Major exhibitions are often several years in the making and institutions rely on them to bring in huge numbers of visitors (and dollars). But uncertainty, international border closures, mandatory quarantine and health concerns are making it difficult, if not impossible, to bring international works and artists into the country.
The Australian Museum’s King Tut: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh blockbuster, billed as the “largest and most impressive” Tutankhamun exhibition to ever leave Egypt and the last time the objects would travel globally, was due to open early next year but has been postponed with no future date set.
Sydney’s other exclusive exhibitions, due to show over summer, will also be shelved: the Art Gallery of NSW’s Matisse exhibition from France’s Centre Pompidou and the MCA’s survey of contemporary American artist Doug Aitken. The Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art hopes to reschedule its Chiharu Shiota exhibition, from the Mori Museum of Art in Tokyo, to mid 2022 while it plans to go ahead with The Motorcycle in November, but it will likely rely more heavily on Australian and New Zealand collections.
The National Gallery of Australia has not yet cancelled its Botticelli to Van Gogh: Masterpieces from the National Gallery, London due to open in early November. However, the art is currently at the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo, which remains shuttered as the city copes with a second wave of coronavirus, and was due to head to Osaka’s National Museum of Art in July before coming to Sydney.
Ellwood said it was “amazing” that no works had been withdrawn from the Triennial, which is in part due to the quick-thinking of his team which raced to get works into the country as the coronavirus pandemic worsened.
The gallery also started negotiations with artists on remote installation solutions via filming or livestreams – many artists insist on being present for an installation, to sign off the final presentation (the program has yet to be announced, but The Age revealed in February it would include renowned French street artists JR). Some works will be reconfigured – no art will be interactive – due to health and social distancing requirements.
With a $10 million exhibition acquisition fund, the NGV also owns a lot of the work they will install.
But at the same time the NGV has had to retool another show. On Friday, the Winter masterpieces exhibition of French post-impressionist painter Pierre Bonnard would have opened.
Three years in the planning, the show was to feature 150 loans, 75 of them from the Musee D’Orsay in Paris, the rest from diverse lenders including major North American venues and a private collector in Switzerland.
“Our initial fear was that we’d completely lost the show,” Ellwood said. “The amount of new scholarship that had been applied to that, the ambition of the catalogue which was ready to go to print, we just thought three years of work is down the drain.”
Ellwood’s team persuaded the D’Orsay to agree to reposition the show to 2023, leaving them more than 40 other lenders to convince.
“At this stage about 80% of those have now confirmed for 2023, which is extraordinary,” Ellwood said.
Ellwood wants to keep his international program as strong as possible. He’s heard from people now too scared to travel, who want his gallery to be a window on the art world.
“It’s genuinely serving a community need that doesn’t want to be cut off from the rest of the world, from global culture.”
Nick Miller is Arts Editor of The Age.
Melanie Kembrey is Spectrum Deputy Editor at the Sydney Morning Herald.