are in live digital events like discussion panels or digital festivals?
Burcu Dogramaci: Yes, this is a forward-looking model of participation. It can even go some way towards being a means of crisis management and mental support, especially in the current situation, allowing people to feel that art is important in times of crisis and that it can help, because it enables us to share and communicate with others.
Let’s talk about the artists themselves. Artists need to be in the public eye. What has the coronavirus changed?
Burcu Dogramaci: For many artists, the situation is very difficult. It’s not easy for them to stay visible. That is partly to do with the rigid structures of the art market, which all run through certain predetermined institutions. Artists have become very accustomed to the fact that there are galleries that represent them. Organizing themselves, making their art visible to people directly, and communicating via the internet is a challenge for many. Not only that, but in the digital world artists have to compete with many other offerings just to be seen.
It seems as if many artists have gone into a kind of inner exile. Why are so few artists to be found in the public realm?
Burcu Dogramaci: It’s true, theaters actually reacted much faster to the new situation. But it is harder for the visual arts, beyond performance art. What should they be showing? Their creative process, a behind-the-scenes look at their studio, or their objects? The question is what they can communicate and how—that’s a pretty big challenge. Some people have made a start, but the art scene is still rather cautious in its reaction.
Let’s take a look at the future. How would you describe the outlook for institutionalized art?
Burcu Dogramaci: Many of the large institutions hope to be able to return to the old way of doing things and put on their exhibitions soon. But my prediction would be that digital measures will be part of the equation in the future. There are new opportunities to be had in international networking and collaboration, for example. And it’s possible to have a completely different kind of global cooperation in alternative digital museums with virtual spaces. Contact with the public would also be more direct—say, if they had the opportunity to make digital ‘appointments’ to speak with curators and were able to choose a favorite object, comment on selected artworks, or suggest future exhibition themes. And that would go further towards meeting the visitors’ needs, too.
Interview: Hubert Filser
Prof. Dr. Burcu Dogramaci is Professor of 20th Century and Contemporary Art History at the LMU Institute of Art History. Her research and teaching work focus particularly on subjects such as exile and migration. In an article on what the coronavirus teaches us in the ‘Reset. Corona and its Aftermath’ column of the CAS_LMU blog, Dogramaci writes in detail about art and art history in crisis mode. The column seeks views on the aftermath of the pandemic from the perspective of different disciplines. Does it signify a turning point in academia and society? What will be different after the crisis?
Prof. Burcu Dogramaci: “What Corona teaches us” on CAS_LMU Blog