National Gallery charges for virtual exhibition tour as new research suggests UK museums fear for their future

London’s National Gallery is charging £8 for virtual admission to its blockbuster Artemisia Gentileschi exhibition

Ticket holders can take a 30 minute online tour of the exhibition led by its curator, Letizia Treves. Some might argue that the virtual tour is a poor substitute for an in-person visit and Treves herself explained that the film “cannot replace the experience of seeing the exhibition in person at the National Gallery”. However, she says it will allow the National Gallery to “share Artemisia’s story and paintings with as many people as possible, in particular those who cannot make it to Trafalgar Square right now”.

Artemisia (1593-1654 or later) is the most celebrated female painter of the 17th century and worked in Rome, Florence, Venice, Naples and London. Among her most important patrons were the Grand Duke of Tuscany and Philip IV of Spain.

The original opening date for the ‘Artemisia’ exhibition was postponed due to the first UK lockdown. It has been closed temporarily during the second lockdown, which began on 5 November 2020 but the gallery’s website is selling tickets for in-person visits from 3 December onwards, the day after lockdown is due to end.

The devastating impact of COVID on the cultural sector has sparked debate over the future of the arts in the UK and raised questions over how museums might charge for their digital content in a bid to survive. The National Gallery’s decision to charge for its virtual tour appears to be one response to this question. 

It also seems to reflect the UK government’s attitude towards tackling the crisis. In August 2020, a letter sent by UK culture secretary Oliver Dowden to the directors of several national museums in England was leaked to the press. In the letter, Dowden urged them to take as “commercially minded an approach as possible” and consider “monetising digital offers” to increase revenue. 

The letter caused dismay among nationals who were concerned the government was overstepping the limits of political interference in the cultural sector and responding insensitively to the financial difficulties caused by the pandemic.

Further afield, a recent virtual symposium entitled ‘Reframing Museums’ and organised by the Louvre Abu Dhabi and New York University Abu Dhabi, featured a roundtable discussion on ‘The future of exhibitions in a post-pandemic world’. One participant, Rmn-Grand Palais president, Chris Dercon, posed the question: “Do we continue to upload endless digital content without a system of monetisation?”.

The National Gallery’s initiative comes as the latest research from UK charity Art Fund suggests 60% of UK museums, galleries, and historic houses fear for their futures in the wake of the pandemic and worry they might never reopen after having to close earlier this year. 

In June 2020, Art Fund announced it would offer £2 million in emergency funding to help the arts sector recover after lockdown. Over 450 organisations submitted applications for funding but according to the latest research, only 55% of UK museums have received funds to date. Art Fund has distributed a total of £2.25 million and no more funding remains.

In response, on 19 November Art Fund launched an urgent crowdfunding appeal for £1 million. Donors to the ‘Join Together for Museums’ campaign can choose from a selection of ‘rewards’ offered by iconic artists including David Shrigley, Lubaina Himid, and Anish Kapoor. Rewards will be distributed if the appeal reaches its target. 

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