A View from the Market – Q&A with Sarah Hardy, Curator-Manager at the De Morgan Foundation

We continue our Q&A series with Sarah Hardy, the Curator-Manager of the De Morgan Foundation. Sarah is a Victorian Arts & Crafts specialist who began her museum career in the education department at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, before working on interpretation at Helmshore Mills Textile Museum, Lady Lever Art Gallery, and Two Temple Place. Sarah then worked extensively on loans and exhibitions at the National Gallery and the British Library, where she completed the Institute of Art and Law Diploma on Law and Collections Management, before joining the De Morgan Foundation in 2018.

The De Morgan Foundation is the independent charity which owns, cares for, and displays the world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of artworks by husband and wife creative duo Wiliam (1839 – 1917) and Evelyn De Morgan (1855 – 1919). William was part of William Morris’s Arts and Crafts circle, creating lustrous ceramics and opulent Persian tile schemes for some of the most enviable and glamourous interiors of the day. Evelyn is often remembered as a Pre-Raphaelite, but her feminist and spiritualist views dominate her jewel-like canvases. The Foundation receives no public funding and relies on donations to survive. Find out more about the De Morgan Foundation here.

What day to day challenges or benefits are you facing as a result of the current situation?

I miss the artworks terribly. I have always worked in museums, and always been lucky enough to work directly with collections. From condition reporting and checking our ceramics and paintings for loans, to lecturing about the collection in one of our many partner museums across the country, it is rare that I go so long without seeing the artworks. Institutionally, the great challenge is of course money. As an independent, registered charity with just one member of staff, the Foundation doesn’t receive funding from heritage sector funders and isn’t in a position to furlough staff. Cancelling events, shop orders and a lack of revenue from footfall through our museums and galleries will lead to a significant deficit in our accounts for 2020. This has, however, presented opportunities to increase our digital reach and programme. Our engagement on social platforms is up by about 600% on each platform in the last month, due solely to an ambition to keep our audiences engaged and offer them something beautiful each day to remind them it’s not all doom and gloom.

In your view, how is the global art market changing and adapting currently?

My work in the museum world is on the periphery of the art market, but the two worlds are inextricably linked, particularly with regards to transporting cultural artefacts across borders. The usual way to move artworks across Europe is by road, with an institutional courier and two drivers, something which social distancing rules won’t allow, but something that organisations cannot be flexible on, usually for insurance or indemnity regulations. Two drivers are essential to ensure that long drives can be completed in a single day. Therefore, the movement of artworks and artefacts has come to a standstill. Exhibitions and loans are left in empty galleries, waiting for us to be able to run trips to collect them. The adaptation, for museums certainly, is a more collaborative approach and trust in international colleagues that they will take care of collections and loans beyond the original agreement term.

More generally, in the commercial sector we have seen a number of international art market shows postponed or cancelled, and some commercial galleries won’t survive, with closures happening already.

Have you been particularly impressed with any of the ideas or initiatives that particular individuals or organisations in the art market have developed in response of the current situation?

At its heart, the art market is of course deeply visual. Whether artworks are viewed at their optimum, in person, or replicated in any media, their beauty can transcend a global pandemic. Christie’s online Viewing Room is testament to the power of digital to create excitement about artworks and show them off to a wide audience. In a way, this increase in digital media for the art world which is flooding newsfeeds and inboxes with beauty, is a welcome tonic to the horror of a rising daily death rate.

What long term effects (positive or negative) do you think this will have on the area of the art market in which you operate?

Balanced on the cusp of financial stability, reliant on ticket sales, shop sales, admission fees, and those all-important cups of tea, our museums and galleries are in real danger of permanent closure following a prolonged period of unplanned closures. Many of our local museums are funded, at least in part, by local authorities. As these same county and town councils now need to increase their social care, look after front line and key workers, and face a deficit in business rates, I think many will question the spend on non-statutory museum and heritage services, and many could be faced with the difficult decision to close – as has been the case with libraries. It is certainly something we have seen before, when local councils face financial ruin, such as the case with Lancashire Museums in 2015.

Is art and creativity more important now than ever?

It has been incredibly insightful to see the value placed on the arts during this period. Against a backdrop of art history and practical art lessons being axed from the national curriculum in recent years, creativity is now being valued more than ever. It offers an escape from the difficult world in which we find ourselves, and is now being actively encouraged by the Government, as they impress its importance on the population of new homeschool teacher-parents. The sector’s response to the public’s need has been incredible. From Grayson Perry’s art lessons for adults to the Royal Academy’s presentation of all of its lockdown exhibitions online, to (of course) the De Morgan Foundation’s #curatorathome videos, there is more art online than ever before. Hopefully it is a help to everyone.

If you are using new forms of technology, do you think you will continue to use them in the future?

Yes, I think so. The #CuratorAtHome series of online talks I have been delivering on our Facebook Live channel have attracted audiences from across the country, and as far as The Netherlands, California, USA, and Sydney, Australia. In this way we can extend our reach and engage new audiences. The audience has been very receptive to the request for a small donation, equivalent to much how they would pay to see the talk in the museum if it were open. It’s been helpful to have this opportunity to focus my efforts on building our online audience and test new digital ways of encouraging engagement with and support for the collection, particularly with our international audience. We have revised and implemented our social media policy and forward plan to reflect activity and advertise our programme, using an online scheduling platform. This is something I will definitely continue to do.

What are you doing/what do you think we should all be doing to prepare for when we go back to ‘normal’?

That will depend on what ‘normal’ means. Globally, we are on the cusp of potential major changes to our way of life, in terms of climate change, political systems, international supply chains, or indeed things could go back largely to the way they were with a few minor changes. The return to normality must be gradual and being mindful of others should be at the centre of what we do. People have lost loved ones, been furloughed, and had their businesses altered for ever. However we find our way back, patience and kindness should prevail.

What do you think is the most valuable lesson we can all learn from this new way of life?

The value of art and beauty can never be overstated. We will always need our culture, heritage and history and we must preserve it. Whilst these physical objects are important in themselves as windows to our past and ideas for the future, it is how their stories are shared which is actually what inspires and uplifts. I will certainly think about sharing stories from our collection with a digital audience in perpetuity, recognising that our audience and reach can go beyond those coming to our galleries and exhibitions.

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