Chris Stephens is Director of the Holburne Museum (https://www.holburne.org/) which has just extended the Grayson Perry: The Pre-Therapy Years until 3rd January 2021. Before the Holburne Museum, Chris worked at Tate in London for twenty-one years, for much of that time as Head of Displays at Tate Britain and Lead Curator of Modern British Art. Image courtesy of Evoke Pictures
What have you been up to during lockdown?
Almost all our staff have been furloughed so there’s been a small group of us mucking into all kinds of things. At one point I was alternating between frantic fundraising and packing up and posting Grayson Perry mugs, plates and tea-towels that had been sold online. There were three broad phases for us at the Holburne: because we receive no public funding at all, we started lockdown with a a couple of adrenaline-driven months as we desperately tried to fund raise publicly and offline to secure enough cash to see us through the closed period; latterly, we have been preparing for reopening (which we did on July 5th), having to anticipate government guidance (which is still evolving) to reassure our audience that the Holburne is a safe place to visit; and in-between there was a lull which seemed like a drudge as we refocused on an uncertain future and caught up on more mundane tasks. I realise now the challenge is making long-term plans when there is still so much uncertainty.
Is there anything in particular you have learned from the last few months?
So much. You can’t have too much advice and you cannot pick too many brains. In an unprecedented situation like the Covid lockdown, as much as the answers you come up with what matters is that you ask all of the possible questions, envisage and plan for every possible scenario. We still don’t know what’s going to happen later this year, next, or beyond. And keep in touch – working from home it is easy to become isolated and there are loads of way of maintaining contact without staff meetings, attending every opening, whatever.
How do you think the art industry will change, going forward?
Everyone keeps saying the days of the blockbuster are over. That may be true for the big galleries who rely on shipping loans from all over the world but it will really only happen if the financial model changes. Museums and galleries of all sizes have become dependent on big-audience exhibitions because they have to generate ticket income as public subsidy has progressively dwindled over recent decades. The way culture is funded will have to change or there will be massively fewer museum and theatres in a few years time.
Do you have any advice that you would give to people entering the industry?
You must stay flexible. There should be no sacred cows. The distinction between museums of historic, modern and contemporary art is bogus – the key thing is relevance – whatever you do or show, you need to stay relevant to your audiences and your communities, and that means being constantly open to change and evolution.
Are there any art organisations that you have been particularly impressed by in the way that they have evolved and responded to the current situation?
I have to plug my team at the Holburne. Those still able to work were brilliant at adapting and stepping outside their normal roles to keep the museum active online, continuing to support the vulnerable groups we work with and extending those activities to 100s of others. Our curator, Monserrat Pis Marcos, joined the Holburne 2 days before we closed but has been researching and posting on social media different works from the collection from her family home on Spain. More broadly, it sounds heretical but I haven’t really engaged with all the cultural material put online. I like my media to be true to themselves – so I want to see an exhibition in the flesh, not through a lens on the screen, and I want to watch a play on a stage, a concert in a venue, so I have used lockdown to catch up on lots of great TV that I seemed not to have had time to watch in recent years. We have been able to extend our exhibition Grayson Perry: The Pre-Therapy Years until January 2021; before lockdown it was attracting record-breaking audiences, so I especially loved watching his Art Club. He is brilliant at breaking down boundaries to art and creativity.