AMA Conference and “the digital question” (part 1 of ?)

I’ve been working at Opera North since November 2011. My job, Digital Communications Manager, is a new role within the company which means there is a hell of a lot to do but also that I am allowed to have mildly ridiculous ideas on a semi-regular basis and attempt to see them through.

I am a techie, or a developer, or maybe a ‘digital creative’ (hideous term) albeit with a fair amount of ‘traditional’ marketing experience. I am not, I wouldn’t say, an ‘arts marketer’. However, I gladly ignored this fact and made my way up to Glasgow for the Arts Marketing Association (AMA) Conference this week.

I like conferences, the breakout sessions are usually crap and the keynotes are complete bullshit peddlers but it’s always good to get away from the daily grind and talk to other people similarly revelling in being away from the daily grind in whatever industry it is you’re in (plus there is usually at least 1 good speaker that makes your brain think new things). Also it’s a good chance to see new places, e.g. I’d never been to Glasgow before, now I have.

I didn’t have huge hopes that my breakout experience was going to be hugely challenged, I’d only got at all excited by one session (from a list of about 30) – on Open Data – and the prospect of one of the keynotes talking about ‘digital success’ made my heart sink. Now would probably be a good point to try and excuse, or at least explain, my cynicism. I don’t come from an arts background (lots of my immediate family do, but that’s another story), I have worked for agencies, as a freelancer and for a university in recent years so moving into the arts sector has been a bit of a weird and wonderful experience. I love the atmosphere in arts organisations, the people are great and there is always something interesting or odd going on, however I despair whenever I am dragged into a conversation with anyone with what I’ve come to recognise as ‘digital pretensions (or,often, more accurately, delusions)’.

The arts sector (and I’ve mentioned this before) is almost scarily lagging behind ‘the curve’ when it comes to embracing digital developments (which in this context usually means “stuff that’s happening with the internet”), I think this is relatively easily explained when you look at the problem. Who would be best placed to recognise, understand, explain and apply the latest technological advancements? Technologists, developers etc…essentially digital people. These people are almost entirely absent from the arts sector. They simply don’t exist in a sector that has never really needed them before. Most arts and cultural organisations’ dealings with this type of people are through short-term, project-specific agency relationships where, more often than not, the arts organisation tries to explain what they want (or think they want), hands over some money and sometime later receives what they paid for. These relationships were never intended to build understanding, capacity, knowledge or any of those other intangible but essential and sustainable things – why would they be? The agencies were never going to want to put themselves out of business and the arts organisations really didn’t have the time, money or inclination to even think about things in these terms.

BUT, then digital became important, it became fundamental to the way that people communicate, understand, consume and create. So the arts organisations suddenly had to understand, or at least seem like they were trying to understand. The way in which this process took place to me seems incredibly strange. It seems (and I have only my own perceptions to go on for this, as I say I have no history of working in the arts sector until last year so have very little in the way of facts to go on) that instead of going and trying to find people with the skills to help them make the huge leaps required in the ways that organisations understood, used and worked with technology (and really, change the way that these organisations worked in a fundamental way) they instead established a list of arbitrary ‘must-haves’ (e.g. a website, an e-newsletter, some sort of social media presence, maybe some multimedia content – essentially marketing assets in digital form) – found a bunch of people already working in the arts sector and put them in charge of making these things happen. As a result the management of digital strategy, digital activity and digital development in the arts has been driven and carried out by a group of people who, whilst incredibly enthusiastic, don’t have the fundamental understanding of what they’re doing or the technology they’re working with. For me, and I may be in a minority of 1 on this, to properly use something you simply have to understand it, ESPECIALLY with a vast, unwieldy and complicated field of development such as web-based technological developments (wow, that’s a clunky way of describing things).

I could continue to waffle on about this but I don’t think that’d be very interesting for anyone, I simply wanted to explain why sometimes I seem like a cynical bastard when people in the arts claim to have struck upon some revolutionary digital concept as more often than not when trying to explain themselves they make so many factual errors that it makes the gods of the internet cry big, wet, binary tears of woe. I wanted to get that out there because I think it’s an important bit of context for my views on almost everything to do with the application of ‘digital’ in the arts. Although I do realise that it does make me seem like a bit of a nob (probably).

Oh and I’ll actually write some actual things about the actual conference (and Glasgow, and the weird Dutch, Japanese-concept hotel we stayed in) some time next week.

