COVID-19 and the Future of Art Exhibitions

Virtual Mixing

At this point in time we’re starting to fully realise the extent to which the COVID-19 pandemic has altered how we work, live and move about. While some measures were temporary, we now know that some of the shifts we underwent are here to stay. What are some long-term effects of the pandemic on the way we get to experience art? The sudden closure of museums and art spaces as soon as the whole world went into lockdown, along with the indefinite postponement or cancellation of art projects and events, meant that audiences could no longer experience art in the way most of us were used to; by physically visiting exhibitions and events. While (often mismanaged) lockdown measures happened very quickly, wreaking disruption and uncertainty on the future of the artistic and cultural sector, artists, museums and galleries showed a great deal of resilience and creativity in adapting to an unprecedented situation in order to be able to keep on working, reaching their audiences and ultimately survive.

Online migration

Over the past years, several museums, galleries and art spaces have been busy with optimising their online presence.  Yet the pandemic certainly contributed to accelerating the shift to virtual space. Numerous museums, galleries, art spaces and even art fairs from around the world sought to offer virtual tours of their physical spaces, so that audiences could visit exhibitions and enjoy art from the comfort of their own home. For instance, in June 2020, photo basel held its international photography art fair completely online, followed by a second virtual edition a few months later in December. Viewers could click, scroll and zoom their way around a 3D virtual viewing room based on the physical space.

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam also found a way for visitors to enjoy art from the permanent exhibition from home. The museum started offering a 4k virtual tour hosted on Youtube. In addition to exhibitions, event programmes too had to be adapted to an online environment. Public lectures, panel discussions, book launches and even exhibition openings and artistic performances happened via Zoom and other online hosting platforms. While the reopening of art spaces and the possibility to experience art in person are certainly welcome and better suited to some experiences, the convenience of visiting a museum or attending an event from any location in the world, at any time of day from behind one’s computer, has its benefits with regards to accessibility, for both organisers and attendees. Through online tools, exhibition and event programmers are able to reach much larger engaged audiences from a variety of geographical locations. 

Experimentation with diverse formats

Yet online migration is not just about replicating a physical environment in virtual space. The affordances and specificities of digital and online media provide exciting possibilities for experimentation, including with hybrid (partly online and partly offline) events. It’s important to note that artists have been at the forefront of questioning and experimenting with the possibilities of different media for several decades. During the pandemic, numerous artists and art spaces spoke out to say that the pandemic had only reaffirmed what they had believed and practised for a long time; that the future is online. Nonetheless, the closure of physical spaces pushed even more institutions to provide alternative and playful online experiences. Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe (ZKM) refitted their exhibition ‘Critical Zones:Observatories for Earthly Politics’ into a complex web of interlinked webpages that the viewer could navigate by scrolling and clicking on prompts to view or read more. Other museums took the opportunity to give ‘visitors’ temporary access to video works from their collection. Between 26 and 28 June 2020, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, along with 12 other partners, organised a 48-hour non-stop stream of Arthur Jafa’s ‘Love is the Message, the Message is Death’.

Critical Zones
© Frédérique Aït-Touati, Alexandra Arènes, Axelle Grégoire, ZKM | Karlsruhe

Reconfiguration of physical spaces

The pandemic did not only induce a migration to online spaces, but brought about a reconfiguration of physical spaces too. Once lockdowns started being gradually lifted, art institutions needed to come up with ways for audiences to be able to visit them without the risk of virus transmission. Temperature-taking and hand-sanitising stations became almost a standard part of the setup, along with reminders to keep 1.5 meters distance from other visitors and wash hands. Various spaces implemented a uni-directional route for visitors to follow in order to minimise crowding and physical contact among people.


Conventionally, exhibition opening nights were well-attended and lively events that the art world crowd would use as an opportunity to socialise and network. Unfortunately these could no longer go on as before. Feasible alternatives to cancelling opening events completely or holding them online, were to have an opening day (or days) with a cap on the number of visitors allowed. In addition, booking a time slot in order to visit an exhibition throughout its entire duration became a requirement  in order to be able to control the number of people in one place at one point in time. As a result, visitors are required to plan their visit in advance and visitor flows in exhibition spaces are more evenly spread out throughout the day and duration of the show. Restrictions on visitor numbers have also led to shows being prolonged in order to give the opportunity to as many people as possible to come and have a look.

“Now that the current pandemic has made us conscious about the probability of another similar occurrence in the not-so-distant future, it will be interesting to see whether this awareness will also impact the architectural configuration of future art spaces.”

How many of these adjustments are here to stay, remains to be seen. Arguably, the time slot system works well not only with regards to minimising the risk of infection. It also generally offers, in my opinion, a better quality viewing experience in terms of having more space to move around and being able to spend more time with an artwork without feeling the pressure of having to move along. Now that the current pandemic has made us conscious about the probability of another similar occurrence in the not-so-distant future, it will be interesting to see whether this awareness will also impact the architectural configuration of future art spaces and which built-in features they might be fitted with to make them more ‘pandemic-proof’.

Shift in thematic focus

On top of the way in which we get to experience art, COVID-19 even affected the themes we get to encounter in art. Artists and curators started producing work that reflected the living and working situation of the moment. Subjects like proximity and distance, touch, care, isolation, and confinement to the domestic environment became main themes of artistic production and exhibitions. As an example, in May 2020 Upstream Gallery in Amsterdam presented an online group exhibition titled ‘The New Outside‘, departing from the observation that “Every single day, more hours are spent looking at a screen than looking out of a window, the screen is our new landscape.” 

