As of today, Auckland Art Gallery remains open. But what's the role of the gallery in the age of Covid-19?

Come on in? NZ galleries and museums remain open despite coronavirus

UPDATE March 20: Auckland Museum, Auckland Art Gallery and Te Papa in Wellington today announced they are closing their doors from tonight for at least two weeks. Many other galleries and museums remain open for now, but people should check the website before visiting, as the situation is changing fast.

Right now, all public galleries and museums remain open in New Zealand, with the exception of the Bowen House Exhibition space within parliament which closed Monday. But things are changing quickly. In many cases, public programmes have been suspended, including openings. As of this morning, Auckland Museum has suspended school visits, guided tours and other events.

This is all ahead of a government statement today that is expected to announce a further tightening on the size of allowable public gatherings. Already at least two private galleries are closed except by appointment, Mossman in Wellington and Fox Jensen in Auckland. Others like Auckland’s Trish Clark Gallery – a just opened space in Great North Road – are still open, for now. 

Trish Clark Gallery, works by Alan Miller, Galia Amsel and Jennifer French. Image: Sait Akkirman, www.artsdiary.co.nz

That’s not necessarily the case with the galleries and museums overseas. On Wednesday the National Gallery in London closed its doors. It followed the Tate Modern and a range of high profile private commercial dealers in London taking precautionary measures by closing on Monday. So have other major galleries across the world. The Museum of Modern Art in New York closed last Friday, for example. In Melbourne, the National Gallery of Victoria and other public and private galleries and museums closed earlier this week.

In Hobart, millionaire David Walsh’s remarkable Museum of Old and New Art was one of the first to close. 

“What do you do when you’re trying to predict something that can’t be predicted?” wrote Walsh in a statement online.Panic may be a legitimate option, but as someone who holds a level of responsibility to the staff and the community, that option isn’t open to me. A good remaining option is the Precautionary Principle.”

However, closing is certainly not the case everywhere across the Tasman. In Sydney, the region’s biggest art biennale is in full flight, featuring a range of New Zealand artists across six sites. Major galleries remain open, including the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra which is taking similar precautionary measures to institutions here.

Before we panic, there’s another side to this. In the UK there have been community transmissions cases for some time; there are none here in New Zealand, yet. Galleries and museums are far less busy than supermarkets or retail outlets. As any gallery worker will tell you, it’s only at openings that you’re likely to bump into more than one or two people in a single gallery space. The contemporary white gallery cube is known for the wide open spaces it provides around artworks. In galleries like these, practising social distancing when viewing artwork is already commonplace. 

Public institutions are stressing their vigilance in providing hand sanitiser and other measures, while also being guided by official public health advice. Yesterday, Zoe Black of Auckland public gallery Objectspace said the gallery had no current plans to close, but that extra hygiene procedures have been put in place. Staff are using antibacterial wipes to clean the VR headset of Kereama Taepa’s new work in between uses. The exhibition has a rather apt title: Transmission. 

Kereama Taepa, ‘Te Oru’, installation shot at Objectspace, 2019. Image: Samuel Hartnett.

The great thing about an art gallery, Black points out, is you’re not allowed to touch anything. Spaces like Objectspace are large. Outside of events, there’s rarely any more than 10 people in the gallery at one time. Social distancing is no problem. 

Courtney Johnston, new tumu whakarae/chief executive of Te Papa, confirmed that our largest cultural institution remains open but a range of precautionary measures are now in place. From today, tours, school visits, public programmes and events are cancelled until further notice. Te Papa has also closed its children’s discovery centres and StoryPlace. But the museum, exhibitions and cafes and shops remain open. All have increased cleaning, with hand sanitiser available throughout the building and staff following “all the hygiene guidance,” says Johnston.

“We made these decisions based on proximity – how close people are to each other and for how long – and on whether we could trace people.

“We know Te Papa is an important public space, somewhere to take time out, to socialise, to renew yourself. That’s a role that galleries and museums play around the country and around the world, and we want to play that role as long as it’s sensible for us to do that.”

If New Zealand galleries do close, there’s hope that they will step up to increase the online resources and experiences made available to the public.

The National Gallery of Victoria closed on Monday but as it did it released a virtual tour of its latest temporary exhibition Collecting Comme, a survey of the work of Rei Kawakubo, the designer behind fashion label Comme des Garçons. Virtual doesn’t just mean a video. In the Collecting Comme online tour you get to move about the 3D space as you wish, much like a real-time visit. 

Meanwhile if you’re already in self-isolation are practising social distancing you might like to take a lunchtime wander around the over 500 museums and galleries collections online, from institutions that have partnered with Google to increase access to the arts. Te Papa, Auckland Art Gallery and Auckland Museum are among them. The platform also uses Google’s Street View to allow you to wander around various large gallery spaces around the world.

If anyone is going to initiate some smart digital initiatives, Courtney Johnston is a good contender. Her reputation in this area saw her recently invited to write the foreword for the Routledge book The Digital Future of Museums: Conversations and Provocations, published last month

“Our message to would-be visitors is if you’re feeling well, come on in, we’d love to see you,” says Johnston. “If you’re feeling unwell then stay home – and check out some of our incredible online content.

“The culture sector has so much to offer people, whether you’re in the building or stuck on your couch, and we’ve been inspired by some of the amazing offerings from our colleagues internationally.”


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