Decent expo-sure: How exhibitions kept the lights on during Covid
Traditionally, IQ’s annual touring exhibitions reports have found a sector thriving in concert with, but somewhat overshadowed by, an equally ebullient live music market. But as venues shut down, borders closed and social distancing became the norm, the relative strengths of the exhibition format were thrown into stark relief – and for many producers, promoters and venues, Covid-secure exhibitions have been one of the only success stories of the past 17 months.
Manu Braff from MB Productions/MB Presents says he “I got caught with my pants down” (like nearly everyone else in the industry) in March 2020, with a Cirque du Soleil show ready to go in Antwerp just as “sanitary restrictions hit us and I had to close the show down before it could open.” Thankfully, touring exhibitions have helped partially keep MB and others open.
London- and Rotterdam-based World Touring Exhibitions (Travelling Bricks, 3D Doubt Your Eyes, Living Dinosaurs) continued working throughout much of the pandemic, opening or extending shows in the US, Germany and Bulgaria, although the “levels are absolutely tiny compared to what we did before,” says founder Corrado Canonici, who adds that the downtime has, however, provided an opportunity to think about the future and acquire a number of new shows, which will be announced in the near future.
After a few months, “I saw I had to be creative,” continues Braff. “So, the first thing I did is that I imagined a new forest walkthrough experience, Lanterna Magica, with my partners with whom I do a light festival here in Belgium,” he explains. “We sold a lot of tickets, but we weren’t allowed to do it. So that was my first trial. And then we started looking at museums, which for some reason were allowed to stay open.” Braff says he was helped by the fact that, in Belgium, the museums reopened in mid-2020, when other venues were still closed. “So, we got the authorisation to do exhibitions in museums,” he explains, “and once that started it hasn’t stopped since. We’ve done five exhibitions since September 2020.”
Also playing into exhibition organisers’ hands last year is the fact that venues that would normally be fully booked were available because of the lack of concert touring. “I even did an exhibition for the first time ever at the Sportpaleis [arena] in Antwerp,” continues Braff. “Together with the Sportpaleis, we are co-promoting Imagine Exhibitions’ Real Bodies exhibition in their VIP arena, and we’ve been doing that since December 2020 quite successfully. It was a way of creatively occupying empty spaces.” Other recent projects for MB include photography exhibition The World of Steve McCurry (Antwerp), Dino World (Brussels and Madrid) and a sand sculpture experience on the Middelkerke seafront.
Leading expo producer Imagine Exhibitions (Jurassic World: The Exhibition, The Hunger Games: The Exhibition, Angry Birds: The Art & Science Behind a Global Phenomenon) is gearing up for its next major launch, Harry Potter: The Exhibition, which will premiere in Philadelphia in 2022, and it’s the wizarding world that kept up morale in the darkest days of spring 2020, says president and CEO Tom Zaller. “We all had this hope because we were working towards trying to get the licence for Harry Potter, so there was a sort of light at the end of the tunnel, even when the tunnel was pitch black with Covid,” he says. “We all had this burning desire that we could get this thing and make it happen, and you need that: to be working for something.”
“Planning the installation of an exhibition outside of Europe during a global pandemic is not for the faint of heart”
Though the lockdowns in the US were less severe, and shorter-lived, than in many parts of Europe, Imagine also adapted some of its exhibitions to work around 2020’s ‘new normal.’ “We converted several of our dinosaur shows into outside drive-through shows, so that was a big financial bonus for us also,” Zaller says. “It was good for team morale, but it also helped financially to have some income coming in when everything else had dried up.”
Against their better judgment, the team at Germany’s SC Exhibitions (recently rebranded Semmel Exhibitions) have spent the best part of this year moving their exhibitions across the globe, with operations manager Anna Lenhof overseeing the relocation of Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes across Michigan, from Dearborn to Chicago, and Tutankhamun: His Tomb and His Treasures from Zurich to Seoul.
