This week has marked our first cautious steps out of lockdown and into a ‘COVIDSafe‘ Australia as slowing rates of infection have prompted an easing of restrictions on gathering and movement across the country. Businesses and workplaces are gradually starting to reopen, offering hope of a return to some semblance of normality – although social distancing and other precautions will remain in place for the foreseeable future. While many in the hospitality and retail sectors anxiously adapt to new limits on the volume and density of their clientele, all eyes in the arts are turned toward the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT) in Darwin, the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA) in Adelaide and the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) in Sydney, the first state and territory galleries to announce their reopening, with more likely on the way soon.
MAGNT Darwin, the Museum of Central Australia, Megafauna Central and Lyons Cottage opened their doors on 18 May as part of the second stage in the Northern Territory Government’s ‘Roadmap to the New Normal’. Discovery Centres in Darwin and Alice Springs, the Defence of Darwin Experience and Fannie Bay Gaol remain closed, and all reopened venues must enforce strict physical distancing and hygiene measures, but many in the territory will undoubtedly find great cause for celebration and reassurance in this sign of change, perfectly timed to coincide with International Museum Day. Another sign of change is the continued commitment to online initiatives reaffirmed by MAGNT Director Marcus Schutenko, indicating that a dual approach to exhibitions and public programs will likely remain a defining feature of our arts landscape for some time yet.
In Adelaide, AGSA Director Rhana Devenport ONZM has announced that the gallery will reopen from 8 June, again with strict physical distancing, capacity limits and increased hygiene measures in place. ‘While attendances will be diligently monitored and the safety guidelines outlined by Government adhered to,’ Devenport assures, ‘we are so pleased to welcome a limited capacity of visitors … reopening windows to other worlds through art.’ Like MAGNT, AGSA will also maintain a commitment to the provision of online resources and an active social media presence. Most recently, AGNSW Director Michael Brand announced the reopening of that gallery on 1 June.
Ironically, despite the closure of galleries and museums across Australia and the possibility that visitor numbers will be down for some time, the pandemic has likely inspired an expansion rather than contraction in other areas of engagement, with podcasts, video tours and interactive encounters opening collections and exhibitions to a broad diversity of regional, interstate and overseas audiences.
For the arts, as for other sectors, our first tentative steps out of lockdown and into an uncertain future have revealed the extent to which the medical and economic devastation brought about by COVID-19 compel a reassessment of our priorities. It cannot be denied that many people and institutions have suffered greatly and continue to suffer as the crisis intensifies elsewhere in the world – a reminder that we cannot become complacent and must remain cautious in our efforts to recover. Yet for those who have the good fortune to weather the storm, this has also been a lesson in the need to adapt and innovate, to make use of new technologies, and to share our advantages and resources with the widest possible audience. It is this commitment to diversity, transparency and accessibility that offers our best hope for a better future.
Dr Alex Burchmore, Publication Manager