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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LONDON — How Addis Fine Art got off the ground is a tale of happenstance built on the back of good timing. Rakeb Sile, 39, who was born in Philadelphia and raised in London, had always been interested in the arts, having even flirted with the idea of working in the music industry before settling on a career in management consulting.

But whenever she traveled back to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where she had lived for most of her early childhood until her family moved to Britain because of political unrest in the early 1990s, she spent time investigating the city’s growing but globally undiscovered contemporary art scene. She started collecting paintings and sometimes bought works directly from the artists because there was no professional gallery scene in terms of artist development and infrastructure.

Art became her passion, and in 2012 she took a six-month sabbatical in part because she was not sure if she wanted to stay in her career. “And I wanted to make sense of what I had collected,” she said, “to see where is the narrative.”

Once she was back in London, a Nigerian friend who was an art collector told her that the new Gallery of African Art was opening and that gallery officials did not want to debut a show with an artist from South Africa or Nigeria, countries whose art scenes have a lot of exposure internationally.

“I called Mesai, and I said: ‘We have an opportunity to do a show in London; we should do it. What do you think?’” she said, chuckling softly in the cafe of the Conduit, a private club in London where a large-scale work by Tadesse Mesfin, an artist Addis Fine Art represents, hangs in the lobby. “And he said, ‘I am in retirement.’ When he tells it, he says, ‘I thought you were absolutely crazy.’”

But that idea ended up being a solo exhibition in the summer of 2013 of an Ethiopian painter and sculptor, Wosene Worke Kosrof, who lives in California. It was a success. So with a little coaxing from Ms. Sile’s side, she and Mr. Haileleul partnered to set up Addis Fine Art with outposts in both London and Addis Ababa, where he had relocated.
Tariku Shiferaw’s “Afro Blue (Erykah Badu)” 2019.
Credit…Tariku Shiferaw/Addis Fine Art

“Our main goal was to be a bridge between here and the rest of the world,” Mr. Haileleul, now 63, said in a telephone interview from Addis Ababa. “It’s tough on the continent as a lot of artists do not have enough collectors to be able to support themselves so we felt like, ‘Yes, we will be based in Ethiopia, be authentic and really understand the history of the art of this country.’ It’s been one hell of a ride, and I never thought I would be working this hard at this stage in my life.”

Since Addis Fine Art’s debut at the Armory Show in New York in 2016, where the gallery showed the painter Emanuel Tegene, Ms. Sile and Mr. Haileleul have been storming across the African contemporary art scene, participating in fairs from the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London to Art Dubai and Art X Lagos in Nigeria. This week, the gallery will be at the Untitled art fair in Miami, showcasing the work of Tariku Shiferaw, a Harlem-based abstract minimalist painter.

Next year looks just as busy, not only because the gallery will move to a new permanent location in London in May. In March, Addis Fine Art will again be at both Art Dubai and the Armory Show. It will also put on exhibitions in its spaces in London and Addis Ababa.

“One of the things that has contributed to the steady success of Addis Fine Art is the fact that Rakeb has a commercial and corporate background while Mesai is an art historian,” Adnan Bashir, a collector of African contemporary art who also sits on the Africa Acquisitions Committee for the Tate, wrote in an email. “The confluence of business acumen and deep knowledge of Ethiopian art has served them well and been the bedrock of a successful commercial gallery model.”

That the majority of their artists are painters is no coincidence given Ethiopia’s rich art history that dates back to fourth-centurypaintings in churches, many of which still survive. The Alle School of Fine Art and Design, established in 1958, was the bedrock of the Ethiopian modernist movement with influential artists like Gebre Kristos Desta, considered to be the father of the country’s modern art scene, teaching a generation of students including Mr. Mesfin, who also taught there.

Tadesse Mesfin’s “Pillars of Life: Faith.”
Credit…Tadesse Mesfin/Addis Fine Art

But violent political turmoil for decades — which directly led to the infamous famine in the mid-1980s — meant that not only a majority of the artists but also the collecting class either fled or were killed. Now, though, art from the country is finally being recognized, thanks to the growing international successes of artists from the diaspora like Julie Mehretu (who is represented by the Marian Goodman Gallery) and Addis Ababa-based artists like Elias Sime(who received the 2019 African Art Award from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art) as well as Addis Fine Art’s platforms.

Even the political class has recently begun embracing the country’s contemporary art scene: Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who this year was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for restarting peace talks with Eritrea, has works by a few of Addis Fine Art’s artists in the outer lobby of his office.

“That is one of the most striking things: Rakeb and Mesai clearly have a good eye,” said the curator Roger Malbert, the former head of touring exhibitions for London’s Hayward Gallery. “That consistent attention to quality and integrity of the program gives them special status on the London scene in terms of representing African art.”

But they have always balanced their global ambitions with focusing on the art scene in Ethiopia. That in turn has led them to organically establish something of a noncommercial arm to their work, helping to fill a gap because of the dearth of other gallery spaces, institutions, art criticism and curatorial programming. They are also creating a publishing offshoot and establishing an artist development program.

“Since Addis Fine Art joined our London edition in 2016, I have witnessed them establish themselves as one of the most important galleries on the continent,” the founder of 1-54, Touria El Glaoui, wrote in an email. “They are a leading example in harmonizing the needs and aspirations of a local creative scene with global networks and opportunities.”

Top photo: Rakeb Sile and Mesai Haileleul