While art galleries and museums in British Columbia are working to get reopening plans in place, the theatre community is reeling with uncertainty in the wake of guidelines announced by the provincial government.
B.C. announced on Wednesday that museums and galleries could reopen as soon as mid-May. Movie theatres and symphonies, it said, could potentially restart in June – but not in gatherings of more than 50 people. Professional sports and large concerts will have to wait for a vaccine, treatment or community immunity.
“The fact that it’s defined now means that it’s crystal clear to us that the arts in B.C. are in crisis and are going to be in crisis during this time,” said Ashlie Corcoran, artistic director of the Arts Club, the largest theatre company in Western Canada.
The announcement means that the shows the Arts Club had postponed, including Carried Away on the Crest of a Wave, now have to be considered lost. “We can’t just push them a couple months,” she said.
The company has also had about 10,000 people buy subscriptions for next year. With annual audiences of about 250,000 people, the organization receives about 80 per cent of its operating budget from tickets and related revenue, and only 7 per cent from government funding. Ms. Corcoran says for organizations such as hers to survive, that is going to have to change.
“We’re not going to get through this without some significant … government support,” Ms. Corcoran said.
Theatre companies were not specifically mentioned in Wednesday’s announcement, but audiences at the Arts Club’s three venues certainly exceed 50 people.
“There’s something between a gathering of 49 and GM Place being full,” Ms. Corcoran said. “We want to do whatever is safe, we are happy to do our part. We just hope that the government is going to realize how important arts and culture is to the fabric of our society.”
Galleries and museums, meanwhile, are preparing for reopening. Their strategies and plans will be presented to the province for approval.
Institutions are working on increased safety protocols: Plexiglas shields are being installed in areas of contact, such as admissions desks; security staff and volunteers will be trained to ensure physical distancing in the galleries; timed openings will be the norm with strict caps on capacity; and visitors may need to walk through exhibitions in a particular direction.
Patrons will be encouraged to order tickets online to minimize hand-to-hand contact. Institutions with exhibits that have touch-required elements, such as iPads or visitor-activated videos, will look into switching them out. Public programs, for the most part, will remain on hold. PPE will be available and hand-sanitizer stations installed. Galleries are talking about having masks available to sell to visitors.
The Vancouver Art Gallery is commissioning masks with a couple of works from its permanent collection. “We should try to be as creative as we can in those areas where it’s possible,” said interim director Daina Augaitis, who will be staying on longer than anticipated as the hiring process for a permanent director has been delayed by the pandemic.
The VAG, the province’s largest and most prominent public gallery, had been planning to reopen on June 27, just ahead of the Canada Day long weekend, but might move that forward given Wednesday’s announcement. It will make that decision, Ms. Augaitis says, in the next 10 days or so.
Elsewhere, the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria will be among the first, with a plan to reopen on May 19. The AGGV will offer free admission for the first month.
“We’re not out of the woods in terms of finances; we’re probably going to be hurting for a couple of years, but everyone’s hurting,” director Jon Tupper said “But we have a social role to play and I think that’s equally important. People are going to want things returning to normal. And that’s something we can do, is be that signal to return to normalcy.”
Also in Victoria, Royal BC Museum chief executive officer Jack Lohman says he doesn’t have a firm opening date yet, but he’s looking forward to opening in stages – once the museum is able to purchase sufficient PPE and hand sanitizer for staff and visitors.
“People with children are desperate to get out and they want somewhere to go,” said Mr. Lohman, who is also the president of the Canadian Museums Association. Admission at the RBCM will be free for front-line and essential workers, at least initially.
The Museum of Vancouver, the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre and the Maritime Museum, all in close proximity (the former two share a building) will co-ordinate their reopenings, which will likely happen in late May or early June.
In North Vancouver, the Polygon Gallery will open in stages this summer, beginning with the ground floor, followed by the large exhibition spaces upstairs. Like other galleries, it is assessing the huge financial hit it will take by losing out on facility rentals.
“If we’re not allowed to host an event with 50 people until there’s a vaccine or some way of dealing with a pandemic, we have a very different business model for another year to 18 months that we have to develop,” director Reid Shier said.
In the Interior, the Kelowna Art Gallery is considering opening on May 18, if it can be ready and get all the approvals required. The Penticton Art Gallery is looking to open by the end of the month, possibly the last week of May, with temporary programs and exhibitions, and a full exhibition program running in mid-June.
The Belkin Gallery and Museum of Anthropology on the University of British Columbia campus have no reopening dates scheduled. The Reach Gallery in Abbotsford is also still working on it. “The plan right now is obviously to put a plan in place,” executive director Laura Schneider said.
In Whistler, the Audain Art Museum is looking at reopening in late June, and has extended its temporary exhibition, The Extended Moment: Fifty Years of Collecting Photographs, on loan from the National Gallery of Canada. But as a “much leaner operation going forward,” said director and chief curator Curtis Collins, it will move from holding three major exhibitions a year to two.
Content at many institutions will be affected by the global shutdown – with smaller budgets and barriers to international art loans. At the RBCM, for instance, a planned show featuring treasures from the Amazon will now not be possible.
“It’s allowed us to turn the telescope down to B.C. and focus on B.C.,” Mr. Lohman said. “And we’ll adopt a magazine approach; lots of smaller exhibits, bringing out our treasures.”
At the VAG, Ms. Augaitis says exhibitions will be up longer, with more content from the permanent collection.
She also says that plans to build a new gallery are still going ahead.
“It’s a shovel-ready project that could be an economic kick-starter for recovery, so we have by no means abandoned that possibility and are just working quietly on it.”
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