Finn McRedmond: Best time to visit art galleries may be now

Tired of virtual aesthetics, we can gaze on artworks before tourist crowds return

Museums and galleries that rely on admission fees will struggle to attract numbers and those free to enter will see other revenue streams diminished – donations, cafes, gift shops et al. Photograph:  Thomas Samson/AFP

Museums and galleries that rely on admission fees will struggle to attract numbers and those free to enter will see other revenue streams diminished – donations, cafes, gift shops et al. Photograph: Thomas Samson/AFP

 

The Wedding Feast at Cana is perhaps one of the most ignored art works in the world. At nearly 10m long and 7m high, Veronese’s high Renaissance oil painting (depicting the apocryphal tale of Jesus turning water into wine) must be brushed over by thousands of pairs of eyes every day. It sits in the Louvre, opposite the Mona Lisa.

We are all too familiar with the sight. A gallery thronged with tourists, brandishing iPhones and the dreaded selfie sticks, shuffling up against one another, and craning their necks to try and catch a glimpse of whatever the headline attraction is. In the Louvre it’s Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or Michelangelo’s David.

Galleries groaning under the weight of thousands of tourists hardly make for the ideal viewing experience

For the Uffizi in Florence it is perhaps Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. Back at home, Caravaggio’s The Taking of the Christ is the main event of the National Gallery. But thanks to crowding and queuing, it is easy to understand why many don’t find enjoyment in these spaces at all.

Since coronavirus has taken hold, however, we have been met with an entirely different scene. Galleries and museums world over are ghost towns, with thousands shuttering their doors in a bid to quell the spread of the virus.

Galleries groaning under the weight of thousands of tourists hardly make for the ideal viewing experience. So now, ironically, in their abandoned state they look more appealing than ever.

Much ink has been spilled on the devastating economic impacts the pandemic has wrought on the hospitality industry. We are confronted daily with grave predictions that bars, pubs, restaurants and hotels in their legion will be forced to close entirely, either having incurred too many losses during lockdown, or unable to sustain themselves under strict social distancing measures in place for the foreseeable future.

Revenue streams

But so too are museums and galleries set to suffer. Those that rely on admission fees will struggle to attract sufficient numbers to make up their operating costs; and those that are free to enter will likely see their other revenue streams severely diminished – donations, cafes, gift shops et al.

But despite these challenges, the art world has made valiant attempts to maintain its presence in our lives throughout lockdown.

The Art Basel fair went online; the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s online video – the Met 360 Project – saw a 4106 per cent growth in viewing by the beginning of May this year; and you can do Google Street View style tours of the Uffizi in Florence or the Guggenheim in New York.

Giant Veronese oil paintings, the Elgin Marbles and baroque portraits are not made to be viewed on a computer screen

And so too have individual artists gone to great lengths to spread their work as our lives migrated online – with Tracey Emin publishing daily diaries in collaboration with the White Cube Gallery, and David Hockney publishing tableaus of his life in Normandy drawn on his iPad.

But these small crumbs of comfort we were offered amid lockdown look just like that in hindsight – crumbs. Virtual galleries and exhibitions might have seen a huge uptick in web traffic as people tried to while away the hours sequestered indoors. But giant Veronese oil paintings, the Elgin Marbles, and baroque portraits are not made to be viewed through a computer screen.

The value of galleries, museums and their artefacts, is found in our physical presence. As Gemma Tipton pointed out in The Irish Times recently: “If virtual viewing really was even better than the real thing, the advent of the internet would have closed down galleries years ago.”

Social distancing

So, as the world slowly starts to reopen – with galleries available to visit in Dublin now, in London on Saturday, what lies in store?

Though galleries can open their doors once again, it will not come without great cost. Social distancing will have to be maintained, and the international tourism that sustains many of these places will be much diminished for a long time to come.

The director of the Museum of Literature Ireland pointed out that 65 per cent of its visitors this year “would have come from overseas”. That is no insignificant sum. As we flock back to pubs and restaurants, we ought to spare a thought too for galleries and museums in need of our custom more than ever.

And there will no doubt be an initial flurry of visitors to the National Gallery, the Tate Britain, the Hugh Lane and even the Natural History Museum on Merrion Square (a collection of poorly taxidermied animals affectionately dubbed “the dead zoo”).

As we have been deprived of these vital cultural artefacts (though a taxidermied beaver is perhaps not a cultural artefact of the same order as Caravaggio’s Taking of Christ), we are being offered the chance to appreciate them once again in an entirely new light. But a question remains over whether an initial enthusiasm can be sustained.

With the capacity of these spaces much limited, and tourism much depleted, we have a brief moment to appreciate these spaces without having to navigate hordes of school and tour groups. Hopefully, after months of lockdown, forced to live our lives over the internet, we will come to cherish the wealth of art and history at our fingertips more than ever before.

And, it could mean good news for Veronese. With all that added space in the Louvre, maybe some will think to turn around and look at the Wedding Feast at Cana at last.

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