GOOD PRACTICE GUIDE How artists survive

Experts from Manchester School of Art at Manchester Metropolitan University explore what impact Covid-19 closures have had on the visual arts industry, and its response

Zoe Watson: curator, the Holden Gallery; lecturer, art theory and practice

Artists’ lives have been severely impacted by the precarity of the current cultural climate. The forced closure of galleries and arts organisations has led to the postponement or cancellation of work opportunities, while lockdown measures are preventing access to studios, materials, peer networks and production facilities. 

Funding bodies across the country have redirected existing funds to address this crisis. Arts Council England’s Emergency Funding has made £20 million available for individual artists, creatives and freelancers, who can apply for grants Meanwhile, the Freelands Foundation have partnered with a-n The Artists Information Company and announced a new £1.5 million Emergency Fund. 

New networks of curators and producers have reached out to offer advisory services to artists applying for emergency funds, recognising the application process can be overwhelming. As a supportive measure, I have co-formed a group of curators and artists from across the UK to develop an open-ended dialogue. Using our virtual spaces, we want to explore how the studio visit might be reconfigured to exist in a long-term format. For artists, this activity comes with no obligations or expectations; instead offering an open exchange with a practicing institutional curator on their own terms. 


Images are from recent Holden Gallery exhibitions. Main image, Yelena Popova, The Scholar Stones Project, 7 Feb-20 March 2020; above, Simeon Barclay, Life Room, 8 Feb-29 March 2019; below, Sofya Shpurova, Low Human Activity, 1 Nov-12 2019


Artists have continued to find mechanisms to support themselves and each other. The Artist Support Pledge instigated by Matthew Burrows sees artists selling their work via Instagram for no more than £200 per piece. Each time an artist reaches £1000 of sales, they pledge to spend £200 on another artist’s work. With over 100,000 posts (search #artistsupportpledge), an estimated £20 million has been generated for and by artists and makers

Virtual spaces have become increasingly important as the only way of communicating among ourselves and with audiences. Many artists have moved their practice online, addressing the desire to be visible and productive. By removing physical barriers to accessibility, and eliminating the geographical distance preventing many people from visiting galleries, individuals can engage with artwork on their own terms. 

At the Holden Gallery, our exhibition plans for 2020 are constantly being re-evaluated, but we are committed to the artists we are working with, looking to reschedule future exhibitions as soon as we receive news that we can reopen. We have launched a new digital series of Interruptions, designed for people to enjoy from the comfort of their homes, with an attention to listening and wellbeing. And of course, we have our own community of students who are engaging with their tutors and courses and making work from the safety of their own homes. I am delighted that the university are intending to have a series of physical graduate shows and events once we reopen - a huge commitment from the university, enabling the current cohort of upcoming graduates to celebrate their achievements in both a digital showcase this summer, and a physical exhibition later in the academic calendar.

Gulsen Bal: senior lecturer, art theory and practice 

We are going through unprecedented times that make us re-think our relationship to artistic and curatorial concepts such as socially engaged art practice, the discursive turn, activist art, collectivity/collective practice, governing, solidarity toward shifting new trajectories, and more. If we take the curatorial as a methodology, then what would be the critical reaction to today’s digital offerings. 

Before the lockdown I attended the opening of the exhibition … of bread, wine, cars, security and peace at Kunsthalle Wien, the first exhibition curated by What, How & for Whom (WHW) since being appointed. It offers a timely interrogation of the “old forms of a ‘good life’ and puts the notions of care and solidarity in its very centre, resonating in the changed circumstances”. This forces us to rethink the issues of the “individual” and “collective” and the expanded problematics of where critical art is. 

Here, we face an almost impossible question: how does our “new normal” impact the concept of the curatorial, particularly as an engagement of creating critical thinking in creative space? Furthermore, how do context ­specific projects and artworks become meaningful outside the signifying context of the exhibition making? Especially in considering the practice of curating, it is very much a practice of connection, of making constellations. Interestingly, this signifies how an uncertain “future” as present experience could contain transferable platforms. 

Another example can be seen in one of my recent curatorial projects, It never is!, which took place at Q21 International /MuseumsQuartier Wien as part of Vienna Art Week. The exhibition looks into different artistic strategies for questioning what cultural hegemony denies in circumstances that shapes and governs the power relations at the boundaries of “conditions of actuality” where “the power to live” comes into play. 

Tim Brennan, professor of art and head of the department of art at Manchester School of Art, delivered in-situ Vienna Manoeuvre Performance, a multipart work that combines references to Günter Brus’s 1965 artwork Vienna Walk and Samuel Beckett’s 1966 short story Ping. Central to Brennan’s work is his re-writing of Ping around the themes of walking, alienation and deracination. This provides a relevant example of the practice of a particular constellation of situated production. 

In such a claim, we have another take on a new formation of the dominant idea of political spaces and their occupying restricted places that enable radical social change. 

So, what is it that is really changing in our lives which are dominated by crisis? And, how can we introduce “more art to more people”? How can we foster a sense of closer proximity in which a world is coming to our homes? 

Ann Sumner: visiting professor at Manchester School of Art 

This spring, as museums and galleries across Europe hurriedly closed their doors, long-awaited exhibitions were cancelled or postponed. After years of research and logistical planning, once in a lifetime shows from the ambitious Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution at Museum of Fine Arts Ghent (MSK), to the National Gallery’s Artemisia Gentileschi all succumbed to lockdown closures.  

Ways to appreciate such exhibitions swiftly emerged such as The Sunday Times podcast series by Waldemar Januszczak, and Bendor Grosvenor who paid a stimulating VIP visit to the Van Eyck exhibition with the curator. Even so, I’m missing gallery spaces, and art itself, particularly opening private view nights.  My mantelpiece is strewn with invitations to events that sadly did not happen. Museums and galleries swiftly teamed up with media partners to enable us to catch up on what we were missing, ensuring art remained a tool in lockdown to help us make sense of the world. 

The BBC 4 series Museums in Quarantine enabled unique access to key exhibitions, such as Alastair Sooke’s final look at Tate Modern’s Warhol exhibition, followed by historian Simon Schama’s virtual tour of the Young Rembrandt exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. 

There was an overwhelming amount of activity and content with the BBC’s #Museum From Home platform, the culmination of a week-long celebration of Britain’s museums and galleries. A whirlwind online stream of content from museums and galleries was presented, including some fascinating curator conversations and introductions to regional exhibitions. 

Curators and exhibition organisers are thinking ‘outside the box’ to bring the most engaging experiences to virtual audiences during lockdown, and particularly to engage us with all aspects of their permanent collections too. 

One area of art has obvious potential during lockdown – public art.  During their daily exercise, the public can engage with many works still available in outside spaces. My current research on the public art of American artist Mitzi Cunliffe, who is famed for her design of the BAFTA theatrical mask award, has focused on her works in Manchester. The public can take in her impressive large Haweswater Aqueduct relief, which adorns the side of the pumping station, or her recently restored Man and Technic outside the Manchester Health Academy in Wythenshawe.  

Lockdown has transformed the way we appreciate art, with so much new online content available, technological innovation and excellent media partnerships, the choice has at times seemed overwhelming. 

Undoubtedly, museums and galleries will have a key role to play as we emerge from lockdown into the new norm, and re-develop approaches to curatorship and communication with audiences who may well feel anxious about returning to gallery spaces. 

Access to art from our museums and galleries during lockdown has been vital for so many, fulfilling multiple roles in assisting cultural connectivity, stimulating imaginative creativity and health and wellbeing. 



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