Art in isolation during COVID-19

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By Dr Paul Bayliss, Absa Senior Specialist Art Curator.
The coronavirus pandemic had a sudden and substantial impact on arts and culture. Very suddenly and without warning, by March 2020, cultural institutions worldwide had been closed indefinitely, with exhibitions, events and performances cancelled or postponed.

In line with our newly declared National State of Disaster, the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees (KKNK) – which is a highlight on the South African arts calendar and which Absa sponsors – was called off. Around this time, our Absa L'Atelier competition winners were due to fly to Paris for their long-anticipated residencies, but this too was postponed.

African art and artists will face challenges.

As economies and arts and culture organisations the world over struggle during this time, we're seeing societies change and adapt, with new business models being explored and millions allocated to saving the arts. Our own Department of Sports, Arts and Culture set aside R150 million to help artists left without jobs, during this period. But we're lucky. The rest of Africa isn't quite so fortunate.

The challenge we have on the continent is that we face barriers in embracing technology, unlike the more developed countries, so our galleries and artists are likely to enter uncertain times.

As a community of artists, curators and gallerists, we have a duty to provide access to art and the heritage and history that comes with each piece of work. And with physical access to art now strictly limited, our mission must become to find new ways to do so and support and grow our African artists.

Testament to this, leading local curator Sarah McGee of MStudioCommunity, who manages Absa L'Atelier 2019 winner Nkhensani Rihlampfu, moved away from a physical brick and mortar space, successfully using technology to showcase her stable of talented artists. It’s more thinking like this that we need.

The art world goes virtual.

It’s hard to match the experience of seeing an important piece of fine art or historical artefact with your own two eyes and one could easily spend a lifetime traveling the world in search of all of them. Fortunately, the digital age has made it possible - easy, even - to visit some of the world's most famous museums from the comfort of one's own home.

Google Arts & Culture's collection includes the British Museum in London, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the Guggenheim in New York City, and hundreds more places where you can gain knowledge about art, history, and science.

Closer to home, Absa – as a digitally enabled bank – was the first art gallery in South Africa to offer online 3D-tours of art exhibitions, over two years ago. This has proved popular, and continues to act as an effective way to bring art to people virtually: explore our repository of previous exhibitions, 3D-tours, interviews, art dialogues and podcasts here.

We also spearheaded the use of QR coding where people could virtually meet the artist. Viewers scan a QR code adjacent to the work and this takes the viewer to a video of an interview with the artist, or a behind-the-scenes of the artwork, adding real value to the experience.

Today, forced by quarantine, many galleries are starting to explore what technology can offer, to showcase artworks, make sales and attract new buyers.

It’s now business, unusual.

During this period, many galleries have placed their exhibitions online, not just in the spirit of opening access to new audiences, but of course, in the hope of making a sale. However, technology shouldn’t be a plug for a pesky short-term leak. The art world should be thinking strategically about what digital and social media can do for the commercial business of the arts in the long-term.

In addition to 3D gallery tours, the opportunities are endless, from Skype meet 'n greets with artists, to studio tours and masterclasses by artists. It’s also wonderful to see auctions and interviews going live in real time on social media at the touch of a button.

Hopefully, this time gives traditional gallerists pause for thought and a taste of the power of technology in growing their businesses and in return, artists' careers.

It's not all gloom and doom. If there's one good thing that’s come out of this…

It’s that people are picking up their pencils and paintbrushes again. As one gallery director predicted: "There will definitely be an explosion in new material”. And that is what I look forward to – new art works and pioneering new ways to showcase them.