Museum and gallery leaders in England have expressed anger, disappointment and bafflement at why commercial art galleries – which count as non-essential shops – can open five weeks before them.
“It is just nuts,” said Rebecca Salter, the president of the Royal Academy of Arts which, like other public galleries, has been told it can reopen no sooner than 17 May. Shops, meanwhile, can open on 12 April.
Salter said it meant people would not be able to come to see the RA’s Tracey Emin exhibition but would be able to go to see works by Emin on display a two-minute walk away at White Cube gallery.
“It just makes no sense. On the 12 April all the retail will open on Piccadilly and our gates will stay shut, I don’t get the logic of it frankly. It just doesn’t feel joined up to me … I’m angry.
“If we do genuinely worry about the mental state of this nation having been locked away then I would like an explanation into why the government feels retail therapy will make people feel better but ‘art’ therapy, coming to see pictures, can wait another five weeks.”
Salter said the RA and other galleries were safe spaces with rigorous procedures in place. “I know that lots of people caught Covid shopping on Oxford Street before Christmas.”
Axel Ruger, the secretary and chief executive of the RA, welcomed the roadmap out of lockdown. “However, it is incredibly frustrating that museums and galleries can only reopen from 17 May whilst gyms, hairdressers and the non-essential retail sector are able to open from 12 April.”
The frustration was echoed by the Museums Association. Sharon Heal, its director, said there was no logic to the delay and called for a rethink.
“Museums and their audiences are losing out because the government has classified museums as ‘indoor entertainment venues’ alongside cinemas and theatres. Yet in terms of implementing social distancing, they have far more in common with libraries, public buildings and community centres, which will all open on 12 April.”
Thomas Marks, the editor of Apollo magazine, said it made no sense, writing that it “looks like a clear expression of what many who work in the arts have come to suspect of this government: that it sees culture as an afterthought, something easily left on the shelf”.
Many gallery bosses said their annoyance was softened by at least having a date. “My reaction was first of all relief,” said Iwona Blazwick, the director of Whitechapel gallery in London. “But also disappointment that we can’t open on 12 April. Libraries and community centres can – we are a community centre, we have a library … that was a little disappointing but at least we have clarity and a direction of travel and we are marching towards it. I’m feeling quite optimistic.”
The Whitechapel will reopen with its delayed Eileen Agar show. “I’m so thrilled because her work is the perfect spiritual balm for our post-pandemic convalescence.”
The Hepworth Wakefield gallery in West Yorkshire is planning to reopen on 21 May, 10 years to the day since it first opened, with a major show devoted to the artist it is named after, Barbara Hepworth
“We are just so excited to think that we can confidently get the doors back open again,” said director Simon Wallis. “The senior management team meeting I had this morning was packed with just so much more energy than it’s had in a long time.”
The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has been approached for comment.