After the lockdown: the challenges and possibilities of reopening

Author: Chris Sharratt

‘I remember thinking, at the start of lockdown, how on earth am I qualified to lead an organisation through a global pandemic? Then I realised, of course, that no-one is – the logistics of it are enormous, but there’s not a single organisation that isn’t going through the same thing.’ Beth Bate, director of Dundee Contemporary Arts (DCA), sounds excited, daunted, energised – and possibly exhausted, too – all at the same time. Along with a number of Scotland’s visual arts organisations, DCA has set a date for reopening: 4 September, with its galleries a week later. Other venues, such as Dovecot and Collective in Edinburgh and the outdoor sculpture park Jupiter Artland, are already partially or fully open to the public, while Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop (ESW) is beginning a process of gradually reopening its building over the next couple of months. In Ullapool, An Talla Solais is opening its gallery on 25 August, while the residency programme at Cove Park is set to start up again from 7 September.

A long and winding path out of this unprecedented, debilitating period is beginning to emerge. Yet with coronavirus set to be with us for some time to come, and the full social, economic and cultural impact of the pandemic still playing out, this remains a time of unknowns and uncertainty. Bate talks of being on an ‘enormous learning curve’ as her team deals with all the measures required in order to reopen safely: the hand sanitisers, 2metre distancing, close control of the number of people coming in the building, clear messaging for visitors. With its multiple uses, the venue presents a wide range of public-health scenarios that it is responding to in various ways, from the seat allocation in its two small cinemas (which following the current guidance will see capacity reduced to around 25% of pre-lockdown numbers) to the cleaning of shared equipment in its print studio, which will operate a booking system. ‘DCA is quite a complex organisation and building to get ready for everyone to come back safely,’ continues Bate. ‘We’re not just a gallery or just a cinema or just a print studio; we have all those things as well as a busy cafe bar, and learning spaces, and a shop.’

Exhibitions, though still free, will be ticketed and there’s non-building related issues to think about, too. During lockdown, like many arts organisations, DCA has been active online. But while initiatives such as its Exhibitions Reading Group have reached a new and expanded international audience, Bate explains that it’s clear online is not always a suitable response. ‘The issue of digital poverty and online access is more pronounced than ever. And the work that we’ve been doing with our learning programme across the city, getting out activity packs and art bags to families or people who often don’t have digital access, has been really important. So I think there’s been a marked shift in what we do, some of which we will want to continue once we reopen.’

Rethinking approaches and being inventive about how things are done is a clear theme across organisations, whatever their size. Peter Haring, chair of An Talla Solais, says that while reopening is vital in order to capitalise on potential art sales during what’s left of Ullapool’s tourism season – ‘we are dependent on the sale of works of art for our survival, it’s our main source of revenue’ – there are things that have been learnt during lockdown that the gallery intends to implement. In particular, it plans to use its website more to show and sell work by local artists, and to broaden its audience in an area where travel can be time-consuming and costly. ‘I think there’s a will to not just go back to how things were. Inertia is a very powerful force, and when things are working well it can be risky to interfere with them. But this is a jolt you can’t ignore.’

For An Talla Solais, as for many, the number one concern has been financial survival. Taking advantage of the government furlough scheme, a lifeline for many in the arts, has enabled the organisation to stay afloat, but it has had to plan carefully when deciding to bring staff back. The late August opening date was chosen on the basis of a two-month lead time to prepare and install a new exhibition, and each day of preparation represents money spent prior to any revenue being generated. ‘The sooner we call staff back from furlough, the higher our costs are; but the longer we leave it the less opportunity we have of generating revenue. So there’s financial management and risk assessment that has to be done.’ One result of this assessment is that its other building, which houses studios, offices and ceramics facilities, will remain closed.

Despite this necessary focus on finances, An Talla Solais hasn’t lost sight of its role in the community. And like DCA, it has found that while online can be useful, it is only part of the picture. The gallery’s Dolphin Arts Project, for example, involves working with dementia sufferers, and weekly group sessions have been replaced by delivering art materials to individual participants and their carers at home. ‘We’ve done things like interview people from a distance on their doorstep, talking to them about the work they’ve produced. A lot of that has gone online.’

