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The art of reinvention: why galleries need to adapt or face extinction

Miss the digital transformation train, and galleries today may find themselves irrelevant and unconnected, says Thabo Seshoka, Specialist Art Curator, Absa Gallery.

Absa Gallery digital transformation Thabo Seshoka

Art reflects the zeitgeist of the time and galleries have long been the custodians of that social commentary. Brick and mortar galleries as we know them are at a crossroads, though. Traditional operating models are fast becoming less effective at exploring the way we appreciate art. As we move further into the digital age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the new era of visual art begs the question – what does the gallery of the future look like? 
     Social media has changed the way people experience art. Galleries can’t ignore the potential of social media to bring a new dimension to the works of artists, curators, exhibition designers and enhanced experiences for visitors. 
     An online presence also allows a gallery to be more vocal. The social media microphone has given a digital soapbox to curators and critics across the globe, sparking dialogue and debates with art lovers, museum-goers, patrons, collectors, students, and educators alike. 
     The digital age has also allowed artists to take greater control of their careers. Innovations in the digital space mean that both emerging and established artists can market and sell their work independently, without relying on gallery spaces for exposure. 
     Technology has removed the entry barrier to the art world by allowing previously excluded artists and audiences to enjoy creation and curation without relying on the controlled environment that a gallery presents. This shift has opened access to art, pushing the industry away from the perception that it’s elitist.
     This rings true for art competitions too, however, competitions today continue to ask artists to enter and submit their work manually or in person. This excludes those who don’t have funds to produce a portfolio or travel. Submitting an electronic portfolio simplifies the process and levels the playing field. 

Absa Gallery digital transformation

This is why Absa L’Atelier changed its format for 2019. All entries and adjudication were done online, which meant any African artist with internet access could enter or visit a branch or regional office for assistance. The result? A big jump in applications. The difference in the number and geographical diversity of artists was tangible. Going digital meant that the competition has reduced its carbon footprint: we didn’t need to transport art across Africa or fly in adjudicators.
     The gallery of the future speaks to all art watchers, no matter their age, pocket or preference. In future, galleries take the art to the people and use technology to do it. Augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR) have set the foundation for an evolution of art exhibitions, spaces and trading. Think galleries and museum spaces with no borders and no physical boundaries, enabling everyone to explore art and discover international artists wherever they are. We’re building a virtual gallery that will allow individuals to curate their own exhibitions. It’s something we’re very excited about pioneering. 
     Galleries that have failed to respond to this fast-evolving digital landscape and embrace the change that comes with it have found themselves at risk of closing their doors. Following the recent spate of gallery closures in Johannesburg, Cape Town and international cities like London and New York, galleries are becoming increasingly aware that sticking to what they know is no longer enough. Art galleries and competitions alike need to reinvent themselves using the power of technology to take art to wider audiences. The truth is that there is no option but to adapt because those in the art world that don’t embrace change, run a very real risk of becoming irrelevant.

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