Skip to main content

The Defining Art Events of 2020

The past year has been more than a little tumultuous, with countless crises surrounding the global pandemic and social and political ruptures altering nearly every aspect of daily life. The art world has been affected in due course, with a sense of flux palpable in museums, galleries, biennials, fairs, auction houses, and places where artists live and work. To think back on a year that feels like it lasted a lot longer than 12 months, the survey below charts the most significant art events of 2020.

Rendering of David Geffen Galleries at LACMA, showing terrace galleries, facing west.
Rendering of David Geffen Galleries at LACMA, showing terrace galleries, facing west. Courtesy Atelier Peter Zumthor & Partner/The Boundary

20. LACMA’s controversial new galleries come into focus
Controversy over a new building for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art designed by Pritzker Prize–winning architect Peter Zumthor has divided the city’s community, with local activists and art and architecture critics on one side and museum professionals and movie stars on the other. A proposal that would see the museum stretch across Wilshire Boulevard was one point of contention; another was the mystery of Zumthor’s plans for the galleries inside, which went largely un-detailed until this year. In September, LACMA finally released interior views of its newly christened Geffen Galleries building. In these galleries, pieces from the museum’s holdings across its 17 curatorial departments—from modern and contemporary art to devotional images from various cultures—will all be given the same prominence, in a gesture that could help rethink art history and museum display—and offer a model for other institutions in the process. Though LACMA’s director Michael Govan has mentioned that he doesn’t “want to say that we’ve designed the perfect museum for the 21st century and everyone should copy” it, that very well could be the case. —Maximilíano Durón

Interior view of the Pavilhão Bienal in São Paulo
The building that hosts the Bienal de São Paulo every two years. Pedro Ivo Trasferetti / Fundação Bienal de São Paulo

19. The Bienal de São Paulo permanently reorders its schedule
The coronavirus pandemic brought the world to a halt in mid-March, and biennials were the many planned exhibitions forced to significantly alter their operations. Joining a list of affected enterprises that included the Venice Biennale, the Gwangju Biennale, the Whitney Biennial, and many more, the Bienal de São Paulo, under the direction of Jacopo Crivelli Visconti, had been scheduled to hold one of its most ambitious editions to date. But in July, its organizers announced that they would postpone the affair to September 2021—and permanently reorder the schedule for the world’s second-oldest biennial, with editions now occurring on odd-numbered years instead of even-numbered ones. What this means for the international art calendar remains to be seen, though the Bienal’s new schedule is evidence of the pandemic’s long-lasting impact. —Maximilíano Durón

Egyptian archaeologists called the finding of 100 sarcophagi the 'biggest discovery' of 2020.
Egyptian archaeologists called the finding of 100 sarcophagi the “biggest discovery” of 2020. Mohammed Fouad/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

18. Archaeologists unveil 100 newly found sarcophagi
In November, in what Mostafa Waziry, secretary general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, called “the biggest discovery in 2020,” archeologists uncovered a cache of more than 100 painted coffins in a necropolis in Saqqara, just south of Cairo. The coffins, which were found sealed and intact, were discovered with funerary masks, canopic jars, and statues and date to Egypt’s Late and Ptolemaic Periods (664–30 B.C.E.). The discovery will be divided between four Egyptian museums, including the New Administrative Capital Museum, which is set to open in the coming weeks, and the find is followed by one a month earlier in which 59 coffins were found, with more to come, according to Khaled El-Enany, Egypt’s minister of tourism and antiquities. —Maximilíano Durón

The Singer Laren Museum, where a Vincent van Gogh painting was stolen.
The Singer Laren Museum, where a Vincent van Gogh painting was stolen. Sipa USA via AP

17. Thieves swipe a van Gogh from a Dutch museum closed by Covid
In March, an 1884 painting by Vincent van Gogh was stolen from the Singer Laren Museum in the Netherlands while the institution was temporarily shuttered as part of a pandemic lockdown. The painting, titled The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring, had been on loan to the Singer Laren from the Groninger Museum voor Stad en Lande in the Netherlands, and video footage later showed that the thieves had used a sledgehammer to break through the museum’s glass doors. As of November, the artwork had not yet been recovered. Though no Covid-era theft has been as high-profile as the one at the Singer Laren, other museums have faced kinds of vandalism that occurred because of weakened security while museums were closed. —Claire Selvin

The Edo Museum of West African Art will pay homage to Benin's architectural traditions with its layout.
The Edo Museum of West African Art will pay homage to Benin’s architectural traditions with its layout. ©Adjaye Associates

