How has COVID-19 impacted the travelling exhibition industry?
There are multiple headlines at the moment about how the crisis has impacted the leisure industry, from museums to theatres to shopping malls, but the current global situation in 2020 is significantly impacting a subsection of the cultural industry: travelling exhibitions.
Museums usually define themselves by their permanent collections; it determines who they are and their area of expertise. When engaging with the public, temporary exhibitions are what drives local audiences to return to a museum, while also helping attract sponsors who want to be associated with notable and highly publicised events. Sometimes, these temporary exhibitions visit more than one venue - what is usually referred to as travelling, or touring, exhibitions.
Changing exhibitions multiple times a year (our research from the Vastari Reports demonstrated that museums host a weighted average of seven exhibitions per year) is a very arduous task, especially if you have to “invent” the concept from scratch. To help museums organise exhibitions that are ever-changing, travelling exhibitions provide new content more efficiently and with a sense of exclusivity (“catch it now before it goes!”). Beyond being an asset for capturing audiences, hosting a touring show can be a major cost-saver for venues.
As museums struggle with their budgets this year, especially in countries where the government hasn’t yet announced relief funding, it can feel daunting to host a travelling exhibition. Jorgen Hansen Jorgenson of International Touring Exhibitions says “The fact is that the current industry is still completely stopped with only very few exhibitions and shows touring.”
Here are a few interesting trends we’ve noticed in the past few months about how the industry is faring, shedding a light on a potential path towards the future.
Venues are pushing their schedules back, and booking travelling exhibitions for longer
While an institution is closed, no one can visit an exhibition and most museums negotiated longer contracts with their existing exhibitions when the lockdown happened. This then shifted all of their later exhibitions. As Tom Zaller of Imagine Exhibitions explains: “ If one venue wants to extend the exhibition through the summer to account for the lost attendance during a spring closure, it usually means that another host venue who had the exhibition booked for the summer must delay their contract until the fall.”
As social distancing reduces the number of visitors a venue can welcome every day, it can be more difficult to earn back the ticket revenue to justify the hiring fee of an exhibition.
Christina Schwartz from the Smithsonian Travelling Exhibition Service notes that: “A number of venues with uncertain situations are pushing their schedules back. Shows they had planned to host in 2020 or 2021 are being moved to 2022 and beyond. Several are also in a ‘wait and see’ position.”
Troy Rainville from Science North in Canada adds: “While we are still seeing a lot of uncertainty in the market, the initial plans of our clients have been to either keep the exhibit for a longer duration to make up for lost time when the institution was closed or to cancel and rebook for a future date. The [recent] re-closures of a number of Science Centres and Museums in the US will undoubtedly have an effect on those plans and what happens remains to be seen.”
There is a more collegiate atmosphere when booking shows
Everyone is in the same boat - little money, unpredictable timelines, changing regulations. Curators, educators, registrars and museum directors shouldn’t shy away from asking fellow museums for advice about booking or touring exhibitions. In a recent Vastari survey, 64% of museums stated that speaking to other museums informally was most helpful in deciding what to do with exhibitions going forward.
Heather Birchall from the Virtual Science Centre states that “there is a more collegial atmosphere among museums during this time, and a feeling of empathy towards museums who have been especially hard hit.”
Schwartz adds: “Since the pandemic first hit, there has been a tremendous outpouring of support across the country for fellow institutions, especially small to mid-sized museums who might be more vulnerable to economic realities. Several SITES exhibitors had to close their doors almost immediately after installing a SITES exhibition. We have worked hard with our colleagues to look into alternative solutions, such as keeping the exhibition up longer, hosting it at another time during the tour, or seeing if additional slots can be added to an existing tour.”
Rainville from Science North also reflects: “In terms of the bookings, I have witnessed competitors helping to promote each other when they do not have a product option for the client and a lot of collaboration is happening on the safety of exhibits through technology options as well as the communications of the value of travelling exhibits to the industry at large. It has truly been wonderful to see and experience and I believe it is bringing the travelling exhibit industry closer together which I hope will result in more partnerships and collaborations.”
Both parties need to be honest about costs and profits
The only way the travelling exhibition industry is productive is if both sides “win” financially. The producing institution needs to feel that they have earned additional income for their organisation, but the hosting institution also needs to feel that the exhibition is “cheaper” than producing something themselves. Many venues are asking producers to discount their exhibitions’ hiring fees, because of the current situation. During an AAM TEN (American Alliance of Museums Traveling Exhibitions Network) meeting recently, participants described decreasing the cost of the show by, for example, scaling it down in size, instead of discounting its original price, because the producers also need to make a profit to survive.
