Articles and Features

The Year In Review: 2020 In The Art World

Edward Hopper's Nighthawks in the time of coronavirus. Courtesy Yulia Pidlubnyak.
Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks in the time of coronavirus. Courtesy Yulia Pidlubnyak.

By Adam Hencz

The year 2020 has truly put the global art world to the test. The coronavirus pandemic has blown the calendar apart and forced many galleries, museums, and art events to close and drop their plans. In the light of the appalling murder of George Floyd, disillusionment and sheer exhaustion swept through the world in the face of racial injustice and revealed ethical and equality issues in art institutions. But even this turbulent year was not entirely terrible. The art world has upped its digital game and the past year saw galleries putting greater exposure on artists as well as institutions and art emergency funds, creating a culture for artist support. We have collected the paramount and most defining moments of the art world from 2020.

To kick the year off vigorously, Germany’s culture ministry launched a special office in January with the sole purpose of helping people reclaim World War II-era looted art. The office in Berlin, led by an art historian, aims to guide people around the bureaucratic hurdles for claiming back their cultural assets. Since then, it has been cited as a model by other countries hoping to improve their own restitution records. Sadly, January also saw the passing of pioneering conceptual artist John Baldessari, whose work helped expand the definition of art and shaped a generation of artists who came after him. Baldessari’s engagement with combining photography, painting, and text led him to be described by New York Times critic Christopher Knight as “arguably America’s most influential Conceptual artist.”

Art Basel Hong Kong 2020 gets cancelled. © Art Basel.
Art Basel Hong Kong gets cancelled. © Art Basel.

In early February, after weeks of speculation and uncertainty about whether the novel coronavirus would force the cancellation of this year’s edition of the Art Basel Hong Kong scheduled originally for March, the art fair became the first in a long list to do so.
The following months of the year were defined by the chain of cancellations of fairs, exhibitions and blockbusters being pushed back or eventually called off. The Covid-19 pandemic has also confronted museums with questions ranging from the practical to the existential. In the weeks after, museums across the world closed their doors to preserve public health in March, a steady drumbeat of layoffs and furlough announcements plagued the sector. As institutions in the US and the UK in particular, have long been encouraged to run themselves as commercial enterprises and heavily rely on private funding, the pandemic has exposed their flawed financial models and forced making massive cuts and losing commercial workforce.

The wide-ranging disruptive impacts of the still ongoing pandemic have forced the art market to head online and sparkled an extensive collection of digital responses from its players. Galleries that had the resources accelerated development of new digital platforms, formed alliances with existing art-market sites and moved sales operations exclusively online. However, under the pressure of digital displacement, little time and effort were given to consider the experience itself that this rapid ‘digital renaissance’ offers, and which is so urged to replicate the world that is well behind us.

The art world became overwhelmed by invitations to digital experiences from online readings to virtual exhibitions as galleries and art fairs were trying to make the sterile virtual environment more lively and hospitable. This speedy expansion of virtual hallucinations channelled through the screen only led to a very few newly hatched experiences that genuinely mimic the physical experience. Following the cancellation of live sales, rounds of layoffs, and financial freefall at the top auction houses, live-streamed mega-auctions aim to reboot the art market. As galleries and museums will wake up from their forced hibernation and after an arms race of transforming art experiences into digital, what will be there that remains after the peak of online demand?

A culture and economy in support of artists established by artist Matthew Burrows in 2020.
A culture and economy in support of artists established by artist Matthew Burrows.

The global health crisis also shed light on the actual precarious conditions of contemporary artists. Artists’ livelihood became under stress as they were struggling to keep on working as well as finding alternative ways to make ends meet. Artists have become increasingly entrepreneurial over the past year, by offering studio visits or homeschooling, besides still creating works while coping with lockdown fatigue. One of the most conspicuous examples in response to the collapsing art economy was artist Matthew Burrows’ Artist Support Pledge initiative to alleviate some of the stress the pandemic had caused. Burrows brought up a simple idea: artists who commit to the pledge will post images (with the #artistsupportpledge tag on Instagram) of a work that’s for sale, for no more than £200, and each time their sales reach £1,000 they promise to buy another artist’s work for £200. The pledge has been a roaring success and created a thriving circular economy with a culture of mutual support and generosity.

A child stands in front of a mural honouring George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020. Photo: Victor J. Blue for the New York Times.
A child stands in front of a mural honouring George Floyd in Minneapolis. Photo: Victor J. Blue for the New York Times.

In the wake of the appalling murder of George Floyd, there was a reckoning among galleries and museums about taking responsibilities with regard to equity and diversity as they were called out for more diverse staff in art organizations and for the decolonisation of collections. It might have been the first industry-wide recognition of contemporary power structures in art institutions. Numerous scandals have swept through the art world; among others, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum was called out and accused of hypocrisy in declaring its solidarity with those protesting racial injustice by joining people, companies, brands and institutions in posting a message for Blackout Tuesday — a social media campaign organized to show support for those protesting police brutality and racism. Early June, the Black Lives Matter movement gained new momentum in Bristol, where protesters rolled down and pushed the statue of Bristol slave trader Edward Colston into the water. The toppling of the statue followed the pulling down of several Confederate statues during Black Lives Matter protests in the US.

Philip Guston, Riding Around, 1969.
Philip Guston, Riding Around, 1969.

In September, the anxiety about the viewers’ response and the fear that Guston’s repeating motif of Ku Klux Klan members might be misinterpreted compelled its host institutions to step back and postpone the long-planned travelling retrospective of the artist. The exhibition, Philip Guston Now, was set to open this year. The implications were clear – the reasons for the postponement have little to do with Guston’s work itself and much more to do with the institutions’ lack of faith in their curators and lack of belief in the intellect of the general public’s ability to navigate the subtleties of Guston’s oeuvre. The cancellation caused a backlash from the artistic community and locked the museum world in a heated, multi-fronted debate over race, self-censorship, social justice, appropriation and ‘cancel culture’. After the pushback, the exhibition’s tour was re-dated to begin in 2022, but the after-effects continue to remain an open question.

With countless crises surrounding the global pandemic and social and political ruptures altering nearly every aspect of daily life, the past year has been more than a little tumultuous. 2020 was a year that felt like it lasted a lot longer than twelve months. Monuments fell, museums looked inward. On the bright side, artists and galleries persisted despite the pandemic’s grip and institutions began to conduct moral self-inventories, setting the course for further reassessment and reconstruction.

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