Is it time for Britain’s art galleries to open?

The directors of two of the UK’s best-loved galleries explain their different responses to lockdown easing – and we round up the reopeners

The Wallace Collection (l) will reopen on July 15 but the Charleston museum (r) will remain closed
The Wallace Collection (l) will reopen on July 15 but the Charleston museum (r) will remain closed

Why we will be reopening

Xavier Bray, director of the Wallace Collection in London:

We are reopening on July 15. I felt we had to go back to our founder and ask, “What would he have done?” Richard Wallace gave his magnificent family collection to the nation on June 25 1900, so we’ve just passed our 120th anniversary. I think Wallace’s first thought would have been to reopen as soon as it was possible and safe to do so. In fact, pretty much since the start of the lockdown, we’ve been preparing how to reopen.

We’re not going to be able to open the whole museum yet, but we’re reopening most of it, and creating a route through it, with an itinerary that takes in most of our superstar pieces, such as The Swing by Fragonard (1767), Rembrandt’s portrait of his son Titus (c1657), and The Rainbow Landscape by Rubens (c1636), as well as The Laughing Cavalier by Frans Hals (1624). We’re going to have different opening hours – 11am to 3pm, to avoid rush hour – and we will be restricting the number of visitors.

People will have to reserve a slot online when booking opens to the public today: we’re allowing 15 people into the gallery every 15 minutes, with the last timed entry at 2.15pm. That translates to 200 visitors a day – whereas we’d normally have 2,000. We’re encouraging families to come, too. Mask-wearing won’t be compulsory, although we’re asking people not to come if they feel unwell. There will be hand sanitiser at strategic points.

The route through the gallery will pass The Laughing Cavalier by Frans Hals (1624)

People have suggested that the museum, which is housed in 25 rooms of the former town house of the Marquesses of Hertford, is too small and too intimate to control social distancing, but we’re introducing measures along the lines that people have got used to at Waitrose or Tesco – floor signage, for instance, to help with distancing, and we’ll start with 2m. We’re also training our staff to point out when the rules are being ignored. We don’t have the sort of interactive, touchscreen devices that many larger museums have introduced, so that’s not an issue for us, but there are areas we’ve given special thought to, such as the beautiful wrought-iron balustrade from the Banque Royale in Paris that people often touch as they climb the Grand Staircase on their way to the Great Gallery. We’ve had a new coat of protective wax put on, and it will be cleaned continuously throughout the day.

For the first two months at least, we won’t be operating guided tours, which we know lots of people really enjoy, but there will be an online collection trail focusing on masterpieces from each room that will be accessible on your phone as you visit. We’re also encouraging people to download the app Smartify, which, when you point your phone at a painting, recognises it and can give you information about it. We might start doing guided tours out of hours, with groups of six, which galleries in Italy have been doing. But I feel sure the best thing is to start off really conservatively, and then, as we get the confidence of the public and our staff, we can start doing a bit more.

We’re certainly reopening the exhibition Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company on July 29, and we’ve extended its run until September. I’d like people who visit the museum to come out afterwards and think, I felt safe and I really engaged with the collection, and also perhaps that they have appreciated the space and time that a post-pandemic visit will give them, of having little rendezvous with their favourite pieces. One thing that has become very clear over the lockdown is that there’s no substitute for interaction with the real thing. That will never be replaced.

The Wallace Collection reopens July 15 (online booking only, from today)


Why we can't reopen (yet)

Nathaniel Hepburn, director of the Charleston museum in Lewes, Sussex

The announcement that museums can reopen from this Saturday is only half the picture. Charleston, like many other museums, simply won’t be able to. Charleston is a 16th-century farmhouse overflowing with decorated furniture, paintings, ceramics and textiles. It is the only fully preserved Bloomsbury Group interior in the world and a site of national cultural importance. Visitors come from around the world to hear our team bring these spaces to life through guided tours. Stories of Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf, Roger Fry, T S Eliot, John Maynard Keynes and others who met at Charleston to imagine life differently: socially, economically, artistically and sexually. 

We allow our visitors to move freely throughout the house. Charleston is presented to visitors without barriers and without Perspex boxes over the many fragile and valuable objects inside. The intimacy of this experience is something that visitors cherish. But our small rooms do not allow for social distancing and it would not be safe for either our staff or our volunteers, or visitors – even with protective masks. There are other, more spacious areas at Charleston – the new galleries, for example, and the garden, café and shop – but without visitors to the house and with the anticipated reduction of visitors, we cannot cover the costs of staffing these spaces. 

