COVID-19: An Opportunity to Revolutionize the Arts, Part 1

This three-part series by contributing author Wided Khadraoui tackles how the coronavirus pandemic has presented an unparalleled opportunity for museum leaders to implement decisive and necessary change to the arts sector through the use of digital engagement, and considers how the digital sphere can better serve broader audiences every day, rather than just during a crisis.

 

It is in moments of great challenge that society shifts its understanding of what is possible. For museum leaders, the coronavirus pandemic has presented an immense challenge, along with unparalleled opportunity to implement decisive and necessary change. Through comprehensive digital strategies that connect with existing audiences there is a chance to open up more inclusive engagement opportunities and center audiences. However, during this pivotal period in the industry, institutional actions that lack long-term vision and intention can have the opposite effect, further exacerbating inequalities and widening the gap between diverse audiences and museum stakeholders.

All too often in times of crisis and uncertainty, initiatives focusing on diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion are deprioritized, and many stakeholders and museums seem to have followed suit as they focus solely on near-term survival. But I would argue that it is more imperative in these difficult times to center equity and inclusion in decision-making and actions, and to consider how the digital sphere can better serve broader audiences every day, rather than just during a crisis. “We are in a fascinating moment,” says Andrea Montiel de Shuman[i], the former Digital Experience Designer at the Detroit Institute of Art. “We have a chance to really look at accessibility and future serious demands on inclusivity measures which gives leadership an opportunity to seriously consider digital engagement.”

Woodward entrance of the Detroit Institute of Art

Woodward entrance of the Detroit Institute of Art

Around the world, museums and the communities they serve are feeling the impact of COVID-19, as populations are advised to continue to stay home and large gatherings are prohibited to varying degrees. This has posed a particular challenge for museums, as much of their earned income is premised on getting people to actually come to the museum, according to the annual TrendsWatch: The Future of Financial Sustainability report published by The American Alliance of Museums’ Center for the Future of Museums. Museums rely on income from ticket sales, event rentals, and retail, so without visitors their revenue is drastically reduced. When faced with this new financial reality, institutions across the USA have been laying off and furloughing large numbers of their staff.

Current closures and social distancing measures have pushed museums to shift to online only experiences and seriously engage with establishing sustainable, long-term digital strategy, with less staff. As more of our activities are pushed online, the pandemic has highlighted the often-invisible digital divide. Around 21 million Americans don’t have access to high-speed broadband. Communities that were previously underserved simply do not have the infrastructure to transition to living, working, and learning online, making virtual experiences not a viable option. According to a 2019 Pew Research Center study, 26% of adults living in households earning less than $30,000 a year are “smartphone-dependent” internet users, meaning they own a smartphone but do not have broadband internet at home. Another additional layer to the topic of accessibility and equity is race: the poverty rate for Black and Hispanics is more than double that of non-Hispanic Whites, according to the U.S. Poverty Statistics released September 2019 by the U.S. Census Bureau. Millions of people end up relying on their smartphones to check email, news, social networks, and information. Links to virtual museum tours, field trips, and viral livestreams of penguins touring empty aquariums just don’t translate the same on a smartphone, meaning people with limited or no internet access at home miss out on these resources and opportunities.

There has been a sector-wide concerted effort that moves away from focusing just on on-site production and physical audience engagement, and while online programming does enable museums to reach audiences, for example, who might live in different geographic locations, the reactive response still does not translate to inclusivity. Not everyone will be able to be ‘present’ in museums, and alternative digital forms of access to exhibitions and programs still do not address the disconnect between institutions and their communities.

Installation view of Genevieve Gaignard's In Passing in the Christian-Green Gallery at the University of Texas.

Installation view of Genevieve Gaignard’s In Passing in the Christian-Green Gallery at the University of Texas. Photograph courtesy of Mark Doroba.

Access to newly released and created digital institutional programming and, as importantly, who has access to these new digital experiences, are integral to museums’ fulfilling their missions. The lack of commitment to genuine inclusion undermines a cultural institutions’ ability to create an innovative and sustainable economy through digital means that can scale while delivering on its core mission. “It really is reduced down to that question of mission–really being intentional on how your mission is being perpetuated whether online, or in a physical space, it’s getting back to the fundamentals,” said Lise Ragbir,[ii] the Director of the Art Galleries at Black Studies at the University of Texas.

 

To continue reading, go to Part 2 of this series.

 

[i] Andrea Montiel de Shuman, video interview with author, April 21, 2020.

[ii] Lise Ragbir, phone interview with author, April 22, 2020.

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