"Preparing for a new normal" A conversation with Ivana Goossen

How did the COVID crisis impact artists and the art industry? How did it affect the operations of museums and galleries around the world and Kunsthalle Praha in particular? We talked to Kunsthalle Praha’s Director Ivana Goossen about the challenges lying ahead of us and about the values, hope, and solidarity we should continue cultivating.

It is no secret that the cultural sector is amongst those that were hit the hardest by the COVID crisis. How did it affect Kunsthalle Praha?

At Kunsthalle Praha, we were fortunate that the COVID crisis arrived before our public opening. We were affected to the extent that the pandemic affected the art industry, and our society in general, but we were spared many of the worries that other museums and cultural institutions had.

Did the slow-down give you time to reflect?

The COVID crisis exposed a whole new set of questions regarding human well-being and the purpose of culture. It was an opportunity to stop in our tracks and ask ourselves, ‘What are the truly important things we should continue doing in the future? How should we direct our resources – art collections, people, creativity, time and finances - to bring more art into everyday life, and to continue to connect artists and audiences locally and internationally?’ This resulted in some important decisions relating to our exhibition and education programming plans, the way we would work with our collection, how we develop our team, partnerships, and how we use technology.

Did the pandemic affect the reconstruction of Kunsthalle Praha’s building?

We’ve worked hard to minimize disruptions in the reconstruction process. Even at the height of restrictions during the pandemic, when the work slowed down, the building process never stopped. We are deeply grateful to the construction managers and the builders who never stopped giving their best, finding practical solutions in a variety of unexpected situations. Even so, it is now clear that the reconstruction will be completed somewhat later next year than originally anticipated. I can thus reveal that the opening of Kunsthalle Praha will take place in the beginning of 2022. And if the process of the construction of our building allows to do so, we will organize several events for the public during the year of 2021.

And how about other cultural institutions and artists? What was the pandemic’s impact elsewhere?

Museums are for people. How do you respond when the very people you exist for – visitors, artists, staff – have become a threatening bio hazard? The past few months have brought unprecedented challenges to art institutions.

While everyone’s situation is unique, I would say that in general, since the beginning of the lock-down, museums around the world are facing two sets of questions. The first, extremely urgent group of issues, has to do with the short-term financial and operational consequences of the lock-down: how to ensure the safety of staff and visitors as museums and galleries begin to re-open, how to re-organize and deliver programming in these new circumstances, how to support artists and how to ensure sufficient financing to pay staff and cover operational costs. The second, no simpler set of questions, has to do with a more long-term timeline and preparing for the ‘new normal’ - re-imagining museums and cultural institutions for the future.

Is it true that the world of museums and galleries will never be the same?

Looking at the bigger picture, it seems that some things will never change. Artists will continue to create art, and somehow art will find its audiences. There may be fewer professional artists for a while, and some museums may be closed or downsized. But fundamentally, museums will still be there for people. Their collections, their buildings, their legacy will remain and hopefully, they will continue to deliver on their missions.

What will change is how museums go about fulfilling their purpose – understanding how their audiences have changed, adapting their programming, ensuring financial sustainability and creating safe and people-friendly environments where humans and creativity can thrive. This is not easy. But after the pandemic I can say with certainty that no amount of amazing on-line communication can substitute personal human interaction and visiting a museum or gallery.

Do you see any positive consequences of the COVID emergency along with the challenges it has brought?

Much has been said about the disastrous consequences of the pandemic, but it has brought opportunities, too. Following the lock-down, museums and communities have shown enormous solidarity and generosity – from sharing resources to exchanging experience and preparing together for re-opening, reminding us of the deepest values that we share as individuals and as a society.

Even if it is difficult, disruption and uncertainty can be really good for art and for creativity in general – they tend to expose more clearly the core of the issues at hand, they cause us to face challenges straight on, and to tap deeper into our own creative resources. I expect that we will see some truly authentic and interesting insights and artworks emerging from this period.

And on a practical level?

Like everyone else, museums have made some useful discoveries regarding workplace habits like holding personal meetings and commuting for work. Many have experimented extensively and quite successfully with on-line media, sharing digitally their collections, exhibitions, viewing rooms, performances, discussions, education programs and films. Most museums have had to make changes to their scheduled exhibitions, and we will continue to see these changes in the future. Financial and travel restrictions will cause art institutions to turn more towards their own collections and look closer to identify art worth showing, which may bring interesting perspectives.

Some forms of art, such as performance or interactive installations are impossible to present at the moment because of social distancing and hygiene restrictions. We have yet to see how these restrictions will play out in the future and what this will mean for the visitor experience and for the range of art media that museums and galleries will be able to present.

However, you seem to be optimistic about the future?

No pandemic has lasted forever and I believe that the day when cultural institutions will breathe free again, bustling with life and creativity, is not too far off. And I hope that, as institutions, we will all come out of this more relevant to our audiences, sharper, lighter and more agile.

Photo © Jan Rasch