Charleston overflows with decorated furniture, paintings, ceramics and textiles Credit: Christopher Pledger

The problem is the same for theatres, airlines and restaurants: who will pay for the empty seats required for social distancing? In the case of many museums and galleries, who will fund the potential 60-70 per cent of income lost already, or that will arise from reduced capacity? Without answers to these questions, our doors remain closed. 

Charleston is a small charity, with no public funding. Over the past few months we have lost over £500,000 of ticket, shop and café revenue that we need to look after the house, garden and collections. Yes, we have received generous donations from visitors around the world, grants from Heritage England and the National Lottery Heritage Fund, and one amazing member of our community raised more than £55,000 through an Instagram auction of work by artists and makers who have been inspired by Charleston, but there is still a long way to go.

We have given lots of thought to ensure we take advantage of this extended period of closure. I hope that we’ll never have to close again, and there are many things to do. The dry summer is ahead of us and the perfect opportunity to repaint and restore the woodwork on the exterior of the house, for instance. Our ticketing systems also need an overhaul; we need to mend the potholed farm track that leads to the site; our textile collections require restoration and perhaps we will be able to plant and open an underused part of the garden.  Of course, this increases the funding and investment we require, and is small consolation for our staff, who would much prefer to be sharing Charleston with visitors. But maybe, just maybe, we will find a way for Charleston to be a bolder, more beautiful, more useful and more resilient organisation when we reopen in 2021.

Museums and galleries to give you an early real-life art fix

As expected, museums and galleries are staggering their reopenings. The majority, including the major nationals, are currently aiming for the first week of August, though there are murmerings that one or two may open sooner, and we expect that to be announced this week. In the meantime, if you’re as desperate as  I am for a real-life art fix, the galleries below are first off the blocks:    

Compton Verney, July 7

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Hercules and Antaeus Credit: Compton Verney

The Warwickshire art gallery will reopen with the exhibition Lucas Cranach: Artist and Innovator, which closed a week after launch in March. Presenting newly restored paintings and prints by the versatile German Renaissance master, alongside pieces by later and present-day artists such as Raqib Shaw and Picasso, who were inspired by his work, its run has been extended until January 3.

Houghton Hall, July 12

Anish Kapoor, Sky Mirror (2018) and Eight Eight (2004) Credit: Pete Huggins

An exhibition of 24 sculptures by the British artist Anish Kapoor will go on show throughout the grounds and historic interiors of Houghton Hall, Norfolk. These include some of Kapoor’s major works in mirror and stone, including Sky Mirror (2018), along with a series of carved marble sculptures dating from 2001-03, as well as drawings and smaller works. 

Alison Jacques, July 1

Gordon Parks, Untitled, Alabama, 1956 Credit: The Gordon Parks Foundation, New York and Alison Jacques Gallery, London; Michael Brzezinski

The Fitzrovia-based gallery reopens with a truly unmissable exhibition of works by the American photographer Gordon Parks (1912-2006). This is the first of two shows planned by the gallery (the second will open in September) and focuses on two defining stories, Segregation in the South (1956) and Black Muslims (1963), both of which initially appeared in Life magazine. It’s the first time in more than 25 years that Parks has had a solo show in the capital.  

Foundling Museum, July 8

Marcus Gheeraerts II, Portrait of a Woman in Red, 1620 Credit: Tate

London’s museum of the Foundling Hospital, formed in 1739 for abandoned children, reopens with Portraying Pregnancy: from Holbein to social media. The exhibition, which explores the often wildly inventive ways in which artists have sought to hide, flaunt or spoof the pregnant form in their paintings, was on course to be the museum’s most successful ever when it closed in March, and will now run until August 23.

Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft,  July 16

John Newlin, works from Tillage, 2020 Credit: John Newling / Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft

A vital stop on the Sussex art trail, Ditchling reopens with a new exhibition of work by John Newling. Works from the British artist’s 40-year career will feature alongside three new commissions including a site-specific sculpture for Ditchling’s village green and a musical performance. Dear Nature – 81 letters that Newling wrote to nature over 81 days – will also be on display. 

Whitechapel Gallery, July 14

Michael Armitage, #mydressmychoice, 2015 Credit: White Cube; George Darrell

The east London gallery reopens with an extended run of its spring exhibition programme. Top of your list should be Radical Figures: Painting in the New Millennium, which makes the case that contrary to naysayers, painting is alive and well among contemporary artists such as Cecily Brown and Michael Armitage. You can also see Carlos Bunga’s commission, Something Necessary and Useful, and In the Eye of Bambi, which presents highlights from the la Caixa contemporary art collection in Spain.