16. David Adjaye announces plans for a museum in Benin City
Timely questions surrounding the prospects for museums in Africa to take back and exhibit pilfered treasures took on additional significance when star architect David Adjaye unveiled design plans for a new such institution in Benin City, Nigeria. Though still in the proposal stage, the Edo Museum of West African Art could become a more than suitable home for the Benin Bronzes and other artifacts looted or moved around the world by dubious means. When the plans became public in November, Adjaye told the New York Times he imagines the museum as a home for “a renaissance of African culture” while adding “It has to be for the community first and an international site second.” —Andy Battaglia

Jeff Bezos.
Jeff Bezos. zz/Dennis Van Tine/STAR MAX/IPx

15. Jeff Bezos emerges as a top collector
Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, who reportedly boasts a net worth of $188 billion, entered the top echelons of the art market when, in February, he was revealed as the buyer of Ed Ruscha’s Hurting the Word Radio #2, from the collection of Joan and Jack Quinn, which had sold for $52.5 million at Christie’s in November 2019. In the same season, Bezos paid $18.5 million for Kerry James Marshall’s Vignette 19 (2014) at Sotheby’s, winning the work at more than double its high estimate of $7.5 million. Since the news of the acquisitions first broke, Bezos’s net worth has spiked by 49 percent from $126 billion in February 2020. While it is still unclear if his new art venture is part of a larger financial strategy, Bezos seems poised to enter a coterie of billionaire magnates who invest in blue-chip work and shape the art market in the process. —Angelica Villa

Yale Union in Portland, Oregon, now home to the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation.
Yale Union in Portland, Oregon, now home to the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation. Courtesy Native Arts and Cultures Foundation

14. A Portland art space transfers its land to a Native-led organization
Yale Union, an arts organization in Portland, Oregon, was not the kind of space that tends to drum up huge publicity with its programming, but this past July, it became the subject of widespread attention when it transferred ownership of its land and building to the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation, a Native-led organization that works to connect and promote Indigenous artists and creative groups nationwide. Yale Union formally dissolved itself in the process, creating a new institutional model for restorative social justice. The 36,000-square-feet facility is now undergoing renovations to become a physical gathering space for Native arts in the country. —Tessa Solomon

Tate Modern workers went on strike this past summer after redundancies were made.
Tate Modern workers went on strike this past summer after redundancies were made. Press Association via AP Images

13. Redundancies at Tate initiate a weeks-long strike
Facing financial freefall, many museums in the U.S. laid off and furloughed employees in 2020. But because layoffs of the kind are less common in the cultural sector in the U.K., the Tate museum network provoked outrage when it made 300 jobs “redundant”—and thus cut the workers holding them—in August. Immediately after, the network’s union accused Tate of deprioritizing workers and disproportionately cutting jobs held by Black and minority ethnic workers. (Maria Balshaw, Tate’s director, said that the museum network would assess the demographics of those impacted.) A strike lasting 42 days followed, in the process prompting debate about how much power art workers hold. —Alex Greenberger

Art Basel Hong Kong.
Art Basel Hong Kong. ©Art Basel

12. Art Basel cancels its Hong Kong fair amid a pandemic
In the early months of 2020, Art Basel Hong Kong faced pushback from exhibitors, who urged the fair to call off this year’s edition amid an ongoing protest movement and the beginnings of the coronavirus pandemic in Asia. As the fair neared, the calls only grew louder—24 galleries wrote an open letter demanding the cancelation in late January. The next month, the fateful decision was made: Art Basel acknowledged that Covid-19 had “radically changed” the city, and the fair was abruptly canceled. Art Basel’s organizers pledged to reimburse the 271 participating galleries for 75 percent of their booth fee and quickly rolled out an online iteration to replace the live fair. The Hong Kong fair was among the first major art-world events to be canceled because of the pandemic, but it was hardly the last—both of the event’s sister fairs, in Switzerland and Miami Beach, also had to call off their in-person events this year, as did two editions of Frieze, Art Cologne, FIAC, and many more. —Angelica Villa

Beijing's Palace Museum, also known as the Fobbiden City, was among the many museums across China that closed in response to the coronavirus pandemic early on.
Beijing’s Palace Museum, also known as the Fobbiden City, was among the many museums across China that closed in response to the coronavirus pandemic early on. The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images

11. Chinese museums close amid Covid lockdowns, setting a precedent
Before the coronavirus pandemic forced art institutions and fairs across the United States, Europe, South America, and other locations to shutter or issue postponements, museums in China and Hong Kong had already closed their doors to the public. In January, institutions such as the National Art Museum of China in Beijing, the Guangdong Art Museum in Guangzhou, the Union Art Museum in Wuhan, the UCCA Center for Contemporary Art (which has several locations throughout China), and public museums in Hong Kong closed so as to mitigate the spread of Covid-19. These early closures portended a prolonged disruption deeply felt in China—and far beyond—in the months to come. —Claire Selvin