More or less the same message is blazoned across the homepage of every major art gallery this month. “We’re closed for the time being. We care deeply about the health of our visitors. We have been open 360 days a year for the past [100, 200, 300] years, and this closure saddens us greatly. But we hope to see you soon! Follow us on social media for an artistic insight into isolation.” Coronavirus is not a comfortable time, despite the torpor brought on by quarantine. Amidst all the anxiety, galleries are emerging as a rather comforting presence online – even as the art industry shudders under the virus’s impact. And where before the virus, art had seemed the preserve of the privileged, the social media-heavy tenor of quarantine is democratising the way we engage with galleries, view works, and even make art ourselves.
The Tate family of galleries, which has always had a benign but insistent social media presence, is ideally suited to adapt to working from home. Its 3.4 million-strong Instagram following (compare that to the National Gallery’s 1.5 million) is already used to seeing it pop up once or twice a day on its feed, showcasing forgotten or lesser-known works from its collection. Often its posts are accompanied by a chirpy caption; the account appears to be run by an earnest but approachable intern figure, translating the notoriously snobbish gallery world into palatable snapshots. Since quarantine started, @tate has doubled down on its Instagram efforts, running a series of interactive posts on isolation-related themes that invite viewers to exhibit their responses in the miniature display of the phone screen. The first began with examples of artists depicting the view from their windows, setting off a flurry of follower submissions from as far afield as Belgrade and Nova Scotia. Taken individually, the window views had surprisingly little to distinguish them from one another; as a whole, they became an artwork, a display of fellowship in captivity.
Without doubt, this period will give rise to a great many artistic efforts. For those who have always wanted to write the great American (or British) novel, but have never had the time, there is no longer any excuse not to knuckle down with the Smith Corona. (No pun intended.) Those lucky enough to have space and materials to hand will begin work on paintings, drawings and sculpture intended to capture the essence of lockdown. But Instagram opens up an even readier channel for self-expression during this time: the phone camera. Finally we can try for one of those incredible, supposedly ad-hoc shots plastered over the Tube station walls by Apple. The Martin Parr Foundation, the Bristol gallery run by the acclaimed photographer, has run a “photo challenge” every week during the crisis, inviting followers both amateur and professional to submit photos in response to a prompt. A winner is chosen each week. The shortlisted photos are inventive, funny and often surprisingly emotive: a reflection through a window, a child’s back in the bath.
The implication here – that good art can be made and experienced with very few resources and under a great deal of restriction – is exhilarating. The closure of major auction houses and the increasing difficulty of shipping precious goods abroad is changing the art market considerably, possibly for good. But while high-end art purchases are struggling, grassroots initiatives appear to be thriving. As self-isolation drags out into a month, then two, it feels more and more alien to be concerned about luxury sectors such as art, which speak more to late-2010s cultured consumerism than the economic instability and environmental upheaval which look set to define the 2020s. It remains to be seen how the art world will look when we return to public life.