Corrado Canonici from World Touring Exhibitions responded to being honest about costs and profits saying: “Well, we always were! Nothing new here. What I see though, is promoters/museums/etc asking for discounted fees. Nobody likes giving discounts, but is absolutely understandable where they come from – we are in this together after all, we have to help each other.”
On the Vastari platform, venues can search for content that is “Open to Co-Production” and “Open to ticketing revenue share” - two filters that indicate the project is likely to be open to changing its format for the venue’s requirements. Our ongoing conversations suggest that nearly all producers are open to think through creative solutions for “making it work”.
For venues particularly hit by budget cuts, a solution that might be helpful is working directly with artists. A museum could collaborate with an artist who tackles subjects related to its permanent collection, or whose work relates to topical issues that audiences wish to discuss right now. Multiple proposals from artists have been put forward on Vastari to discuss Coronavirus, Technology, Female Empowerment and Climate Change. Working with these artists to build unique and enticing content cost-effectively could be promising in the coming months.
The industry is trying to figure out digital ways to tour content - and generate revenue from it
Recently, a lot of virtual exhibitions have been sent around the internet. A revenue-generating “virtual exhibition” is not just a webpage with embedded video, or a scrollable website with images and text - the content needs to have more interactivity. This could include an audio tour or multimedia content which audiences are more likely to pay for.
The goal of digital content pre-COVID was to market the physical experience to a wider audience, using social media or online marketing to raise awareness. But in a post-COVID environment, these digital exhibitions have the potential to morph into something much bigger, potentially replacing the physical show itself, especially if global lockdowns continue.
The first examples of this are virtual reality (VR) exhibitions. Venues, take note! VR exhibitions are exciting, they are logistically easy to take down and put up, and don’t cost a lot to shut down for a few months in the case of a lockdown. A museum or venue can also make the content available to their members from home if needed. All that is required is a headset or a compatible mobile device. For those interested in learning more about the possibilities with VR, register to attend our upcoming webinar on the subject.
Business models for this kind of touring are yet to be defined, hiring fees are unclear and standards vary.
Christina Schwartz notes from her own experience that: “several of our exhibitors are also looking at offering a SITES exhibition digitally. We are working closely with them to provide visual content showcasing the exhibition itself, as well as educational materials and community programming guidelines.“
There is more of a worry about the environmental impacts of touring
Blue skies, less pollution and lower emissions were apparent throughout the closures of 2020, and these environmental benefits experienced are expected to impact decision-making across industries.
International tourism is expected to drop by 60-80% in 2020 by some estimates. And as the number of tourists in cities drops off, museums are becoming increasingly aware of the need to attract visitors from local communities. Touring exhibitions help attract local audiences by creating a certain sense of urgency and exclusivity, but the logistical aspects of bringing artefacts to a location for a short period of time are causing huge environmental impact.
How can the industry respond to this issue? Simon Evans of climate science website Carbon Brief says in the Guardian that “the challenge of avoiding dangerous climate change and getting to zero emissions is unbelievably hard.” Solutions are not immediately obvious. The worry felt around the industry is not necessarily something that can be tackled immediately with the cost-saving measures required today.
Exhibition producer Corrado Canonici confirms this: “the environment has always been one of World Touring Exhibitions’ priorities, and we welcome it to be more centre-stage. At present, so many companies and institutions have far too many very practical problems to solve, so what we risk is seeing less (not more) thought going into the environment.”
One solution might be digital exhibitions mentioned above, but more can be done. Some organisations are considering carbon offsetting for the exhibitions that are being toured and their courier travel. Turin collector Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, whose foundation is run entirely on green energy, believes that carbon offsetting is not enough. As she states in the Art Newspaper. “In my opinion, we need to go further. Businesses should start choosing renewable energy, replace boilers with micro combined heat and power units and choose products that have been realised following circular economy principles.”
Annika Erikson from Articheck is looking at one specific angle of the touring industry: courier travel. Working with Crozier Fine Arts and other logistics companies, her company is exploring how technology could be used for checking the condition at intervals in the journey, reducing both the monetary and carbon cost of a business class ticket for a courier.
One museum within the AAM TEN community shared that they used tablets and video calling to help install an exhibition in Europe from the United States, something which also saved on airfare costs. Using digital tools might help our touring exhibition industry discover tactics that can be used as strategies going forward.
A different future?
Overall, the touring exhibition industry is going through a shakeup. But as Winston Churchill is quoted as saying, “Never waste a crisis”. This is a time to reassess, work together and find solutions. I for one, am heartened by the work that is being done collaboratively, encouraged by the wonderful content that is still making its way to audiences, and excited to see what the touring exhibition industry will have in store in 2021 and beyond.