Remaking the Arts Scene (and predicting the future) of New York City Edition
So it’s been a few weeks now since the stay at home order in New York City has taken effect and we’re still trying to develop healthy routines of work/exercise/home life, not just for ourselves but those around us too. Things didn’t go so well at first; changes in daily life were so jarring that we just shut down all our work efforts, obsessively watching the news and getting depressed instead. But that got old pretty fast, so we started making lists of things to do, limiting the amount of time with the news, and starting to remake ArtsGazing to reflect the new reality of our times. You’ll notice the headings have changed from gallery and museum shows to read virtual gallery and museum shows, along with NYC podcasts, and NYC videocasts, to round out the selections. We’ll be adding to each area as the weeks go by so check back often.
The first thing we discovered when we started doing research for our revisions is that most galleries and museums were not ready for this change in visitor behavior. Their online presence was often spotty or incomplete, with few images or very old videos from lectures or events. It’s understandable of course; we’ve all gotten used to web pages giving the basics on hours, admission costs, and current exhibit information so why would anyone need more? Well, now we know – because worst case scenarios can happen to any institution at any time.
Second is that virtual reality for galleries and museums is still not that user friendly, or even interesting, most of the time. You need the right equipment and a lot of patience to maneuver around a VR space: we don’t have either so although we mention when it’s available, that’s not our main interest. Maybe the feature will get better over time, but for now, websites don’t need to make it a major investment. It’s not the best use of limited funds anyway, if you want to spend money we’d much rather see high resolution images that stand up to the zoom feature.
The third thing is after the initial shock, most galleries and museums are trying very hard to introduce new content that’s engaging to a wide variety of people. There are lesson plans for grade schoolers using the objects in museums to discuss history or engage in critical thinking, lectures for all ages on art and other disciplines, live sessions of art classes, and talks with artists, curators, and others. The sudden flood of material is astonishing and only going to help galleries and museums survive the inevitable downturn of the economy and their markets.
Speaking of this sudden stoppage of art, visitors, patrons, workers, and money – what will the immediate and long-term effects be? Very bad, obviously. More than that, for many people it is and will be catastrophic: changing careers, educational plans, and lifestyles in ways not fully known at this time. People will go into debt, perhaps for the rest of their lives. Exhibits will be cancelled or severely revised to include less. Insurance costs will go up. Admissions and ticket costs for events will go up as well. There will be closures of smaller institutions (or shorter opening times), especially in the categories of house museum or historical sites, whether independent, state, or federally funded. Auctions will have more works for sale but less people to buy them. Theft and destruction of archaeological sites will increase. Research and scholarship across the humanities will suffer; fewer articles, papers, and books will be written. Even worse, the repercussions will last decades, partially because this is just the first episode of a long term problem in public health, and partially because so many other problems will become apparent in this era of chaos and difficulties. Artistic growth and promotion will be stunted. And out of those who can make a living in the arts, maybe a handful will genuinely move the visual world forward. (But we won’t presume to guess how it happens or what it will look like, we only hope we’ll know when it does.)
On the other hand, after the shock of the next few months subsides, and the firings, layoffs, and furloughs come to an end, what happens then?
Well, any museum or gallery left standing will be revising everything, down to the cost of pencils and floor cleaner. Tighter budgets require innovation, inspiration, and inclusion. Institutions will have to justify their value and commitment to their core audience as well as connecting with new patrons across the city. A need to explore new sources of income from zip codes across the five boroughs should be the main incentive for any organization. As we all know, art events often focus on a small group, limiting dialog and ideas to those who have some knowledge on the subject, instead of recruiting and encouraging others to explore and become inspired by what they see. It will change the city’s cultural landscape for the better, if more people can connect emotionally and intellectually with the arts, which will, in turn, bring new people and ideas into the mix.
But can organizations figure this out? Will the various unions agree? Can the cost of living and arts training ever be reconciled with a new, tightly budgeted arts world? Maybe some groups will combine forces to keep going, others will just close down, and people leave the city, maybe to start programs somewhere else. In the end, we see a 10 year plan for the cultural life of New York City: 1 to 2 years to shake out the obvious non-survivors, 5 years for new programs to gain a foothold or to fail, 10 years altogether for new and existing programs to prove they’re nimble and lucky enough to survive in the drastically changed world of needs and funding. It’s going to be tougher than anything ever done before, but if we want art to survive and thrive here, it’s got to start as soon as possible.