Tate Liverpool. Photo: David Dixon.

UK Shifts Response to Coronavirus Outbreak, Tate Galleries Close

The United Kingdom has stood apart from Europe and the United States in its response to the coronavirus—as of Friday the British government had not restricted the daily life of its residents or imposed any strict “social-distancing” measures, and large gatherings and events were still taking place. However, as more people in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales have contracted COVID-19, the UK has since done an about-face.

On Monday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson gave a speech in which he called the UK’s approach to containment as “bringing forward the right measures at the right time.” He also cited new data from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) as the reason for the shift in the government’s strategy. He urged people to work from home and to avoid pubs, clubs, theaters, and other social venues. He said, “Now is the time for everyone to stop nonessential contact with others and to stop all unnecessary travel.”

The speech led to the closure of many major institutions, including the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), London; the Royal Court in London; the Royal Opera House, which will begin broadcasting free performances; the Society of London Theater; and Sadler’s Wells. On Tuesday, March 17, Tate announced that it would close all of its galleries, becoming one of the first major museums to shutter. In a statement, the Tate said, “For over 120 years we have been welcoming people to our galleries to enjoy great art from around the world. However, the welfare of our visitors and staff must always come first.” Tate Modern, Tate Britain, Tate Liverpool, and Tate St. Ives will remain closed until May 1.

Commenting on the decision to temporarily close, Stefan Kalmár, director of the ICA, said: “As a civic-minded public organisation, for us, the medical and scientific evidence leaves no doubt that the COVID-19 spread can be slowed down, lives saved if all larger gatherings are suspended. By doing so, the ICA pre-empts what we hope will eventually be the decision for all cultural organisations in London and the UK in order to safeguard our staff, our visitors, and the artists with whom we work. We will continue to review the situation daily and hope we can resume our program as soon as possible. All ICA staff will work from home and continue to be paid.”

For now, major London museums, including the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum, remain open. While the National Gallery is still welcoming visitors, it has postponed its upcoming blockbuster exhibition dedicated to Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi. Scheduled to open on April 4, the show was set to feature two of the artist’s best-known works, two different versions of Judith Beheading Holofernes. The South London Gallery, Alison Jacques, Hannah Barry, Modern Art, Pilar Corrias, Sadie Coles, Timothy Taylor, Unit London, Victoria Miro, and White Cube, as well as the London locations of David Zwirner, Gagosian, Galerie Thaddeus Ropac, Hauser & Wirth, Pace, and Sprüth Magers, are closed. 

The National Museum of Scotland, the Scottish National Gallery, and the Centre for Contemporary Art Glasgow are all currently open. The Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales (formerly known as the National Museums and Galleries of Wales), which comprises seven museums, including the National Museum Cardiff, has closed until further notice.

[Update: 3:05 PM, March 17]

The British Museum and the National Portrait Gallery in London have closed. “We have taken this decision with a heavy heart but our absolute priority is the health and safety of our staff and visitors,” director Hartwig Fischer said in a statement. “At present we do not know when we will be able to reopen but we hope to be able to provide further updates soon.”