Following Closures, Art Criticism Faces an Uncertain Future

With galleries, museums, and fairs closing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, art writers and editors are reexamining what criticism looks like without the ability to view art in person.

by | March 26, 2020

By Rahel Aima

A few days ago, I saw a chilling statistic: about a third of American museums were operating at a deficit before COVID-19 struck, and they may never reopen. It’s not limited to US museums, either. Auctions and fairs, from Art Dubai and Art Basel to Frieze New York and São Paolo’s SP-Arte, have all been postponed or cancelled outright. Galleries are shuttered, or open by appointment only. Noncommercial events like Senegal’s Dak’Art and the pan-European Manifesta are being postponed too, and the Sydney Biennial will debut an entirely virtual edition. The show must go online, or so the avalanche of emails in my inbox say, along with references to the last Venice Biennial’s theme, “May you live in interesting times.” Videos and new media works lend themselves naturally to digital encounters, and a number of galleries and institutions are choosing to both highlight works that viewers can experience at home and, in some cases, host them too. For everything else, there’s online viewing rooms.

Thus far, megagalleries — who often sell out their booths via PDF long before an art fair opens — seem to be doing fine. Ditto blue-chip artists who don’t rely on adjuncting at now-shuttered universities to stay afloat. Art critics, however, are struggling even more than usual. For my last two reviews, I had to make an appointment to see one show at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in NYC on March 13, the morning after major museums closed. I also asked for digital access to a film for another exhibition that I couldn’t return to spend time with. Future reviews are off the table while there are no shows on; I have a handful of pieces already commissioned for this month, and a terrifyingly blank spreadsheet for next month onwards. I’m desperately trying to pivot, dreaming up listicles and waiting for my essay ideas to come home from war.

Tausif Noor relies heavily on reviews, plus the occasional essay, to supplement the income from his curatorial fellowship at the ICA Philadelphia, which ends in June. “I am quite nervous about the next few weeks,” he says. “I travel from Philadelphia to write exhibition reviews of New York shows, so it’s going to be a big strain for me financially to do that. I’m hoping to find another income stream, but I’m not optimistic at all.” Study Haller Jillian Steinhauer writes weekly reviews for the New York Times, which are published to coincide with shows. Cancellations leave pieces she has already filed in limbo and, for the time being, fees unpaid. “The whole thing has engendered something of a mini-existential crisis. I’ve been able to make a pretty good living as a freelancer, with steady writing gigs, and watching it all vanish within the span of a week was and is rattling.”

For other writers, talks, panels, and other events make criticism viable. “Thus far, several programs and panels that I was scheduled to participate in have been cancelled, resulting in significant loss of income,” writer and ARTS.BLACK co-editor Jessica Lynne tells me over email, adding that no stories have been killed, but she worries about how much she can pitch given the closures. Luckily, her publication is grant-funded and can continue its critical support of Black critics.

London-based writer Orit Gat has similarly lost significant income from cancelled talks. She has one review still in the works but hasn’t seen the show yet, noting that “I’m trying to socially distance as much as possible; not all cultural organizations in London have closed yet, but that doesn’t seem like a good reason to still go.” Instead, she’s turning to features and analytical essays about interfacing with art online, but tells me: “I’m very committed to criticism and can’t imagine my writing practice without the visual stimulus and dialogue of seeing shows regularly.”

Art publications are also scrambling to adapt to a world in which viewers can’t see art in person. Martin Herbert edits European reviews for ArtReview, and says this is the last month of relative normality, as writers saw shows before they closed in the first few weeks of March. “It’s an evolving conversation regarding what we do next: if we move to covering things that are purely online, some types of work will be more adaptable than others (e.g. video),” he says. “That said, we would want to avoid skewing our coverage in that regard; on the other hand, there may also be shifts in what galleries choose to present. As presentational formats adapt so will we, but it feels like we’re currently right at the start of it.”

Among art writers and editors, there’s a sense of being unmoored: art mags primarily structure their coverage around exhibitions, which function much like news hooks to make an interview, column, or feature timely. “Obviously that isn’t possible in a world where exhibitions don’t exist,” Artforum senior editor Lloyd Wise notes. “Thankfully, artists will continue making work, and important conversations will continue taking place. We’re hoping we can provide a forum for these discussions, and serve as a platform for our community’s intellectual, political, and aesthetic responses to this world-altering crisis.”

Other publications are taking more proactive, solidaristic tacks. BOMB and Triple Canopy have compiled lists of online resources and mutual aid efforts for artists and art workers respectively. Art in America is similarly looking to leverage their platform to share resources, for advocacy, and to signal boost artists whose shows closed. For example, in the current issue I profiled a young artist about to have their first big institutional solo at the MIT List Center. That show never opened, but AIA decided to host their videos online alongside the piece. Editor William Smith emails, “Art criticism is usually a secondary experience, a discussion of work that exists in a museum or gallery. During a pandemic, the situation is different. Art criticism is a primary way for people to engage with art. That’s a responsibility we have to take seriously.”

All these publications are grappling with what it might mean to have critics review exhibitions through a screen. Smith notes that there’s a lot to learn from art communities that have existed primarily online. He’s encouraged by the mutual aid efforts that have sprung up, adding that “this is also an opportunity to imagine a new kind of art world coming into existence.” Steinhauer is also cautiously optimistic: “There’s a part of me that’s excited by the challenge of not being able to rely on reviews for a while and being forced to think about writing about art in a different way. How can I do that? What do I want that to look like?”

But even as things look grim for critics, Lynne is mindful of the bigger picture: “This moment is demonstrating so clearly the failures of state infrastructure on a host of levels. More than anything, I am trying to use this time to determine how I can be a part of intervening strategies that enable the care and material wellbeing of us all.”

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