As countries around the world continue to grapple with the shifting realities of COVID-19, the impact on the cultural sector is resonating far and wide. Thousands of museum and heritage jobs have already been lost in the UK and in the US, in a bid to offset looming deficits caused by the extended organisational closures. Coupled with the recent activism surrounding the Black Lives Matter campaign – which brought about the dismantling of problematic public monuments and their contentious histories – such instability provides a backdrop for current critical debate surrounding the shifting role of institutions in times of crisis. At the time of writing, the International Council of Museums continues its efforts to revise their working definition of a museum, which has not changed in almost 50 years. Opinions remain divided on whether institutions should be places that research, conserve and exhibit artifacts, or ones that actively engage with wider society in working towards global change.
Irish institutions are also finding ways to redefine their roles in the COVID-19 landscape, particularly with regard to audience engagement. On 30 July, NCAD Gallery convened an online event, titled ‘The Air We Breathe: Multiple Publics in Future Practice’, which focused on “social engagement in the age of social distance”. This fascinating panel discussion highlighted an urgent need for innovation in the sector, calling for diverse strategies for working with artists, assembling communities around projects, and creating physical presentations in the public realm, beyond artworks simply being “displaced into the online sphere”, which “prohibits conjunction”. Reasserting Arundati Roy’s analogy of the “pandemic as a portal” – which asked us to consider what we might bring with us, and what we might leave behind – Ailbhe Murphy (Director of CREATE) suggested that we need to think ambitiously about “recasting an infrastructure” within the Irish arts ecology. This includes reassessing the distribution of resources and the publicness of gallery spaces, while also questioning the validity of metrics as a way of attributing value to institutions.
Following a similar line of inquiry, Matt Packer’s column for this issue outlines the collective concerns of Ireland’s Strategically Funded Organisations. In addition, several feature articles describe how festivals and biennales are having to adapt to ongoing public health restrictions surrounding mass gatherings. Miguel Amado interviews Marie Brett about Day of the Straws, a work which draws upon the cholera pandemic of the 1830s to explore the experience of COVID-19 through ancient and contemporary cultural lore. Matt Packer also interviews Merve Elveren, guest programme curator for the 39th Eva International, about the pragmatic and curatorial challenges for the biennale, which will now be delivered in three phases, with the first phase opening on 18 September and continuing until 15 November.
To get issues of The Visual Artists’ News Sheet delivered directly to your door every two months, become a member of Visual Artists Ireland here.