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Rebuilding our cultural lives

Mary Furniss, MA 2019-20. Photo: Jean Baptiste Béranger.

Concerns are growing about the consequences of a third wave of the coronavirus and at times it is strange to picture life after both before and after the pandemic. At the same time, if we are to brave our tedium and despair, we must begin to consider a post-pandemic, revivified cultural life after more than a year of torpor.

The question is what we will see once we rub the sleep from our eyes. What happens to art when it has not had the fortune to meet and touch its audience? Which works of art never saw the light of day, which exhibitions never opened, which collaborations and connections never got a chance to sprout? The answer is that we do not know, but we can already see the various traces left by the pandemic, as they gradually form a pattern.

Artists have had to put their operations on hold for financial reasons. Art students feel greatly disquieted over difficulties in maintaining their studies how it will be possible to work as an artist in the future. The art institutions have had to adapt their working methods and conditions, not least in financial terms. At the same time, digitalization rapidly created new forums and distribution channels for art. Something revealed by the recent commercial storm around art distributed through blockchain. Signs that will surely affect the art of the future. The contexts that give artists the opportunity to create, display and spread their art are crucial for the kind of art that can be created, and for who is given the opportunity to create.

In times of crisis and change, it is of the utmost importance to dare to dream. To envisage how the web and mesh of art could be modified or transformed in order to better support the artistic endeavor. The risk is otherwise that, in times of uncertainty, we reenact destructive and unproductive behaviors. It is now we need to think ahead and to have the courage to ask ourselves just what is functioning and what is not. Merely stating that the corona pandemic is a symptom of life out of balance, and that we can reckon with similar situations in the future, can feel like kicking at an open door. Still, I do not think we really wish to see how closely linked systems of art are to the economic systems that deplete the earth. Post-pandemic cultural life cannot simply return to what once was, but must be fundamentally rebuilt.

A state commission was recently appointed to come up with proposals before summer for how cultural life might recover after the pandemic. Given the situation, it is a foregone conclusion that the pressure to propose reforms to support bleeding institutions will be considerable. A cardinal question then is what must be done to take both innovative and sustainable measures for art and artists in the future. The decisions we reach and the measures we take now will have an impact on future cultural life. Initiating such a discussion at the Royal Institute of Art, this year’s research week of  24–27 March will have the future of art as a theme.

During the first decades of the millennium, an extreme expansion both in scale and distribution has characterized the systems of art. In combination with a greater mobility, this has opened up a larger art world and a heated international discussion previously unthinkable. At the same time, it has visibly led to a concentration of power: large institutions and galleries have grown sizably, while smaller, local actors and free practitioners have been left with less room for maneuver. Blockbuster exhibitions, mega-galleries, international fairs and biennials have been the hallmarks of the times. I think we realize that further advancement of these hallmarks is hardly sustainable from an artistic or ecological perspective. But what forms would be feasible and beneficial? What steps can we take now that would have a decisive impact on the future of art and artists?

A crucial first condition is to maintain confidence in the artist and in the power of art to show the way. To have the courage to allow art to operate on its own terms without governance and without deferring to commissions that ask art to solve problems that in truth should be solved elsewhere. The difficult thing for today’s graduating art student is to find opportunities to undergird their creative work at its most basic: studio, scholarships, context and opportunities to exhibit their art and be in dialogue with an audience.

The next question is: Which institutional forms best serve the art of the future? What institutional anatomy is resilient to the kinds of crises we are now going through and can provide the best support for the development of art? During the pandemic, several smaller museums and art galleries have succeeded in quickly adapting their operations to the current situation. There is a lesson to be learned from this flexibility. In this case, I believe that the size of operations has been decisive and that small-scale is the model of the future.

We do not need more mega-museums, bombastic branded buildings or resource-intensive tourist destinations. Instead, we need small mobile, multidimensional institutions that can accommodate a range of knowledge, modalities, working methods and functions and be an inclusive place for both practitioners and publics. Smaller institutions whose uninterrupted operations managed to navigate through the pandemic have featured a nearness to practitioner and public alike, which works for sharing encounters and experiences. Undermining nearness is the machinery of mega-institutions, which with their bottom line of box office must operate according to the logic of the entertainment industry.

In uncertain times when universities and art institutions alike seek new roads, I believe that the art academy that accommodates learning, research and outreach can be an effective model and inspiration for evolving art and its institutions. There is an inherent potential for innovation here. The opportunity to turn inwards in learning and research, while at the same time to open doors in conversation with the world, provides opportunities for in-depth work with and surrounding art. Art school is a probing, open-minded community that encourages candor and vivacity between teaching and research, studio, academy and exhibition space, and a larger world.