P.s. I am also aware that I don’t have all the answers, I probably don’t even have one of the answers. I understand that arts organisations are (sometimes) slow, weird, idiosyncratic, stubborn places and that even with the best will in the world perhaps some types of change are almost impossible to accomplish at the pace required, or maybe even at all. I do however think that there are several elephants in the room that need to be roundly pointed at in as loud a way as possible, and that’s what i’m trying, in a small way, to do.

5 Comments

  1. (partially responding to your tweets during the event too!)

    There’s always going to be a capacity and skills issue in the arts and cultural sector – and I’m not sure that there are any surefire ways of addressing this.

    You’re completely right that often commercial agencies aren’t the place to turn to – but for most in the sector they haven’t yet transformed their organisations (or even see the need to) into places where ‘digital’ isn’t a separate thing but is integral to everything they make and produce. Let alone a point where the the public sees this new organisation as valid enough to still retain its old name and not be moved into a new box called something like ‘new media arts’ (shudder).

    Sure there’s ‘building digital capacity’ projects like the one you mention – and also ones like this Australian one (http://connectarts.australiacouncil.gov.au/) which tend to be short term fixes, band-aids – but the structural transformation is going to take a long time.

    This isn’t just the cultural sector – being a visitor to Glasgow I visited plenty of restaurant websites looking for somewhere to eat only to find their websites were entirely built in Flash and their phone number and addresses were helpfully part of a JPG. And the bright shiny brand new Riverside Museum – fantastic as it was an experience doesn’t even have its own domain, let alone a website full of all of the rich media content able to be experienced inside.

    But . . .

    There are a lot of people doing transformative stuff – perhaps less in the event/performing space – NYPL (http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/06/what-big-media-can-learn-from-the-new-york-public-library/240565/1/) leads the library sector and there are many many museums all over the world remaking what a museum is through imagining and building the foundations of integrated museum where digital isn’t a separate department and isn’t about marketing.

    Reply

  2. hi seb, thanks for taking the time to read and respond. I agree with what you’re saying, ultimately its a huge shift required to get to where things need to be and believe me I understand that this problem is not exclusive to the arts. digital/the web are still too new and too disconnected from what has gone before for some people to grasp in any meaningful way, thats just the way things are, it will change.

    I just feel that sometimes, too often in fact, I hear and see things being discussed that seem to be based on misinformation, or are just plain wrong. to properly understand and realise this ‘brave new world’ (to steal a phrase) there needs to be the understanding that there are fundamentals that you need to, if not be able to discuss at length then at least understand their implications. too often you see a very good idea or service being realised or used in a very bad or stupid way. I’m not advocating ivory towers or saying you should only do digital if you have a degree in computer science or electrical engineering (I have neither), as you say it shouldn’t be seen as just a new platform for marketing but as an opportunity and channel for new ways of thinking and doing in regard to every aspect of our organisations. I just feel that whilst there is a recognition of the power of digital there are a lot of people studiously ignoring the fact that they don’t understand what they’re getting excited about, which seems like a recipe for failure or at least a recipe for much reduced success.

    p.s. I thought your talk was ace and your museum is an awesome example of somewhere really ‘doing it’ in relation to digital. I was involved in developing location aware tour proposals for a stately home 3 years ago…needless to say, they didn’t understand. also, thanks for the links, I love reading about and seeing people doing things thatre new or interesting.

    p.p.s sorry for any spelling mistakes, this was written on a train and I don’t have a phone as big as the one in your presentation.

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  3. You might want to check out this (also Australian) scheme . . . . Geek In Residence – which put a call out for digital people to do professional ‘internships’ at arts orgs (and they were paid 50/50 by the agency and the Arts Council). The GIR scheme was to bring people who *would* transform the organisational thinking and not just make them a Facebook page or configure Google Analytics for them.

    http://artsdigitalera.com/girv2

    It really needs to be scaled up but there’s the rub – there just aren’t enough people with the skills to be Geeks in Residence – but it will change. Slowly.

    Reply

  4. My challenge has been getting/keeping good digital people involved when essentially I can’t compete with the private sector wages and build budgets. I’ve had great ACE backing over several years (only project backing mind) but it’s SO slow without private investment, business development support or income streams to equal appropriate investment and who has that if they’re not selling?

    I won an award in Leeds in 2001 for taking a CMS and putting it front end. So the idea that is just about taking hold in SW England’s performance scene (http://albow.com) is 10 years old. I long to be able to move faster, employ better people, develop vision inline with digital dev, and still deliver social profit.

    I’d love a geek in residence plus investment but I don’t want to end up running a digital dev company.

    Onward. Slowly.

    Reply

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