The New Outside
'The New Outside', group show curated by Constant Dullaart and hosted on

Experimental artistic approaches – in conversation with Aidan Celeste and Letta Shtohryn

Furthermore, since artists’ working environments and possibility to meet among peers were severely jeopardised in many instances, alternative workspaces, ways of working, supporting and connecting with each other had to be found. How does an artist transform their home into their studio? How can one’s domestic environment provide new tools for artistic production? How can artists continue meeting and working together from across borders? Some of the work you might have seen recently, online or otherwise, might have been a result of such adaptive and reflective processes which will probably, once adopted, continue influencing how certain artists work.

To dive a little further into the artistic production side of things, Aidan Celeste and Letta Shtohryn speak more about their project ‘Virtual Mixing’, a year-long artistic research process started during lockdown that culminated in a recent physical exhibition in Valletta.

‘Virtual Mixing’ is a result of more than a year-long artistic research process initiated around the start of the COVID-19 lockdowns in Europe. Themes of virtual reality, distance, shifting proximities and touch, are explored in the works but have also informed the working process, particularly as the participants were dispersed across multiple geographical locations or could not always meet in person for various reasons. For instance, a virtual room swap in the initial phase of the project served as an opportunity of exchange among the participants. Can you share your personal thoughts and experience with regards to the challenges as well as opportunities presented by COVID-19 in relation to artistic production and presentation?

Aidan: I generally worked with a few collaborators on Temporary.Show, and looked for support to help our ideas take shape. What I found were short term residencies. These are very intensive and take place across a month or so. The openness to experiment in my own time, and then go on to develop an idea with direct support of a national entity, such as the VCA, as well as ACM, and MUZA was a relief. However, the intensive approach of a short term residency is not the healthiest way to work. This option generally takes all your attention for a month or so, and it is not friendly to production schedules elsewhere. Nonetheless, if like me, you were underemployed and working at your own pace, it’s more doable than usual.

Virtual Mixing
Installation view of 4 phones attached to blocks of wire mesh and used to project a grid, elements from acollaboration between Aidan Celeste and Elaine Bonavia.

Letta: My work A dream of unfiltered air responds directly to the challenges of lockdowns, heatwaves and imagines confined living on other planets. The work spawned from   the experiences in physical/VR space during the [V}Room for Requirement exchange in 2020 as well as visual encounters in the video game worlds and digitally mediated experiences of nature. These experiences became a kind of escapist strategies I used to cope with indoor living during lockdowns. As a media artist I create my work mainly digitally, hence Covid did not challenge my process to a high degree. Although of course it created impossibility to show work, it forced me to reflect on my practice and priorities works I want to create that I find are important in current context of post pandemic world.

Letta Shtohryn
'A dream of unfiltered air', Letta Shtohryn, 2021, installation detail.

What do you think will be the long-lasting effects of COVID-19, more generally, on how artists work, but also on viewership?

Aidan: Unlike theatre and dance, there is not a single long-term host for our kind of artistic practice in Malta. I hope this will change in the near future. If not, I can see a lot of artists moving away, or simply fall into the precarious side of this post-COVID-19 economy. So all in all, I’d like to see a host which can allow for experiments between collaborators, as well as provide support for their ideas to take shape. An entity such as a PCO can survive the conditions of COVID-19 better than any artist-freelancer. Although highly ambitious, projects such as Virtual Mixing are a good start for this approach. They focus on playing host. As such, the lead artists mediate collaboration between an informal collective, and engage everyone with new formats to work with. In addition, trying out opensource tools, as well as more advanced VR tech was much more fun and satisfying than I expected.

With Temporary.Show, we try to mediate this approach between art and design. The primary idea is to invite artists to experiment with software, and provide feedback to one another, as well as content for developers to use for their prototype. In addition, the site also serves as an open-studio for artists to bounce off ideas, influence each other, and ideally, find a way to record the complex dynamics of collaboration.

Virtual Mixing
'Room of Requirement', Elaine Bonavia, 2021, visitor experiencing VR experience.

Aidan Celeste graduated with a MFA in Digital Arts from the University of Malta in 2013. He is generally engaged in artistic direction and research, as well as coordination of interdisciplinary projects. He has also contributed to publications about art and new media by the (eu)Horizon 2020 Project AMASS, (nl)Open Set, (it)Altofest, and as well as curatorial projects, such as (nl)Data in the 21st Century by Dr. Michel Van Dartel, and as of late, the (pt)Temporary Show.

Letta Shtohryn investigates the entangled relationship between the physical and digital realm, explores post-human thought, human-nonhuman collaborations and speculates about the future. As a method, Letta employs speculative investigations, storytelling, sci-fi inspired amalgamations, using new media, sculpture, video games, commercial goods and imagery. She engages with layers of “reality” that are at odds with each other as well as investigates social constructs and paradoxes. Letta’s work also explores gender constructs and gender representation, as part of her identity is being a full-time woman. Letta is currently a Research excellence fellow at the Immersion lab, UM where she works with VR, AR exploring posthuman condition. 

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