United Kingdom

How is the art world reacting to the risks posed by COVID-19?

4 May 2020

The unprecedented pandemic sweeping the globe is putting pressure on everything in its path – lives, health systems, businesses, communities and even museums. Whilst some might think that cultural institutions can simply lock the door and come back when the dust has settled, the stress placed on museums and subsequent risks is complex. The economic impact of the government’s lockdown constrains museums’ resources, security and future. More profound, however, is the emotional impact. Art can provide comfort, solace and guidance during times of crisis, but how can museums share their collections when their doors are closed?

Unforeseen disruption

The Art Newspaper reported on April 7th that reduced security staff and distracted police forces could lead to a rise in art thefts. This warning was prompted by the break-in at the Singer Laren Museum in the Netherlands, where a prized Vincent Van Gogh painting was stolen in the early hours of the morning on March 30th. Art thefts at museums often occur during public holidays when museums are closed, and staff numbers are reduced.

“Museums don’t have the money to have full staffing for security [while they remain closed],” says Philip Austin, a loss-adjuster at Fine Art Specie Adjusters Ltd. “They are furloughing staff and operating a skeleton type of business. I can see the criminal fraternity thinking this is Christmas.” He notes that museum break-ins often occur on public holidays, “and this is like a permanent bank holiday.” (Art Newspaper, April 7th, 2020.)

Museums hosting exhibitions or those that have lent art to other museums now face challenges in safely returning artworks during the crisis. Some museums have chosen to hold onto the loans until the situation improves, which can incur costs as exhibition insurance policies will need to be extended. Those who have attempted to ship artwork back to its owners have found that fine art shippers are running with reduced staff numbers, the shipment of cargo faces delays, air traffic is vastly reduced and the risk of substandard handling in cargo terminals is high.

Reuters highlighted some of these challenges: “Freight carriers are struggling to deliver goods by land, sea or air as the coronavirus pandemic forces Western governments to impose lockdowns, threatening supplies of vital products including medicines into the most affected areas.” (Reuters, March 23rd, 2020), and ArtNet reported that some of the Tate’s paintings are stranded in Hong Kong (March 6th, 2020).

The once-in-a-lifetime exhibition in Rome of Raphael’s works, celebrating the 500th anniversary of the artist’s death, was closed after four days as Italy went into lockdown. The National Gallery in London was hosting an exhibition of Titian’s works, with six of his best paintings being reunited for the first time in four centuries. It was required to close moments after it opened its doors. Most of the world’s finest treasures, in beautifully curated unisons, are currently locked away whilst humanity works out how we can safely enjoy them again.

A digital lens

Many museums are embracing modern technology and allowing access to its galleries via the internet – the Raphael exhibition can be viewed online, and the BBC gave a televised tour of the top works in the Titian exhibition at the National Gallery. Others offer impressive education materials, such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where curators and experts discuss artistic movements, and online courses can be accessed from the comfort of your sofa. The Tate Modern is offering the public a chance to experience its Warhol exhibition at home with a special film starring two of their curators. With physical galleries being suddenly empty, digital media is the only way to connect with the audience.

The Washington Post (April 19th, 2020) included a comment from Daniel Weiss, the Met New York’s president and chief executive, that after the attacks of September 11th, 2001, visitors were drawn to the Met, because “it gives them solace, it gives them inspiration, it gives them time and space for reflection. All of that is hard to do when you’re not open to the public. So, we’re pressing very hard to make sure our digital presence is meaningful to people, and we’re looking forward to being able to open the doors again”.

Cultural strategy expert Andras Szanto argues that museums need to re-open as soon as possible to relieve “the pandemic of anxiety” that is following in the wake of the virus. Introducing practical measures such as limiting attendance and having one-way traffic in the galleries may mean that cultural institutions can open their doors again in the not so distant future (ArtNet News, April 14th, 2020).

This pandemic presents an unparalleled battle and the impact on museums has already been devastating. Following a survey of 650 museums in 41 countries published on 6 April by the Network of European Museum Organisations (Nemo) it is estimated that closure during the Easter period alone is showing a EUR 10 million drop in income at the Uffizi Galleries in Florence. The Royal Academy of Arts in London is losing around GBP 1 million a month, Vienna’s Albertina around EUR 1.6 million a month. American museums are losing around USD 33 million a day while closed, according to the American Alliance of Museums. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York estimated a USD 100 million shortfall just six days after it closed on 12 March (Art Newspaper, April 24th, 2020). There is a devastating economic fallout for museums and yet we are a long way away from understanding COVID-19’s overall financial impact on the art world. We might expect further thefts and the permanent closure of small art galleries that struggle with a long period of inactivity. But art will always endure and can survive war, terrorism and this pandemic, and today’s artists will play an important role in telling humanity how the COVID-19 global pandemic changed the world.

Corona as muse

Could this disruption also be an opportunity for the art world? Or is it too early to speak of “corona art”?

On March 6th the Guardian, published: “COVID-19 is the subject of topical, colourful and attention-grabbing street art, whether it is for artistic, educational or political ends”. The Turner Prize-winning British artist Damien Hirst has created a new rainbow artwork to support the NHS in the current crisis. His new work, Butterfly Rainbow, is made up of bands of coloured butterfly wings, one of the artist’s best-known motifs and it can be easily downloaded from Damien Hirst’s website and displayed in everyone’s windows. The UK Science Museum group says it is building a coronavirus collection in response to this pandemic. Curators are gathering material relating to the COVID-19 crisis on behalf of the nation as a record of the medical, scientific and cultural responses to the outbreak.

Even Banksy is working from home…

It might be too early for us to understand the impact this worldwide pandemic is having on museums, art fairs, galleries, and many other art institutions and industry events. And it also might be too early to count insurance claims and fully understand the impacts of increased insurance risk in the art world. At Aon, we are working with our museum clients to guide them through this challenging time, by seeking new solutions and ensuring the integrity of their collection is considered in their response to the global pandemic.


Rachel Barclay
Associate Director, Fine Art & Specie
Global Broking Centre

+44 (0) 7464646345
[email protected]

Arianna Del Pizzo
Senior Claims Advocate, Fine Art & Specie
Global Broking Centre

+44 (0)20 7086 2960
[email protected]