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LONDON — The global pandemic has struck hard at countless institutions, among them most of the world’s museums. Forced to close their doors to visitors, a major source of revenue, and to cancel or postpone exhibitions, they have struggled to stay alive.

But some help is coming soon, from a perhaps unlikely source. This year, Masterpiece Online, taking the place of the now-canceled Masterpiece London 2020 art fair, has a philanthropic bent, one that is knocking down an old wall between two spheres of the art world.

The online fair, running from Monday to June 28, is focusing its newly created Masterpiece Cultural Fund on helping a number of art museums forced to close in the coronavirus pandemic. Its programming will include panel discussions, virtual tours and private viewings, where attendees and viewers will be asked to donate to the fund via a third-party website.

Those proceeds, along with a contribution by Masterpiece of 25 percent of the amount raised through donations until July 31, will be distributed to almost 20 museums in four countries. The list includes the National Gallery and the Victoria & Albert Museum, both in London; the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; the Jacquemart-André Museum in Paris and the Hong Kong Museum of Art (the last two are now open), all of which are taking part in the talks and lecture program.

“There is a recognition that things were not exactly rosy for museums before Covid-19 happened, not just for large museums like us but small ones as well,” said Letizia Treves, curator of the National Gallery’s 17th- and 18th-century Italian and Spanish paintings, who will take part in a discussion on women in the arts. “Looking into the future, this is a really interesting model that Masterpiece has introduced,” given the historic separation between museums and the world of art auction houses and galleries.

Even after museums open, she added, the number of visitors will be down because of factors like social distancing and the absence of international tourists.

For museums worldwide, the challenges have been substantial. Two studies released in May by UNESCO and the International Council of Museums found that 90 percent of museums had to close their doors during the crisis, and almost 13 percent of the more than 85,000 that have shut may never reopen because of heavy financial losses.

Those losses are in part a result of missing admissions fees for museums that had them, at-the-door donations and gift shop revenue, and on a larger level, cancellation of “blockbuster” exhibitions that would have provided sponsorships.

The institutions operate with money from several sources. The National Gallery in London, for example, has separate funds for acquiring artwork and, as a charity, receives about half its funding from the government. But it has to raise the rest of its budget, which is over £45 million, on its own. It does not charge an admission fee to its regular permanent galleries.

While the good news is that a majority of European museums have not yet had to resort to layoffs, a substantial number have put contracts with freelancers on hold, stopped their volunteer programs entirely and delayed long-term infrastructure projects because of concerns about the budget.

“Most museums have changed completely their programs for this year, and also next year as well,” said Ernesto Ottone Ramirez, UNESCO’s assistant director-general for culture. “So this whole ecosystem around the museum, like tour guides and service providers, are suffering from this new situation.”

Over the years, Masterpiece has supported initiatives by cultural institutions focused on arts education and restoration projects, though this will be the first time they have actively raised funds that will be donated directly to a philanthropic cause. Now its organizers hope to raise £50,000 over the next 12 months through online giving and other methods.

And Mariane Ibrahim, a gallerist in Chicago, helped develop an idea for an online auction to aid the Museum of the African Diaspora, an affiliate of the Smithsonian, in San Francisco. The auction, run by Artsy, an online art platform, raised over $450,000.

Other sources of support, like the Los Angeles-based Getty Foundation, have also sprung into action. Getty’s $10 million fund is offering emergency and recovery support to nonprofit museums and visual arts organizations in the Los Angeles area. “We understood quickly what a devastating impact Covid-19 would have on our region’s arts organizations, particularly the small and midsize ones that often have no cash reserves,” Joan Weinstein, the director of the Getty Foundation, wrote in an email. “We need these institutions not only to survive the pandemic, but to come out stronger and more resilient if we want our future to be more just and equitable.”

Andras Szanto, a consultant to organizations and institutions, including UNESCO, said these initiatives send a strong message. “The moment is calling out solidarity and collaboration in ways that are impressive even if it is only symbolic,” he said, adding, “the crisis has also brought out some of the best instincts in the field.”

That’s why philanthropic initiatives like Masterpiece are important, even if, as Philip Hewat-Jaboor, chairman of Masterpiece London, concedes, the amount raised may initially be modest. “When you start looking at what support mechanisms there are for museums in terms of general philanthropy, there is not very much out there,” he said. He added that it’s more than the money. “Not only the financial support, but also recognizing how important all the different strands of the art world are to one another, and it is that mutual support that is so important.

 

Cover phone: National Gallery in London, Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

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