What does the day of a person who runs a very active cultural organization, who meets hundreds of people, who is at the heart of the events, look like nowadays?
It’s heart-breaking. We are facing both a healthcare and economic crisis. It has created personal loss and anxiety for all of us, and we feel the same pains and problems as many do. We are a cultural start-up, and just as we were ready to break out and make our mark, the world shut down. Our new museums in New York and Tallinn just opened up successfully in the last year, with more locations in the pipeline. Our teams committed substantial effort and professionalism and we made all the necessary investments to get to this point. Now I am working 18 hours a day across a number of time zones, ensuring that we are able to launch again as soon as we are permitted. We needed to adjust our cost for the time, and are preserving liquidity as best as we can, which meant having to lay off or furlough members of our team, or drastically reducing their salaries. In European countries, there’s often a social net that will at least ensure people have healthcare or are safe in their residential leases, but the US offers no such protections.
But it goes further. The chain reaction across our partners, our vendors, and especially our artists is clear. An exhibition at Fotografiska often means a major career boost for photographers. We spend over a year meticulously planning each show, the accompanying events, or how we integrate the work into our media feeds. That’s all frozen now, which is such a shame because that means the exhibitions hanging right now probably won’t be seen and some of that programming won’t take place. Furthermore, we can’t simply start where we left off, our whole schedule is impacted.
It is extremely interesting to see how the cultural organizations of different countries are managing and coping with the pandemic. How, would you say, are the Swedish and American cultural scenes responding to this new reality?
It feels too early to tell, and I’m not seeing a cultural response yet. But one difference is stark: the Swedes have decided not to lock down, leaving it up to individuals to make their own choices. We are closing our museums because we have very few visitors, but also because we don’t want to expose our employees to viral infection.
In these unprecedented times, all the museums of the world are increasingly offering virtually their collections, exhibitions, lectures, guided tours and so forth. Have your statistical tools actually shown increased traffic on your website?
Yes, we are definitely seeing more web traffic. People simply have more time. During normal times, most people use the internet for information and shopping, limiting their social media to leisure time, to see what friends and family are up to, or to follow their favorites. There’s just a lot more time for aimless scrolling now, so compelling content will certainly find an audience. But there’s a huge difference between a viewership and a community. It’s fun to see artists and producers coming from worlds such as photography or music rally around specific topics. Professionals and amateurs alike participate in projects, competitions, or simple themes. A lot of museums and galleries have always had an air of exclusivity, which reduces most of the world to simple gawkers. It’s not easy for those kinds of institutions now to let these viewers in, whereas it’s been a great opportunity for our community. Take a look at online platform The Foto Sessions, for instance, where we are exhibiting photography digitally and running an open-source photo show called #StopMotion based on the effects that Covid-19 is having.
What is the average number of visitors you get normally in your physical spaces, before the pandemic?
We’ve had half a million visitors per year in Stockholm for the last ten years, and were headed for a million annual visitors across our three current museums. Tourism will be very different this year, and we have to massively adjust our expectations.
Our online reality is replacing our known reality these days. Do you think this is a phenomenon that came to stay?
No, it will not replace it. Just look at people’s restlessness after sheltering-in-place for a few weeks, and you’ll realize that our virtual worlds can not replace the real world. But what this pandemic has shown is that online access is not some fun little adjunct, but actually a powerful tool we can use to live our lives and connect with all its parts. It is definitely here to stay; there’s a question of how we use the available channels, and how we can build on those. After hundreds of emails from work and the kids’ schools, do you really want to spend time with your cultural fascination in your Inbox? Do you only want to bump into 15 second snippets of it between goofy teenage dance videos on TikTok? I get that it’s fun and creative content, but not really the right environment for art. Its also time to revisit the power of the browser, and appreciate what is possible on the web. We have inserted our culture into existing social media channels that provide global and daily reach, hoping our audiences will stumble upon our works. Just like we need our audience to get off the couch and come to the museum, we need to find a way to get them to go beyond Instagram or Facebook. They are great networks, but their respective platform limits the creative possibilities. I’m particularly proud of what we are building with our stories on Fotografiska.com.
It might sound as a weird prediction (or perhaps an unavoidable fact), but would you say that this sudden shift to the virtual world actually shows us what our future will be like? Adding to that the rise of AI around the world?
Yes, but for those of us leading culture, we must ensure that it’s not just something that happens to us, but rather something that we help to shape. The way to lead is by providing a platform for artists working in new media. They are the ones exploring the edges of what is possible, and are often the ones using a new technology which still resonates intellectually and emotionally with the viewer. At Fotografiska, we are exploring ways to include Augmented Reality and GIF Art into our offering.
People are taking pictures and uploading videos from their homes and personal space even more openly now. What is your opinion on that phenomenon? What would you say is the role of photography now?
It’s great, I love that people are sharing their lives. They need to be smart, and have a sense of what is said and revealed, but in general it’s innocuous. Photography has become ubiquitous thanks to smart phones, and our lives are being documented in unprecedented ways. It’s led to higher respect for photographers with a point of view, a set of skills, or a particular technique.
To what extent can a museum, a gallery, a cultural organization design its exhibition program in such an uncertain reality?
It’s doable. You need to be confident in your ability to curate. Either be timeless, or timely. Photography allows us to show work that is highly topical, we’ve done that for years within our Fotografiska-for-Life program. But it’s also good to offer context, humanity has faced a lot together over time, and art has always reflected that.
And one of the big questions: How can a cultural organization survive the aftermath of this humanitarian crisis? Are cultural institutions state funded in Sweden and/or the US, or will they receive financial support now?
Who knows. We will see, but I am an optimist. There is still a delta between what is considered private enterprise, and what state-funded cultural institutions receive. I live in Berlin, a city that understands culture in all its forms as the tentpole of its urban economy. Our government bail-out has been quick, generous, and ready to give more. I am proud of our leadership here. It is unclear what will happen in our other cities, but I hope that Berlin’s timely response will serve a role model function. I know that culture is intangible, but none of us want to envision a city without it. It is culture and the arts that is getting us through this time right now.
But perhaps the biggest question concerns the mental and emotional response of every person. At this time, we do not know exactly when the pandemic will end. Will we see changes that will also be reflected in culture and the arts?
I believe so. We’ve had financial crises in the past, but this is a human crisis. We have quickly seen the dark and selfish sides of people, there are stark cultural differences in countries but also communities, and we need to redefine our own connections to our different spheres. We are all part of multiple communities, whether it’s our family, a circle of friends, an affinity group, a city, or even a country. They all have sway over our lives, and we have a responsibility to protect, to give back, and to lead when called upon. This will be reflected in our art, and in our cultural jetsam.