Chinese Lockdown Sceptic Ai Weiwei Has Suffered Greatly For His Art

Last week, my wife and I visited the Ai Weiwei exhibition, “The Liberty Of Doubt“, being held at the Kettle’s Yard art gallery in Cambridge. For those who are unfamiliar with Ai Weiwei, the best way to describe him is as an artist and activist: his recently published memoir, 1,000 Years Of Joys And Sorrows, is a wonderful book, combining a potted history of China from the early 20th century up to the current day with recollections from his father’s and his own life.

The art on display is definitely contemporary and, in some cases, quite challenging: representations in marble of such everyday items as a Styrofoam takeaway box, iPhone case and even a sex toy tested my art appreciation mettle! However, the skill with which these objects are rendered is unquestionable and the ambition of some of the pieces is on a scale that can best be described as mind blowing. His “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn” at this exhibition (depicted above behind the artist), rendered in thousands of Lego pieces, is both ingenuous and controversial.

But as well as being a wonderfully inventive creative, billed as China’s foremost living artist, Ai Weiwei stands apart from his peers because of his outspoken defence of human rights, and in particular his championing of free speech and expression. As a man who says what he believes and refuses to be quiet he has, for many decades, been in conflict with the Chinese Communist Party (he currently lives in Portugal, though keeps a base in Cambridge, where his son goes to school, and a studio in Berlin). That conflict has not come without a personal cost, one that most of us would be unwilling to pay. He has been beaten by the police, severely enough to have suffered brain damage (in fact, one of his new pieces in the exhibition is a representation of the MRI performed after the beating), and he has been held, initially without charge but then on the grounds of tax evasion, in conditions of extreme confinement and loss of all personal autonomy. We can say honestly that he has suffered for his art.

Visits to World’s Top 100 Museums and Galleries Fall 77% Due to Lockdowns

A new survey has highlighted the damaging impact of lockdowns on museums and art galleries across the world, with visitor numbers at the top 100 institutions plunging by 77% last year. The annual survey conducted by the Art Newspaper usually gives praise to the year’s most popular exhibitions, but its latest report makes for more sombre reading.

In an ordinary year, more than nine million visitors jostle for position in front of the Mona Lisa or Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People at the Musée du Louvre in Paris, and half a million fashion-forward members of the public turn out for the spring opening of the Costume Institute’s annual exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. But there was nothing ordinary about 2020 and the widespread devastation caused by the global Covid pandemic. Our annual survey reveals that last year overall attendance of the world’s 100 most-visited art museums dropped by a staggering 77% in 2020 – from 230 million in 2019 to just 54 million as museums worldwide were forced to close. …

Of the museums we polled, more than 280 provided the number of days they closed last year because of the health crisis. On average, museums were shut for an extra 145 days, which adds up to a staggering 41,000 days in total – more than a century’s worth of museum visits missed last year. …

European cities saw a steep decline in international tourism last year, especially during the lucrative summer months. Paris received just 5% of its usual number of tourists last summer, according to a report by the UN’s World Tourism Organization. The French capital’s three major art museums – the Louvre, Centre Pompidou and Musée d’Orsay – saw a 73% drop in attendance overall, down to 4.5 million from 16.5 million in 2019. Around 2.7 million visited the Louvre, which, despite a 72% dip, is the most-visited museum in our survey. This admirable figure was helped by its once-in-a-lifetime Leonardo exhibition, which closed in February. It drew more than 10,000 visitors a day, making it the museum’s most-visited show ever. Despite this, the Louvre reported losses of around €90 million in 2020. The Fondation Louis Vuitton was closed for a whopping 226 days and had just 253,000 visitors, down from 800,000 in 2019.

The past year has been no better for British museums and galleries.

On average, UK museums saw a 77% drop in attendance, and were closed on average for more than half of 2020. When institutions eventually reopened, all major museums had restrictions on visitor numbers. Although they varied, most museums were typically only able to operate at around 20% to 30% of normal capacity. 

The steep decline in footfall contributed to huge financial losses. The self-generated income of the Tate’s four museums fell from £94 million in the 2019/20 financial year to an estimated £38 million for 2020/21, a 60% drop. Similarly, the Victoria and Albert Museum saw a 63% loss of income, with its self-generated funds falling from £64 million to £24 million. The BM would not supply its raw figures, but a spokesperson says that income generated by visitors has plummeted by more 90% of the budgeted sum. The National Gallery emerged relatively unscathed, losing only £14 million, according to a museum spokesperson. It is important to note that, as well as reflecting loss of income through attendance (tickets sales, retail, etc.), these figures also include donations, which can be generated without getting people through the door. Most fortunate was the National Portrait Gallery, which had already planned to close for major building works in June but brought this forward by three months because of the pandemic.

The cultural and educational loss caused by these closures will have been – and, indeed, continues to be – immense.

Worth reading in full.

UK Arts Rescue Fund Has Paid Out Just Over Half of Money Allocated

A Government fund established last year to support the arts and heritage sectors through lockdowns has only paid out little more than half of the money it has allocated, leaving venues across the country cash-strapped. The Guardian has the story.

The National Audit Office said the culture recovery fund had budgeted for £830 million in grants and loans funding so far, but only £495 million had been paid out.

MPs have responded angrily to the findings, urging the Government to hand over the cash while “there are still organisations left to support”.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) announced the £1.57 billion fund to help the cultural, arts and heritage institutions survive the pandemic last summer.

It has supported about 3,000 arts organisations in England so far, including venues such as the Royal Albert Hall and Southbank Centre in London, and M&S Bank Arena in Liverpool.

The fund was increased by £300 million in the budget earlier this month, with the Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, saying: “It’s such a relief we can look ahead now so this funding is not just about survival but for planning and preparing for the reopening of theatres, galleries and gigs.”

But auditors have examined the allocation of the funds so far and found that of the £1 billion that has been made available, about £830 million in grants and loans has been awarded to different organisations but only £495 million of that has been paid out, auditors said.

The department has assumed, in the worst-case scenario, that social distancing would remain until the end of March this year, auditors pointed out, and that demand for theatre tickets and venue capacity would remain at 40% of pre-Covid levels.

But the current situation exceeds this worst-case scenario.

Last month, plans for a new 2,000-seat concert hall in London were scrapped due to the impact of lockdowns. Venues across the country have suffered greatly over the last year from the shutting down of the arts. Of course, the best approach from here would be to scrap the “rescue” fund altogether and just let the sector re-open.

Worth reading in full.