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Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivers a Covid-19 address to the United Kingdom from London on May 9, 2020. Photo: Andrew Parsons/No 10 Downing Street.

UK Galleries Anticipate a June Reopening as Museums Remain Shut

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s new plan for reopening the British economy, which was broadcast on Sunday, has been met with confusion and frustration across the United Kingdom due to its vague and contradictory language pertaining to when people can return to work. For some in the art industry, however, it could mean good news. While Johnson did not specifically mention galleries when he announced that schools and select shops may be able to open as early as June 1, trade associations that have been lobbying the government to issue guidelines as it lifts the lockdown confirmed that it will recognize galleries and auction houses as “non-essential retail.” 

Art workers who are unable to work from home may even be permitted to return to their offices immediately. “From tomorrow, anyone who works back-of-house who cannot work from home can go back into an auction house or gallery to do things like cataloguing or photography,” Freya Simms, chief executive of the art trade association Lapada, told the Art Newspaper, following a call with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). “Customer facing staff will be part of phase two, probably in June.”

The DCMS said auction house staffers would be permitted to visit clients in their homes while following social distancing rules, and Simms added that a second call with the department will likely focus on logistics of ensuring access to Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). British Art Market Federation chairman Anthony Browne, who was also on the call, stressed that if reopening meant implementing strict safety measures then art businesses would adopt them. He noted that a decree in France last week had allowed French auction houses to reopen with a maximum of ten visitors.

In response to the news that auction houses would be able to open as part of the second phase of Johnson’s easing of the lockdown restrictions, a spokesperson for Christie’s said: “Under the current guidelines, we will now be able to pursue certain select, key activities on site to support our sales. We will commence that on a phased and considered basis.” A Sotheby’s spokesperson said that the auction house is waiting for further news to determine when live auctions could resume, and that Johnson’s announcement “has not fundamentally changed what we are able to do right now, but we are hoping to be able to increase the flow of property through Sotheby’s.”

For Bona Montagu, a partner at Skarstedt Gallery, the reopening date was welcome news: “We will ensure when people visit the gallery that they can do so in a safe way. But at least it means there’s a way forward, which was very unclear up until now. . . . There are certain things that are particular to our industry, such as transport and warehouses, where there are some unresolved issues because art handlers can’t always maintain social distancing. So, they are still trying to work those things out.”

Since the lockdowns began in March, most art handling firms have furloughed a majority of their staff. UK chancellor Rishi Sunak announced on Tuesday that furloughs, which were originally scheduled to end in June, will be extended to October. Meanwhile, art logistics companies are preparing for business to start up again. While Gander & White is restarting a crew of ten trucks in London on Wednesday, it does not yet expect there to be much activity.

Cultural organizations, including museums, are unlikely to open before July 4, during the third phase of the reopening. Socially distanced movie theaters and places of worship, as well as some restaurants and cafes, could also reopen in July.