While operating on a much larger scale, the outdoor sculpture park Jupiter Artland is another organisation almost wholly reliant on self-generated revenue for its survival. With its rural, 120-acre site in West Lothian, it has been welcoming visitors since 29 May, albeit gradually, and most staff have been working flexibly throughout lockdown. Initially reopening to local members, the timing was based on it being used as an outdoor space for exercise. ‘We were thinking about audiences and wellbeing and what the public needs,’ explains Claire Feeley, head of exhibitions and audience development. ‘We opened in line with the guidelines for outdoor activity. The fact that we could offer it and offer it safely felt like an important thing to do.’

Now fully open for outdoor visitors who book a time slot along with their ticket – the indoor gallery space reopens on 1 August – for Jupiter the decision to get back up and running is costly one but, stresses Feeley, absolutely essential for its future. ‘The numbers aren’t enough to break even, but although not financially viable we thought that being closed for a full season [usually May to late September] was a greater risk. We felt that if we went dark for effectively 18 months, there was a real threat that that could be the end of our story.’

Lockdown has meant postponing some outdoor commissions until next year, as well as the cancellation of this year’s Jupiter Rising music festival. But the last few months, from the devastation of Covid-19 to the Black Lives Matter protests, have also prompted a ‘change of mindset, shifting priorities. The idea of returning to business as usual was neither wanted or possible’. Issues of access and education have been brought to the fore, and this is reflected in Jupiter’s Allan Kaprow project, which sees four artists remaking works by the American artist. ‘All four have, without being in dialogue with each other, decided on distribution models for their artworks that aren’t centred around the necessity of visitors coming to Jupiter; all of their projects are distributed through different means,’ says Feeley. This includes posters that are being shared through independent bookshops and an FM broadcast. ‘One of the fascinating things about commissioning is that it does respond to what’s happening now, so why make something beautiful and exclusive and hang it in a gallery when you could create an unlimited edition of posters and make them available everywhere? I guess it’s just questioning the normal way we do things.’

Similarly, the importance of Jupiter’s education programme has been highlighted due to schools moving to home learning and the disproportionate impact of this on low-income families. ‘The visual arts sector provides a huge level of education for young people and these programmes also provide respite for carers and parents,’ says Feeley. ‘There’s a really important conversation to be had around how we reopen our learning programmes – a future without museums and galleries being able to provide creative learning would be so bleak. So we’re focusing a lot of energy on how we can work with teachers, what kind of learning is wanted, is needed, and is most possible.’ Woodland classrooms are currently being prepared, ready for when schools go back in August. Class sizes will be reduced, but the outdoor nature of the programme will mean that, apart from hygiene and distancing measures, the classes will not be hugely different. ‘We’re ready to go on that,’ says Feeley.

Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop (ESW) also hopes to make use of its outside space as part of a gradual, staged reopening from now through to September. Director Laura Simpson explains that the building’s courtyard will potentially be used for some of its education programme – previously, pupils from the two local schools it works with would come to its indoor learning studio – as well as an exhibition space. ‘Over recent years we’ve focused our exhibitions around the courtyard,’ says Simpson. ‘The simple reason for using the courtyard is that it has fewer thresholds, and using it for exhibitions was really part of us thinking about whether ESW could function more as civic space.’

This focus on the building’s societal role and its connection to the local community has been brought into sharp focus due to the isolation of lockdown and the social issues connected to this. Responding to the immediate health and safety concerns of Covid-19 has also encouraged Simpson and her team, who weren’t furloughed until May and are now gradually coming back, to focus on how members use and interact with the building and its facilities. ‘We’ve moved a lot of members’ activities online and that’s really worked well,’ she says. ‘But we have realised that a lot of what we’re here for is a haptic, physical experience; there’s equipment here that you just can’t have in your kitchen. So we’re definitely feeling that we need to make things work with the building, and that people need and want that.’

There is, acknowledges Simpson, a tension at the heart of preparations being made to gradually reopen the building for its new and much more structured life after lockdown. ‘So much of what we’re working on now is about not having interactions, of controlling the flow of people in the building, between floors, in workshops, etc. Whereas in the past it was the opposite. We were trying to encourage interactions so much: peer learning, skill sharing, working shoulder-to-shoulder with technicians, having sociable interactions.’ Simpson talks of attempting to address this through digital activities such as Zoom meetings and providing online tours of the building. Finding ways to be as supportive and open as possible is paramount.