While “risky” projects, “everyone was so motivated because we all wanted to work again and have a project that can actually take place and welcome visitors,” she recalls. For the move to Chicago, “normally we would work with our German technical crew, but at that time German people were not allowed to enter America, so we had to additionally hire an American crew, which caused a lot of extra costs, but we didn’t want to risk not having anyone there to install and open the exhibition,” Lenhof continues. (Ultimately, “we somehow convinced the embassy that our [German] crew was essential and they allowed us in,” she adds.)
Tutankhamun presented even more difficulties, with Lenhof and team contending with visa issues, multiple cancelled flights, and the global freight disruption caused by container ship Ever Given’s blocking of the Suez Canal to get the exhibition to Korea. “Planning the installation of an exhibition outside of Europe during a global pandemic is not for the faint of heart!” she says.
As full-capacity shows return in much of the world, Canonici says promoters, battered by the economic impact of the pandemic, are looking for “simpler, easier, popular” exhibitions to ease them back into ‘normal’ business. “They want shows that are easier logistically, and based on a popular subject… Basically, everybody wants less risk and more certainty that they’re going to sell the ticket,” he explains. “Which is understandable.”
Fortunately, the same is true for fans, he continues: “During the Covid-19 lockdowns, the only thing many people could do was share photos with each other. I received so many pictures from my friends and family on [instant messaging app] WhatsApp; they were doing pretty much nothing at home, but they were still sending messages about anything, just for something to do. So, I think that social media is now even more important. Because of Covid, something that is simple, entertaining and appealing on social media – whether it’s an exhibition or another form of entertainment – that’s what people want.”
For Pascal Bernardin, founder and president of promoter Encore Productions (Titanic: The Exhibition, Game of Thrones: The Touring Exhibition, Imagine Van Gogh, Imagine Picasso), consumers’ increased reliance on social media is a double-edged sword, with the desire to document their experience getting fans through the door – but also contributing to a proliferation or poor-quality events that exist solely to provide an ‘Instagram moment.’
“Now that the world is opening up again, and people are hungry for experiences, I think the industry is ready to show the visitor something new”
“Some of these [substandard] events have a place where it’s good to take a photo to send to your friends or put on Instagram and Facebook. I think that is the only way they get so popular,” he explains. But a single Instagrammable feature isn’t enough to sustain interest, and create word of mouth, if the show is below par: “When you are in the premises, you need that quality,” he adds.
According to Braff, “People who have never done exhibitions before are getting into it” after seeing the popularity – and viability – of the format during the on-off lockdowns of 2020–21, providing competition for the established players. “I think there are going to be a lot of amateurs trying to do things, and it’s going to give a bad reputation for those of us who are doing better work,” he says. Bernardin predicts that the “exhibition market is going to go wild” in the years ahead as the coronavirus pandemic recedes, with “immersive exhibitions” such as Imagine Van Gogh – where, like a “rock show […] you are totally immersed in the art” – set to continue their popularity.
Music-themed exhibitions, though, are “not so easy,” he adds: “The best one I’ve seen was the Pink Floyd exhibition [Their Mortal Remains] at the V&A in London, but it died everywhere else it went, from Germany to Paris. It was a great exhibition, but for some strange reason it didn’t work. Rock’n’roll exhibitions are not an easy thing to do.”
“From my perspective, I see a bit of a renaissance in museums and science centres,” Lenhof’s colleague Christoph Scholz, director of international projects and exhibitions for Semmel Concerts, says. “In 2020, when the world shuttered the doors on exhibition spaces, there was a quiet behind-the-scenes revolution of thought. Industry insiders wondered: Was it time to retire the ‘white box’ museum? Should exhibition spaces become multi-layered, interactive, transformative spaces that reflect and work with the community around them? Why not create a mashup: mix up a traditional museum event with a superior food experience in an extraordinary setting? Now that the world is opening up again, and people are hungry for experiences, I think the industry is ready to show the visitor something new.”
“I think there’ll be a lot of immersive video shows in the next couple of years, because the Van Goghs in America have exploded and everybody wanted to get that ticket,” adds Zaller, “and so their sales have exploded. It’ll be very interesting to watch that space to see how many other immersive digital-projection experiences come around, and if it sticks as a new format.”
