In the heart of Canberra, the National Portrait Gallery and National Gallery of Australia lie quiet, their doors sealed tight against the invisible threat of COVID-19.
Like silent ghosts, sculptures stand shrouded in thick sheets. Artworks hang sleeping beneath protective coverings, or are tucked up tight in underground storage. There are no echoes through the halls, no electric hum of a thousand small lives sparking from a moment in front of a small print, a sweeping painting, a strange shape. The world is hushed, calm, restful.
Standing within the galleries' walls, you could almost be forgiven for thinking these institutions weren't spending the shutdown joyfully stampeding into a digital revolution set to alter the way we experience art forever.
"Every museum and gallery has been dabbling in this space, which means we've been able to jump on it quite quickly now that it's happened," says Gillian Raymond, the National Portrait Gallery's digital manager.
"We just have to turn ourselves 100 per cent on our head and think digital first in everything that we do."
Both the Portrait Gallery and National Gallery are poised to take their digital offerings to the next level. On April 28, the Portrait Gallery launches Amazing Face, a 14-day online introduction to portraiture designed to shatter misperceptions of the genre as reserved for oil paintings of dead white men. The gallery is also mining its huge stash of interviews of subjects and sitters to help inform its new online publication, About Face, and is gearing up to launch interactive Zoom art tours later this month alongside an app version of the award-winning HEADHUNT! program for kids.
Over on the National Gallery's digital platforms, art lovers can browse around 97,000 works from the collection and view online galleries of the Matisse & Picasso and Hugh Ramsay exhibitions. A curator's tour of Xu Zhen®: Eternity vs Evolution was released last week, with more virtual tours of select current exhibitions and highlights from the national collection currently in development. A biweekly 12-part series entitled Art Family will be available for educators and families from the start of Term 2.
The country's most digitally deft audience hasn't been forgotten either, with the National Gallery's Teen Council hosting live Q&As with industry professionals and artists every Tuesday from the ArtIRL Instagram account (@nationalgallery.artirl), and the ArtIRL: Virtual Takeover ready to take teens through creative labs, live music and socially conscious panel discussions using Instagram Live on May 22.
Speaking of teens, the swift shift in focus towards online experiences opens the door for audiences who might have otherwise felt uneasy in the physical space of cultural institutions.
"The space of the museum can be quite ostracising - it can make people feel uncomfortable if they've not been made to feel comfortable there in the past," says Celeste Aldahn, the National Gallery's teens and young adults program producer and one of the driving forces behind ArtIRL, an initiative supported by education patron Tim Fairfax designed to connect young audiences with art, artists and each other.
"When you take the museum away physically, and you give people - especially young people - the permission to be playful and to put their own mark on things, you can start to see some amazing relationships come out of that. I think that when museums are open again, those relationships will continue and they'll be a lot stronger."
Nowhere has creativity been more apparent than on social media, where campaigns like #BetweenArtandQuarantine have inspired people to challenge themselves to recreate works of art in ways that are tender, touching and frequently fantastically DIY. One such art lover is Andy Mullens, a multidisciplinary artist and social media and content co-ordinator at the Portrait Gallery. Physically separated from the collection she loves, Andy took matters into her own hands and replicated Peter Brew Bevan's The Dance - David McCallister (2016), an ode to the beauty of movement and the people who pursue it.
"It definitely took a couple of days," Andy laughs.
"I studied that portrait so much - every little detail - zooming in and pulling back out. It gave me a different relationship to the work. It definitely made me think about the activation of a collection and the different ways people can imagine what these collections look like.
"Social media is kind of an even playing ground - everyone is given a voice. It's important for artists and institutions to be engaging in two-way dialogues, and because social media is so immediate and so part of everyday life, it's the perfect place to have conversations where things like humour and joy can be present as well.
"You can have a play. And I think play is so important."
This understanding of art as a source of communal solace and pure happiness during a time of collective trauma is similarly driving the work of Keren Nicholson, the National Gallery's social media manager. "Art lifts people to a higher plane," Keren says.
"Social media is our tool to express ourselves, to share our thoughts, and connect to others.
"Sharing a love for art, exploring ideas through art and getting creative on social media is a healthy outlet and [a means for us to] curate for ourselves and our community a positive space while we're in this rough patch."
For Keren, these campaigns also serve as a reminder that the arts sector - across countries and continents - stands together in an era where globalisation has brought the world together, then abruptly torn it apart.
"It's been so nice to see museums and galleries support one another and focus on providing meaningful creative learning experiences through a hashtag," she says.
"It's an acknowledgement that we are part of a global arts, gallery and museum community who are joining together to be a positive presence through a really difficult time."
United in the sudden urgent need to provide audiences - whether local or global - with digital experiences of art has shaken up the global gallery sector, spurring a revitalised focus on providing ongoing opportunities for the public to access and interact with artworks and collections in ways that can be enjoyed and understood, anywhere, anytime.
"It's definitely setting us on a new course where virtual connection becomes embedded in our approach to our visitors from now on," Keren says.
"Social media is one of the most potent conduits to our biggest audience right now. This will definitely continue through to a time when we can reopen and the digital approach will be the norm and underpin our visitor's physical experience."
"I can only hope that the way we're using technology and online experiences now creates a new standard for the future," Gillian says.
"Everything we're doing right now, we intend to be sustainable so that we can continue this practice when we re-enter the building.
"Once this is over, there are going to be no excuses for continuing these kinds of experiments and pushing further into this arena."
The message is clear - whether online, on social or within gallery walls, we should all watch this space.
- Tedi Bills is a freelance arts and culture writer currently based in Melbourne.