A few miles across Edinburgh from ESW, Collective has already partially opened its Calton Hill site to the public, inviting visitors to its grounds from Thursday to Sunday and using its Hillside gallery space as a pop-up shop. Its City Dome gallery will reopen in August with Julijonas Urbonas’ exhibition ‘Planet of People’, and the main City Observatory building is due to return in the autumn. ‘We wanted to open in line with the school holidays,’ explains director Kate Gray. ‘We’ve developed new touch-free resources for families that can be downloaded from our website to your phone, in addition to the Observer Walks we already had, so we felt we had a digital offer specific to the site. We wanted to make sure that we offered ourselves as a resource to the local community; for people who can walk or get the bus to us.’

Most of the Collective team has been working throughout lockdown, with only front-of-house staff furloughed. That has meant that projects that were already in production have been able to continue, as Gray explains: ‘Our mission is to bring people together around the production and distribution of the work, so we felt it was really important that we continue to do that, and that it was really important to support artists through that process as well.’ This means that a Laura Yuile project initially planned as an event has become an online film dealing with her screen-mediated experience of lockdown, and work by artist-in-residence Karen Cunningham – a series of four postcards featured collaged images from Calton Hill and the Parthenon – is available to pick up and take away from outside the City Observatory.

‘One of the things we’ve discovered through this whole period is that we’ve found a lot of strength in the online programme that we wouldn’t have known about otherwise. So for example, we were already committed to doing a project with Edinburgh Young Carers, and because of lockdown we did all of that online which has really affected the work they’ve made. We also found that, as young carers, they were much more able to attend online [rather than in-person] workshops.’ Collective has been inventive and proactive in its response to the situation, creating new points of (online) discussion around its exhibition archive while continuing to support new work. Gray adds: ‘It’s dangerous to think you can just replace a physical exhibition with online, but there are things that work better online if they fit better into people’s lives, and allow you to work with different narratives and open up different possibilities.’ This learning will be carried forward into Collective’s ongoing programme, in attempt to introduce new voices and address issues around access and diversity.

With its landscaped outdoor space and self-contained buildings, Collective is well-placed to ensure social distancing without the need for ticketing. At Dovecot, which reopened to the public on 15 July with the paid-for exhibition ‘Mid-Century Modern: Art & Design from Conran to Quant’, advance tickets now come with a time slot to limit the numbers inside at any one time. Having the gallery open to paying visitors, as well as being able to sell exhibition merchandise through its shop, is a major step. But, as director Celia Joicey explains, at the heart of all decisions is Dovecot’s ‘charitable mission’ which is to ‘sustain the art of Scottish tapestry weaving’. As a working tapestry studio, its first imperative was to get weaving again, and consequently its weaving team have been busy on site since May. ‘We had projects that needed to be woven,’ says Joicey. ‘Equally, our programme of activity is about using the building and so we wanted to look at the best way we can do that. We’ve been focused on fundraising, communications, and planning for when it was going to be possible to reopen to the public– and how we might need to change the business. We will constantly be reviewing the situation, looking at whether there is a better way to deliver what we’re doing.’

Dovecot’s spacious galleries make the job of managing the flow of visitors a little easier, but Joicey is acutely aware of getting the experience right for paying visitors. ‘Everyone really values the energy you have in the room with an event or an exhibition, but it’s about making that safe. We’re fortunate because we have a big building, but equally a big building costs a lot to run. We need to find ways to fill this building appropriately with activity that can be carried out safely.’ With in-person talks and other events on hold, Dovecot is exploring online options and thinking in terms of possibilities rather than problems. ‘There’s an opportunity to broaden audiences,’ says Joicey. ‘We’re a collaborative studio – people don’t make work on their own, they work as a team to create that work of art, be that with the artist, weaver, or with multiple weavers. So that sense of being collaborative is important. And with the public programme of talks and events, there is an opportunity to spot new types of connections.’

Clearly, we are still only at the beginning of this long journey of recovery and rebuilding, and there may be setbacks along the way. While galleries and other venues are reopening, many more are still to set dates, each grappling with their own situation, balancing the finances, exploring how their mission can be secured for the future – dealing with short-term needs in order to be around for the long-term. ‘Is the art scene and art funding structure capable of weathering this storm?’ asks Laura Simpson, who talks of it taking five years to properly come back from the pandemic. In common with others, she is confident, resilient, determined – but also clear on the challenging times ahead and the support needed to see this through. ‘Now is the time where there really needs to be, from a high level, a commitment to culture. It makes sense financially, as everyone knows. But it’s so important to society as well.’