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Building a virtual infrastructure for the arts: Absa’s commitment to innovation

How do you effectively build a virtual platform that affords art-lovers an engaging and informative experience while staying true to the tactile and immersive nature of the gallery space? It’s a tall order, and it’s something that arts organisations the world over have been grappling with since the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic. For the team at Absa, it’s a task they took to swiftly and enthusiastically, and it’s resulted in one of the most novel virtual art platforms around today.

At the start of 2020, the Absa Gallery had a clear idea of how the year, and indeed the years to come, were going to take shape. Plans were in place, exhibitions were in the pipeline. Then it all went out the window. Covid took hold, galleries were shuttered, the Absa Towers grew quiet. How could art without an audience survive? A new plan emerged – move the Absa Gallery experience online so that artists and art-lovers alike can continue to create, engage with, and learn from art.

Absa Art Hot Spot virtual gallery

Looking back to the past 18 months, Absa’s Senior Specialist Art Curator, Dr Paul Bayliss explains that while there was much fear and uncertainty, there was also a rare opportunity to embrace innovation and experimentation.

‘I suppose one of the silver linings that has come out of Covid, amongst the devastation that the pandemic has caused, is to approach things differently. We could have taken a position that would have involved keeping the Gallery closed and waiting until Covid was over, or a little more manageable, but we realised that the creative industry had been hugely financially impacted and artists were struggling. The challenge became figuring out how we’d continue to support creatives but also, there was this new opportunity to continually educate and grow the audience – to bring art to the people, making it accessible and reaching those who otherwise would not have actually considered visiting a gallery.’

Absa’s Senior Specialist Art Curator, Dr Paul Bayliss

The Absa team moved quickly. They hosted a virtual opening of the 2018 Absa L’Atelier winner, Marguerite Kirsten’s solo exhibition. This was followed by several artist interviews and art masterclasses, all online and accessible to Absa’s audience across the continent, and indeed, the world.

Absa Art Hot Spot virtual gallery

The rise of the Absa Art Hot Spot

The next challenge to present itself was where all of this new content would be held. Again, Bayliss and the team embraced innovation and experimentation.

‘We asked ourselves, “Where do we host this content? How do we make it accessible in a more immersive environment?” We could have just put it on a website which would have been no different to many other websites out there. Or we could try and create an entirely new virtual world that would capture the imagination of the viewer.’

Absa’s Senior Specialist Art Curator, Dr Paul Bayliss

Enter the Absa Art Hot Spot, an immersive and navigable virtual world comprising various portals, platforms, and experiences that bring together Absa’s numerous art holdings, projects, and partnerships. Distinguishing itself from many other virtual galleries, the Absa Art Host Spot makes use of a virtual architecture – a tactile digital experience that allows one to navigate, from their screen, through the foyer, into the gallery, the Absa Money Museum, the Auditorium and more. You can even stop by the Concierge Desk if you’re not sure where to go.

For Bayliss, a more welcoming and tactile experience was always something to work towards when building the platform. The process, however, was still an intuitive and exploratory one involving research, the testing and solutioning a number of ideas.  

You want to create a world that has a warmth to it, that’s welcoming. With the physical gallery spaces there are still a number of people who feel uncertain or hesitant in entering. What we’d like to see happen with the Absa Art Hot Spot is help create that warmth and welcoming environment online, so that when physical spaces and galleries start opening again, audiences feel comfortable enough to explore these spaces and engage with the art therein.’

Absa’s Senior Specialist Art Curator, Dr Paul Bayliss
Absa Art Hot Spot virtual gallery

Navigating the physical world with digital tools

What will this hybrid virtual and physical art world look like, exactly? Bayliss is resolute that, once a return to physical gallery spaces is possible, the Absa Art Hot Spot and its digital modes of engagement will remain. Audiences can attend physical openings, engage with the art and the artist in person and go home to take a closer look at it all, read the literature, watch the interviews, and attend the masterclasses.

‘As a curator, one of the things I found myself doing for the first three or so months of the lockdown was combing through the internet and discovering the works of artists that I would have never come across otherwise. It’s increasingly become the norm – to engage with and discover new artists and artworks from the comfort of your home. The Absa Art Hot Spot will now not only exist as a partner platform to our physical gallery space, but it can also become a point of entry for a global audience to engage with and appreciate art from across the African continent and artists through video, high resolution image capturing, virtual tours, and more. All you need is a smart device and in internet connection.’

Absa’s Senior Specialist Art Curator, Dr Paul Bayliss

Similarly, online platforms such as the Absa Art Host Spot allow for the simultaneous platforming of artists as well as the continual archiving of work. Each exhibition, masterclass, interview and more can be housed and accessed via the Absa Art Hot Spot long after its debut on the platform. It also allows for the collation of many of Absa’s art holdings, partnerships, and projects such as the annual Absa L’Atelier which will take place virtually this 7 October, as well as the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kustefees (KKNK), of which Absa is a main sponsor. This year marks 16 years of Absa’s sponsorship of the KKNK and will see Absa facilitating a number of online performances, exhibitions, and activations through the Absa Virtual Kuierkamer, also linked to the Absa Art Hot Spot.

‘Something like the KKNK Festival, which has always taken place within the town and community of Oudtshoorn, suddenly has a potential global audience and reach through our platform,’ explains Bayliss. ‘That is what virtual has done, but there is still so much to explore and experiment with. We really are only limited by our own creativity: the opportunities are endless.’

Absa has come a long way in such a short space of time, reimagining art in a time of isolation, developing an immersive and engaging virtual art platform, and working to ensure that artists and art-lovers alike are able to continue inspiring and being inspired by the power of art.

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