The Tate is the first of the UK’s big art museums to announce that it will close due to coronavirus. As London goes into semi-official lockdown, and smaller institutions announced that they were shuttering, the Tate’s director Maria Balshaw and trustees took the unilateral decision to shutter tomorrow until May as a precautionary measure.

The decision was made amid the UK government’s rapidly changing advice, which some have criticized as confusing. On Monday, the UK prime minister Boris Johnson shifted the government’s strategy, asking all theatres and pubs to close, and millions of people to work from home especially in London, as projected number of virus fatalities suddenly rose. But he stopped short of urging museums to close, although they have restaurants, cafes, and lecture theatres at their heart.

The Tate’s decision probably means other national museums will do likewise within days or by the weekend. Late last week, it emerged that a Tate Modern staffer had tested positive for the virus.

The Tate Modern opened a blockbuster Andy Warhol exhibition last week, in addition to an exhibition by Steve McQueen; at Tate Liverpool, there is a large show dedicated to Theaster Gates. Kara Walker’s Tate commission, a water fountain, will be turned off for the foreseeable future.

The directors and trustees of smaller institutions took matters in their own hands earlier. On Monday, the South London Gallery announced it had closed. Next, the director of the Institute of Contemporary Art in, Stefan Kalmar, announced that together with his chairman, the artist Wolfgang Tillmans, they had decided to close its galleries, cafe, cinema, and lecture theatre, as a precaution. By the end of the day the Camden Arts Centre in North London announced it was closing, too.

A slew of commercial galleries in Central London had already announced they were closing their spaces temporarily to the public, including David Zwirner, Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, and White Cube. In a pointed statement, Matts Gallery said that it was closing its exhibition after listening to the advice of the World Health Organisation, not Public Health England or the UK government.

As of Tuesday, the British Museum, National Gallery, and Victoria and Albert’s museums in London and Dundee remain open but for how long remains to be seen. Artnet News understands that a high-level telephone meeting is taking place today between cultural organisations and the government department responsible for culture. Last night, when asked whether DCMS’s advice had changed, a spokeswoman said to listen to the prime minister’s statement.

A spokeswoman for the British Museum says: “We are awaiting further guidance from DCMS and the government today.” She stressed that the health and safety of its staff and visitors is an absolute priority. The museum remains open in the meantime.

Arts Council England, which distributes government funding, signalled an important shift at the weekend when it announced that the public facing organisations that it funds they may need to plan for closure. ACE has made supporting them and artists during the coronavirus its top priority. The chair of ACE is Nicholas Serota, a former director of Tate, with the political clout to make tough calls. Although the directors of the UK’s national museums are no longer civil servants, stepping out of line will not have been made lightly by his successor. The Tate’s four galleries, Tate Modern and Tate Britain in London, Tate Liverpool in the North of England, and Tate St Ives in the Cornwall will be shut until May 1 according to the Tate website.

 

 

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