Converting our activities to the digitised format, due to the COVID‑19 pandemic, has significantly impacted the world financially. It is clear that the economy has suffered enormous transformations and we can undoubtedly say that it has not been its heyday. In this process, the way we consume art has changed, and hence museums’ revenue has been severely affected, whether we refer to a completely interrupted activity or an online presence. Online tours, as an option for visiting art exhibitions, have gained popularity during the self-isolation period, an option that might turn the tide in this domain. Thus, this trend begs the following question: will we engage with art as we used to or has a new, more comfortable method of visiting exhibitions been discovered? And what implications does this method have on our economy?
When the lockdown began, several museums around the world started offering virtual tours. A few worth mentioning are: The Louvre, The British Museum and The Guggenheim. The idea of visiting art galleries online, sounds really enthusiastic, up-to-date and, needless to say, a great alternative for the present times. Still, it is yet to see how museums will survive the pandemic with no major income. Therefore, it is relevant to see what impact the museums’ online presence will have on our perception of art, as well as its more material implications.
In normal conditions, museums host a large number of visitors daily. They contribute by paying an entry fee, purchasing souvenirs from the gift shop, renting rooms for specific events and, where possible, treating themselves to a coffee and a snack. Obviously, these income opportunities are not available online, which, automatically, decreases profits. Yet, somehow, museums have managed to survive the lockdown by receiving funds from the Arts Council and National Lottery Heritage Fund in the UK. Besides, museums have also received small contributions from warm-hearted people such as Brent Benjamin. People were willing to donate to try and save their beloved museums as stated by Barbara B. Taylor, Director of the St Louis Art Museum: “In the first month of closure, we had 85 people who put something extra in the envelope just because they care and want to help.” But these are just short-term survival options, the only way to guarantee museums’ survival is by reopening them. Even so, several art galleries are afraid that they won’t be able to restart their activity due to financial shortage. In fact, it is estimated that the cultural sector will lose approximately £74 billion after this period.
In this regard, another aspect to take into consideration is a possible behavioural change when it comes to visiting art galleries. Virtually, we benefit from the comfort of our home, where we are not expected to obey any social rules. Some might value this aspect more when deciding whether or not to make an in-person visit, especially if they think about the currently present risks. On the other hand, even though we use high-performance technology which recreates spaces in virtual reality, the experience is still uncomparable to the real life one. The online tour cannot offer the same sensations and feelings as an indoor visit. Due to its limitations, the online experience will display mainly two-dimensional images of paintings, sculptures or other pieces of art. When physically enjoying the tour, one can examine every piece from different angles, can take photos of themselves next to colourful paintings, can visit more galleries for an extra fee and enjoy a coffee or a shopping session. Clearly, museums have more to offer and more to gain when visits are in person.
However, the virtual version of exhibitions is not a disadvantageous idea, since it might increase people’s appetite for fine arts. Obviously, no one can ensure that after reopening their doors, the number of people visiting art museums will be higher, but virtual exhibitions may act as a marketing strategy. At the same time, some people might settle only for the online version, with no intention to revisit the same exhibition or to discover new ones. Hence, alternatives need to be found to achieve at least a minimal profit. Such alternatives might be: an online gift shop, selling, for example, coffee table books or decorative objects with the museum’s logo. Even so, all these substitutes are insufficient to prolong art galleries’ life for a long period of time.
Therefore, we should admit that virtual tours represent a relaxing diversion during lockdown and, also a strategy to attract potential visitors but for sure, they are not an income certainty and neither a kind of financial support for museums to maintain their activity. Some might say that ‘Art will survive’ and I am inclined to agree with this statement, but, at the same time, we should be aware that it is our responsibility to aid and fund museums as much as we can. It remains to be seen whether we embrace the idea of virtual tours or if the need for physical and social contact will bring us together to art galleries, thus securing a prosperous existence for museums. Nonetheless, due to the present situation caused by the pandemic, the rebound is expected to be a gradual process.