“We need to deliver a holistic experience to today’s audience. They need to come to a resonant, memorable place,” continues Scholz. “That can be a museum with a celebrity chef’s restaurant; a concept like the one of Hauser & Wirth, a global leader in the arts world, who brings the classic contemporary art gallery to a farm in beautiful Somerset, England, or a historic military hospital on a tiny Spanish island, or a carefully renovated factory building in Downtown LA. It can be an immersive projection show, such as what L’Atelier des Lumières does in a World War II U-boat wharf in Bordeaux.”
Scholz recommends IQ readers “travel to Las Vegas to visit the new epicentre of the experience economy, a complex called Area 15. Here you can see the future of immersive attractions, new forms of exhibitions, and nostalgic reminiscences of entertainment from yesteryear, such as a roller disco. Just a few weeks ago I went to Miami where Superblue combines the latest things in immersive and experiential art with the structure of a classic white-cube gallery. Go to Universal Studios or anything Disney does; check an open-air art gallery and park like the High Line, or the experiential park Little Island in New York City.
“We can’t just go straight back to full price straight away, like nothing has happened”
“Cultural tourism was strong prior to the pandemic and will be strong again when travelling is safe again. We live in vibrant times. The exhibition arts sector is super productive, and the creative minds behind new exhibition spaces are excited to show next year’s visitors something new.”
In recognition of cash-strapped promoters’ caution to commit to new exhibitions, Canonici says World Touring Exhibitions is still offering “friendly discounted prices” to its partners, providing a boost to the market. “We understand that we need to help promoters,” he says. “We can’t just go straight back to full price straightaway, like nothing has happened.”
World Touring Exhibitions’ newest offering is The Long Walk to Freedom, which features “nearly 100 bronze statues, life-sized, of all the people who dedicated their lives to ending Apartheid in South Africa,” Canonici explains. “Their struggle for justice is something that’s very much in line with what’s happening in the world at the moment,” he continues, “so I think it’s going to be very popular, and an exhibition that will resonate with people.”
For Semmel, “I think our priority is to learn as much as possible from the last two years, because what happened to our business, and other businesses in our society, will also shape the industry in the future,” says Lenhof. “For example, for productions like Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes and Tutankhamun we need to take into account that travelling from one country or one continent to another might not be as easy as it was before. We’re also facing the challenge that many freelancers might have changed professions when we start again.”
Another challenge will be securing venue availabilities once concerts return, Braff says. “Venues are becoming less and less available for the foreseeable future, because everybody wants to go back to what they were doing before,” he comments. “I think I’m going to continue doing exhibitions – the ones I’ve done already, the big brands like Tutankhamun and Harry Potter and Titanic and the big touring exhibitions, are people pleasers – but it’s still a risk. I think the risk is going to become greater again within the next year or two than it was [in 2020] when we were the only ones around.”
Audience expectations, meanwhile, will continue to rise, says Zaller, compared to when fans were prepared to accept lower-quality experiences given the restrictions on events. Referring to the drive-through dinosaur exhibitions, he adds: “People really wanted to be entertained, so I think they were willing to look past the parking lot – I mean, to a five-year-old, it doesn’t matter: those dinosaurs are real. But for me, it was difficult to not be able to deliver a fully immersive experience because we were literally working in an empty parking lot, and I like to hold myself to a certain standard, so doing them was hard at times. But in the end people loved them.”
SC, meanwhile, is pondering more practical considerations ahead of the premiere of its latest exhibition, which celebrates 100 years of the Walt Disney Company, in 2023. “We are currently working on concepts that make visiting our exhibitions even more safe when it comes to interactivity, for example,” says Lenhof. “We’re aiming to use less touchscreen technology – and queuing could also still be an issue, even when we will celebrate the premiere. So, we need to plan ahead and think about those challenges.
“We don’t know if in 2023 everything will be like it was in 2019. It could be that people are still more cautious when it comes to hygiene and touching things, and maybe they’ll still want to keep their distance from other people they don’t know. That’s why we are facing those problems now to avoid as many issues nearer the time.”
This article forms part of IQ’s Covid-19 resource centre – a knowledge hub of essential guidance and updating resources for uncertain times.
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