At the first signs of the Covid-19 outbreak, many photography museums and galleries around the world, especially in Europe and the United States, closed their doors to the public. This difficult situation has forced these institutions to reinvent themselves in order to survive.
A strange mood hangs over cities and around museums, which would normally have crowds of visitors streaming through the doors, now sealed shut. “We decided to close a few hours before the governmental announcement on March 14,” explained François Hébel, director of the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson (HCB) in Paris. His decision was made in response to the French President Emmanuel Macron’s call to social responsibility in his TV address two days earlier.
In New York, museums closed that very weekend. The International Center of Photography (ICP), which houses an exhibition gallery as well as an art school, has not reopened since Saturday, March 14. “By March 15, we moved classes to remote learning. Our staff also moved to working remotely. A great deal of coordination was involved in transforming ICP in a matter of two weeks,” explained Mark Lubell, the executive director.
“Of course, the situation is complicated,” noted Simon Baker, director of the Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP) in Paris, “but what matters is people’s well-being. There are no two ways about it.” Some of the museum staff are working remotely, while others are on parental leave to take care of their children being home-schooled. The daily rhythm has obviously been broken up.
A topsy-turvy schedule
The big question looming over photography institutions is scheduling. Because exhibitions are closed to the public at the moment, many venues would like to extend them so that the public might get a chance to visit once the crisis is over. But what about the upcoming exhibitions? Some are slated to travel from one institution to the next. Is everybody going to revise their agendas?
“This is quite a conundrum,” admits François Hébel who would like to extend the exhibition devoted to the photographer Marie Bovo but is supposed to hold a retrospective of Jean Groover’s work before it travels on to the United States. The MEP is facing the same problem. “We have forthcoming exhibitions organized in tandem with other museums like Tate in London. We are thus dependent on the situation in other countries. Decisions need to be made and this will take a lot of phone calls,” worries Simon Baker.
In the meantime, many museums are working hard to bring their current exhibitions online in virtual tours. The ICP in New York has added special content focusing on the exhibitions on display, brought its archival collections online, as well as launched #ICPConcerned on Instagram, a project inviting everyone to document the pandemic. The Fondation Cartier in Paris has created a wonderful interactive platform featuring the retrospective of the Brazilian photographer Claudia Andujar.
“We are going to move our exhibitions online on the BDC’s [Bronx Documentary Center] website, with virtual tours and video interviews with photographers,” vowed Michael Kamber, the director of the iconic photography institution in New York which raises awareness of the social aspects of images among Bronx residents. This is a great way to strengthen social cohesion in a community of photography lovers. “Finding a new format is a challenge, but I strongly believe the demand is there,” adds Mark Lubell. “While the ICP is temporarily closed, the community will remain active online through virtual programming for audiences of all ages.”
At the MEP, the artist Ermin Wurm whose work is on display at the moment has just completed an a very a-propos project, which explores space and specifically the artist’s confinement in his studio. Simon Baker and his team decided to turn the museum’s Instagram account to the artist for a day or two of "Take Over". This is a way for the artist to stay in touch with the public.
Staying in touch is also the word of the day at the Jeu de Paume in Paris, which is putting out a newsletter every Tuesday throughout the period of closure. It includes book recommendations by director Quentin Bajac who offers suggestions from his personal library; articles on photography; as well as poem readings that can be played online.
Museums may sometimes be more directly involved in the community or even step in to fill a gap left by the health authorities. “We noticed that there was a lack of information in the South Bronx—a lot of people don’t have computers here—so we started a public health campaign. We produced and shared hundreds of flyers about the coronavirus in our neighborhood, and sent these to non-profit organizations in other neighborhoods so they can share them with people as well,” noted Michael Kamber at the BDC.
Beyond these praiseworthy initiatives, which keep the staff busy, museums fear an economic backlash. Some say outright that the State is likely to spend more on public health than on the arts and cut down financial support to the arts sector. “If the crisis is over in a couple of months, we will pull through. If it goes on for four months, we will be in serious trouble,” admitted François Hébel at the Fondation HCB. Others remain more confident about the future, like Mark Lubell at the ICP: “I firmly believe we’ll get through this and be more flexible and adaptable on the other side.
Simon Baker at the MEP strikes a similarly philosophical note: “I really believe that this period can be stimulating for photographers. It’s not only an opportunity to reflect on their work, but also to create something new. In my mind, photography is also about understanding other people’s lives in difficult times. I see a lot of interesting work emerging in Italy, for example; I keep a close eye on Instagram. All this makes me think about what it will be like to reopen the museum. We might rethink our programming in light of this crisis.”
By Jonas Cuénin & Jean-Baptiste Gauvin
Cover: View of the exhibition Le supermarché des images at the Jeu de Paume in Paris © Jeu de Paume / François Lauginie