An ambitious multimillion-pound public art project is needed to support cultural institutions during the coronavirus outbreak and help create a new generation of artists, according to one of British art’s most respected names.

Hans-Ulrich Obrist, the artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries, said the project would need to be similar in scale to Franklin D Roosevelt’s Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) and Works Progress Administration (WPA), which the president set up during the Great Depression in the 1930s.

“With the WPA, they went out into the community: artists got salaries and were able to research and create work during the New Deal era. It gave many people their first real jobs and commissions,” Obrist said.

The schemes employed more than 3,700 artists, produced more than 15,000 works and helped to kickstart the careers of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.

Jackson Pollock in 1953

Jackson Pollock took part in the WPA project. Photograph: Tony Vaccaro/Getty Images

“It’s such a fascinating project when you consider where we find ourselves now, both in terms of supporting the economy and the importance of helping and caring about artists,” Obrist added. “The UK government should do something like this.”

The coronavirus outbreak has forced all galleries and museums to close, halted the commissioning of new work and led to the cancellation of all art fairs. Obrist believes the plan would help to reinvigorate British art creation once the outbreak is under control.

He said: “When the situation is under control, they need to go into communities with art which don’t usually have access to it. In this time of crisis, it’s important that museums think about how they can go beyond their walls and reach everyone.”

The curator and art historian said “free admission is the baseline” for British cultural institutions, which all need to use the outbreak as a chance to reconsider how they interact with the public and that “generosity needs to be the medium that museums and galleries are working in”.

Arts Council England has released plans for a £160m emergency response package that will give artists access to cash grants of up to £2,500 and offers £50m to organisations outside its national portfolio, with a further £90m to support national portfolio organisations.

Other leading art world figures told the Guardian they would require more government support during the crisis and that the role of museums and galleries during the lockdown needed to shift online in order to provide access to world-class artworks to as many people as possible.

The Tate’s director, Maria Balshaw, said the role of galleries and museum is to “keep people’s creatives spirits up” by focusing on online resources – such as virtual exhibitions and videos – as well as providing more educational resources to help parents create a learning environment for their children. “Tate has a role to play in that,” she said.

Maria Balshaw, the role of galleries and museum is to “keep people’s creatives spirits up”

Maria Balshaw, the role of galleries and museum is to ‘keep people’s creatives spirits up’. Photograph: Jeff Spicer/Getty Images

Balshaw, who released a statement confirming all four Tate sites would close a week ago, added that the nation needs art more than ever during times of high stress and anxiety. “If David Hockney can make an artwork in response to this in the moment, we need to remember to have our own creative response,” she said, referring to the artist’s Do Remember They Can’t Cancel the Spring painting, which he posted on social media last week.

She added: “We’ve seen it already with Italians singing on balconies or children singing to their mum outside houses on Mothers’ Day. We need to be amplifying our human capacity to respond to adversity creatively.”

The Turner prize-winning artist Martin Creed – who performed a short gig from his home in London as part of Hauser & Wirth’s new online series, Dispatches – said he didn’t think the outbreak would alter the way he made work. “I have a tendency to stay in with my curtains closed and to basically practise self-isolation anyway,” he said. “Often I fight against that because that leads to me, lonely in a room. That’s why I say yes to things that force me to go out into the world.”

Hartwig Fischer, director of the British Museum, told the Guardian that the institution would definitely need government help to get through the crisis.

“No one is prepared for this moment,” he said. “With the premises shut, there’s a lot of income that is no longer forthcoming. We’re definitely facing a very difficult moment that we share with all institutions across the country.”

Fischer added that visitors to the British Museum often come in order to learn about the history of humankind and about how people in the past have faced challenges and dealt with them. “That’s something that has become even more potent now,” he said.



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