The art world is curating a survival plan

To weather the pandemic, museums are going all-in on internet culture.


April 22, 2020

Pony up $2,500, and the MoMA will sell you a prized possession: A 1st edition of the photography book William Eggleston’s Guide. To raise money, MoMA staffers are rummaging through the archives and selling ~120 rare books.

Lockdown has not painted a pretty picture for the museum world. 

The Met and the Smithsonian are predicting many millions of dollars in losses. The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles laid off all of its part-time staff and furloughed many of its full-timers. 

In France, some experts say that ⅓ of all galleries might close permanently before 2020 is up.

J. Paul Getty, meet Tom Nook

The surest evidence that the art world is entering a new reality is a tweet from London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Arts: “Who can draw us a thirsty ferret?”

The tweet was part of the museum’s daily drawing challenge, dubbed #RAdailydoodle. But it also feels emblematic of a moment: These stodgy institutions are going all-in on internet culture. 

  • On TikTok, Moscow’s Garage Museum is producing mock horror films. 
  • The Yorkshire Museum is hosting weekly “curator battles” for museum staff with no customers. The most recent challenge — What is the creepiest object in your collection? — turned up zombie blowfish and dioramas featuring humans fashioned from crab claws.
  • The Getty Center is hopping on the Animal Crossing bandwagon with an add-on that lets people import paintings into the game.
  • Maybe you’ve seen the meme where people remix famous art with themselves and their pets — including the instant classic, “Dog With(out) a Pearl Earring.” 

There’s even a Covid Art Museum — an Instagram account blowing up with paintings of toilet paper or photos of social distancing.

Museums want this moment to be merely their Blue Period

All of this effort isn’t for nothing. Some art houses, like London’s Courtauld Gallery, have seen traffic spikes to their websites as big as 723%.  

Engaged audiences are great, but in terms of cold hard cash, the best they can bring are donations. There is, unfortunately, no Animal Crossing add-on for the ticket sales and big-money contributions that keep art museums humming. 

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