The next pandemic led movement: Free art

Cultural organisations are massively under threat right now. But the changes they’re having to make, amplified by their brands, could create a new age of free art.

COVID-19 has meant physically visiting galleries, museums and other art institutions is no longer something we can do. This could last for many, many more weeks. Globally, museums are suffering. The Met Museum Prepares for $100 Million Loss Due to Coronavirus, and the Chief Executive of American Alliance Museums said one-third of museums will not reopen if the crisis continues. Europe follows suit with cultural sectors being among the most adversely affected by this pandemic. 

So, what will be the long term effects on cultural organisations? This could be an exciting opportunity to overhaul the traditional set up of the whole sector.

Exactly 20 years ago, Tate Modern opened. At Wolff Olins we worked with Tate to create a shared philosophy that could work across all four of its sites – a philosophy of democratising culture without dumbing it down. In the year of launch, Tate Modern attracted double its target visitor numbers and became the most popular modern art gallery in the world. The Observer wrote in 2005 that Tate ‘has changed the way that Britain sees art and the way the world sees Britain’. 

And now, in response to a global pandemic, this ‘democratising arts’ movement has accelerated at speed. Over the past few weeks, hundreds of other art and cultural institutions are opening up their virtual doors to the public and inviting people to experience their exhibitions or productions for free. ‘We all talk and have talked about democratisation of access to the arts - well this is it’, believes Brian Boylan, arts expert and former chairman of Wolff Olins. 

Milan Fondazione Prada based in Northern Italy, one of the worst affected areas of the virus, has offered a chance to see its three postponed exhibitions online. This includes interviews, videos and images as well as a range of cinematic programmes and a curated streaming service. Sceptics will of course say that experiencing art through a screen is never going to be the same as experiencing it in person in a gallery or a theatre. These sceptics are right. It won’t be the same - it will be a totally different experience, but not necessarily a worse one. The Financial Times debated whether Donald Judd’s current exhibition at the Moma is actually better online. Unlike in a physical exhibition, there is space - space for thought and space for the masses. 

Free art will come in different formats. While publishers can’t give away free books, they can offer new, undiscovered content and a behind-the-scenes insight. Faber has introduced special ways of allowing its readers to connect with authors, including Poem of the day where every day, Monday to Friday, it releases a video or audio recording of a Faber poet or writer reciting a poem. It also created Faber Radio, where Faber most recently invited music journalist Jon Savage to create a playlist centered around his latest book. Would this content and intimacy with artists be available without the push of the pandemic? We’re not sure, but either way we’re grateful for it. 

Can theatre and opera be a part of this movement? Yes. A great example is Fidelio, Beethoven’s only opera. On its 250th anniversary, this piece is to be broadcasted live through cinemas across the UK. These cinemas are everyday cinemas (Odeon and Vue) and aren’t elite in any way. Fidelio is expecting audience numbers of up to 100,000. The Royal Opera House has its #OurHouseToYourHouse programme, a completely free programme of curated online broadcasts, musical masterclasses and cultural insights.

But all of this depends on one thing: brand. Even if it’s free, people won’t try new art unless they know, trust and like the organisation behind it. Tate, The Royal Opera House and Faber have all invested in building their brands – and Prada is, of course, fundamentally a brand. Through the power of brand, and the offer of free art organisations can bring new audiences in – and, over time, get those audiences to engage more and spend money. 

So here’s the opportunity for arts organisations everywhere. Build your brand, and offer people some free ways into what you do – which in turn strengthen your brand. Together, these two strategies could give the sector a way to survive the crisis – and to enrich the lives of millions beyond it.