ARTicle written by Senah Tuma, ARTiculation Ambassador (University of York)
The Beverley Art Gallery, like many galleries, is in a time of flux. The gallery is responding to Covid-19 and its impact on the art world. I had the chance to talk to curator Helena Cox who granted me an inside look into the Beverley, not just as a visitor, but as a member of the curatorial staff working behind the scenes. Gallery life has evidently changed in light of the pandemic, and Cox told me of the new life the museum has taken on post-lockdown.
The North East boasts a wide selection of trusts, museums and galleries and the Beverley Art Gallery in East Yorkshire is one of the best. In her discussions with me, Cox notes that the organisations in Yorkshire are ‘outstanding and the collections housed … are of innumerable value to the society – this is a time for all of us to stand by the museums core values and speak out about how much of a benefit to everyone they represent.’
In my interactions with the gallery it has become abundantly clear to me that they prioritise a welcoming environment. Throughout lockdown, their social media has been active with activities, prompts and artwork spotlights; the team worked not only to provide stimulating content, but to maintain their uplifting attitude. The gallery has been connecting with their community – consistently engaging visitors and followers on a personal basis, inviting conversations and collaborations. This kind of engagement reflects the way that the gallery is committed to interacting with their local history.
Beverley Art Gallery’s permanent collection and identity is rooted in its history – celebrating both historical and modern art, with a focus on local artists. Upon reopening in July, the Beverley led with two exhibitions surrounding abstract art and landscape photography – but these are now coming to an end. What’s next for Beverley Art Gallery? Their team has been working throughout the pandemic; the imposed restrictions or changes have not limited, simply adjusted, their programming. They are ‘incredibly excited’ to welcome the 162nd International Photography Exhibition from 19th September, featuring 100 vibrant and diverse photographs.
In regards to the safety measures implemented Cox says, ‘safe does not need to mean that it’s not fun anymore!’ A one-way system through the physical space has been adopted, the adjusted route enabling visitors to see parts of the building not otherwise visible on a casual, pre-Covid visit. Sections previously only visible to staff are now part of the route, the well-preserved Edwardian building is now visible, serving on its own as a reason for a visit. The elegant architecture of the original structure serves in contrast to the architecture of our homes, and is now more striking than ever.
Contributing to the adjusted visiting experience, there are more staff around the gallery, which means that this visit also offers deeper engagement with the site and the works present. After so many months unable to visit museums, these interactions are very welcome. The pandemic has actually allowed the museum to offer not just an ‘adapted’ or ‘adjusted’ experience because of safety restrictions, but more than that! All of these actions have truly embodied the uplifting spirit of a local museum with much to offer.
Cox is currently working on an exhibition surrounding Japanese identity in Yorkshire, which lockdown hasn’t stopped her from pursuing, and she has spent the period reaching out digitally to engage with a wide range of people and a broad audience. Visitors can look forward to the exhibition, which aims to showcase the historic connection between East Riding and Japan through time up until today. Through this exhibition, Cox connects not only with the gallery’s local history but with a more global perspective.
For months my experiences of museums were limited by pandemic travel restrictions. Covid pushed institutions to move towards the Internet; it has been a time where almost any art is visible from home. It is during this time, where everything is so accessible, that I have taken a step back to re-evaluate my relationship to local art spaces, which, admittedly, I often ignore for spaces further away. I urge lovers of art and casual visitors of museums to take another look at what local institutions have to offer us. It is less about experiencing as much as possible – as far away as possible – and more about examining your locale with a new lens. I chose to focus on Beverley Art Gallery because of their local connection, their programming and most importantly: their focus on optimism. The gallery proves itself to be a safe and stimulating place to experience and view artwork, for families and the like.
What Beverley Art Gallery has shown me is that an uplifting spirit can make the unfamiliar, Covid gallery experience less awkward, and more welcoming. The adjusted experience is not full of negatives, museums and galleries are still places to reflect and consider artworks. While the Covid restrictions is having a great impact on museums and things won’t be the same for a while yet, it’s ‘crucial that we keep an optimistic and flexible approach, and that we try our best to make museums and galleries places where people can find refuge from the general anxiety that we all live in now.’ Ultimately, in a time where social activities are limited and tensions are high, current restrictions may guide us further towards these spaces of reflection.
Senah Tuma, ARTiculation Ambassador (University of York)