Building digital capacity in the arts

Back in March (I think) I attended the launch of a new Arts Council England/BBC initiative aimed at ‘building digital capacity in the arts’. Now in my (admittedly short) experience this sort of thing can’t happen soon enough, I’ve had so many conversations with people working in the arts and cultural sector who are either clueless about the potential of ‘digital’ or so fixated on how it’ll solve all their cashflow problems that it actually worries me. Unfortunately almost everything I heard from the speakers at this event seemed to reinforce the latter view i.e. that digital is important (agreed), that it is something that we as a sector need to embrace (agreed!) and that if we do so everything will be ok cos we’ll have an app and a website and everything will be fine (oh god NOOO *hangs head*). