How COVID-19 Is Affecting the Cultural World

Museum closures and event cancellations abound as officials rush to contain the new coronavirus’ spread

Deserted Louvre courtyard
A view of the deserted courtyard outside the closed Louvre Photo by Ludovic Marin / AFP via Getty Images

Editor's Note, March 13, 2020: This article has been updated to reflect the latest cancellation and postponement announcements in the cultural sphere.

With confirmed cases of COVID-19 now numbering well above 130,000, precautionary measures aimed at slowing the pandemic’s spread are becoming more widespread. Crowds, clamor and even close conversation can elevate one’s chance of becoming infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which spreads via the droplets produced by coughs and sneezes. As a result, public gatherings, tourist attractions and cultural institutions are among the riskiest places to be as the infection spreads.

In response to the growing threat, museums and theaters across the globe have shuttered their doors, while event planners have canceled festivals and fairs, all in hopes of keeping potential patrons safe.

Though some institutions have come up with creative ways of keeping visitors engaged—including trialing virtual versions of shows and exhibitions—many worry about the outbreak’s lasting fallout.

“The loss of performances can be devastating,” Jan Newcomb, executive director of the National Coalition for Arts’ Preparedness and Emergency Response, tells Julia Jacobs of the New York Times. “Organizations sometimes don’t recover.”

Stricken by more than 80,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and counting, mainland China, where the virus was first detected last December, has indefinitely closed several of its largest museums. Per Claire Selvin and Tessa Solomon of ARTnews, the list includes the National Art Museum of China in Beijing, the Guangdong Art Museum in Guangzhou and the Union Art Museum in Wuhan. Galleries have postponed openings, and international art fair Art Basel canceled its 2020 event in Hong Kong, where all public institutions have shut down. (Organizers have since announced an “Online Viewing Rooms” experience scheduled to debut later this month.)

To tide over would-be visitors—many of whom are enduring a tense self-isolation at home—several closed Chinese museums have begun experimenting with digital exhibits. Around 100 online experiences are accessible via China’s National Cultural Heritage Administration website. Meanwhile, a spate of live concerts has led fans to use livestreaming to stay in the loop.

Empty square in front of Milan Cathedral
Italy has imposed a total lockdown as it races to contain the coronavirus. Photo by Pier Marco Tacca / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Closures have also hit cultural institutions in South Korea and Japan, landing masterpieces such as Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers in quarantine. Officials are nervously weighing options for the 2020 Summer Olympics, scheduled to begin in Tokyo in July; while plans for the massive event remain underway, many worry about attendance from both audiences and athletes alike, as qualifying events continue to be canceled or postponed around the globe.

In the United States, major athletic organizations are taking drastic steps to prevent the spread of the virus. Wednesday night, the National Basketball Association (NBA) indefinitely suspended its season after a player tested positive for the virus; the NCAA, known for its March Madness college basketball tournaments, followed suit the next day. Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League and Major League Soccer are among the other American athletic bodies implementing measures aimed at slowing infection rates.

As the number of COVID-19 cases across Europe and the United States continues to grow, many museums have decided to close, institute admission quotas or cancel public programming. Poland has shuttered all of its museums for at least two weeks. The German capital of Berlin is taking similar steps, closing museums and cultural institutions until at least April 20. All state-run museums in the Czech Republic are shut until further notice. And Spain’s “Big Three” museums—the Prado, the Museo Reina Sofia and the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza—are closed indefinitely. On Friday, the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay, the Centre Pompidou and the Eiffel Tower all announced plans to close until further notice.

Italy’s 60 million residents are under a nationwide lockdown, and all museums have been mandated to shutter their doors following weeks of intermittent closures. Among the Italian institutions and cultural heritage sites affected are the Colosseum; the Pompeii archaeological park; the Uffizi Galleries in Florence; the Vatican Museums; and Rome’s Scuderie del Quirinale, which was readying to open a blockbuster Raphael exhibition marking the 500th anniversary of the artist’s death. All will remain closed until April 3 at the earliest.

Empty theater ahead of canceled Six premiere
All Broadway productions have been suspended through April 12. Photo by Bruce Glikas / Getty Images

The list of shuttered institutions stateside is expansive, encompassing museums in New York City (the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the New Museum and the Museum of the City New York); Washington, D.C. (the Smithsonian Institution’s 19 museums and National Zoo, the National Gallery of Art, and the Library of Congress); California (the Broad, the J. Paul Getty Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art); Washington (the Seattle Art Museum, the Frye Art Museum and the Henry Art Gallery); and more. For a continually updated list of cancellations and closures, see artnet News.

American events and entertainment venues have also been hit by the pandemic. Last week, officials in Austin, Texas, canceled South by Southwest, a music, technology and film festival that typically attracts crowds of hundreds of thousands. Soon after, promoter Goldenvoice announced the postponement of the Coachella and Stagecoach music festivals, which are now scheduled to take place in October.

In the performing arts sphere, Lincoln Center, the Apollo Theater, Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center are among the venues that have canceled scheduled events. Broadway performances, including the planned opening of Six, a pop musical based on the lives of Henry VIII’s six wives, are suspended until April 12 at the earliest.

Venue managers are now being forced to grapple with the potential financial repercussions of the outbreak, which threatens to deter crowds and slash profits. Amid concern about dips in attendance, highly anticipated concerts (Billie Eilish, Mariah Carey, Miley Cyrus and BTS have all delayed or canceled shows, according to Vulture); conferences (CinemaCon, PaleyFest, the London Book Fair and TED 2020); and film premieres (Mulan, No Time to Die, A Quiet Place Part 2, Antlers and Fast & Furious 9) have been postponed. Television productions including “Jeopardy,” “Wheel of Fortune,” “Survivor” and “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah” will tape without live studio audiences or delay production.

These closures, cancellations and delays come out of an abundance of caution, and the safeguarding of the public remains the world’s top priority. But already, the evidence is mounting: Long after the outbreak has waned, the cultural world will still be reeling from its impact.

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