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Losing $1.2 M. Per Month, London’s Royal Academy of Arts Plows Ahead with Big Marina Abramović Survey

London will have to wait a bit longer to see one of 2020’s most hotly anticipated exhibitions: a full-dress Marina Abramović survey that was initially slated for the fall. That eagerly awaited exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts—the first by a living female artist in its prestigious main galleries and Abramović’s first-ever survey in London—has been postponed to 2021, so that the artist-run nonprofit can focus on its annual open-submission exhibition held in the summer. “They have to move everything, but my show is on,” she told ARTnews.

Abramović was referring to the Royal Academy’s dramatically reordered exhibition schedule, which has since seen the cancelation of an Angelica Kauffman blockbuster and a Paul Cézanne survey. The changes came as the institution confronts the impact of the coronavirus shutdown, which Axel Rüger, the museum’s secretary and chief executive, said is costing the Royal Academy £1 million ($1.2 million) per month. The institution has yet to lay off or furlough any workers.

“That is serious money, and we cannot recover it because no one is giving us that time back,” he said, adding that the Royal Academy is talking to the U.K. government about emergency relief funding. “It is an urgent situation.”

The stakes could not be higher for the Royal Academy. Unlike its London peers—among them Tate, National Gallery, and the British Museum—the Royal Academy does not receive governmental funding, so it relies on the income it generates from exhibition tickets, the sale of art, sponsorship, and its many members. Because of the months-long closure, the institution is facing one of the biggest financial challenges in its 250-year history.

Nevertheless, the show—or, at least, some of the shows—must go on. The Abramović exhibition is now slated for the fall of next year, and it will include some of the artist’s most famous works. “We have almost 80 percent of the show ready,” Abramović said. “I have never been more ready in my life. So, now I have an entire year to rethink or change things,” which she hopes will make for “the best show of my life.”

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Marina Abramović’s House With the Ocean View (2002) will be restaged for her Royal Academy of Arts show.
ANDREJ CUKIC/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Rüger confirmed that Abramović’s performance House With the Ocean View (2002) will be restaged for the Royal Academy show. (The work is rarely restaged, and at one of its recent versions, for a Palazzo Strozzi retrospective in Venice, Italy, in 2018, people waited in long lines to see the performance.) For the work, the artist occupies three rooms for 12 days in full view of the public. Her only exit was via ladders with knives as rungs, should she choose to end the durational performance early.

But demands for social distancing have caused the artist and the show’s curator, Andrea Tarsia, to doubt whether some performances can appear at the Royal Academy. Among them is Imponderabilia (1977), a controversial work conceived with Ulay through which viewers must squeeze past a fully nude man and woman occupying a tight passageway. “We hope that next year there will be a vaccination,” Abramović, who is an honorary Royal Academician, said. “Otherwise the work will not be shown at all.” (The topic of social distancing has no doubt been on Abramović’s mind because she struggled to complete a new opera, 7 Deaths of Maria Callas, at Munich’s Bavarian State Opera, due to Germany’s harsh regulations.)

Catherine Wood, a senior curator of performance at Tate, said that Abramović’s concerns are valid—and ones that will be shared by many performance artists. “They are mostly in the process of taking stock, asking: What are the possibilities for art—and culture—without gathering together?” she said. “What does it mean if digital experience is divorced from real-time events and communities, because typically these things work together and feed off each other?”

Rüger maintained that staging an Abramović show was still worthwhile, however. “We must stick to our plans,” he said. “We must have glimmers of hope.”

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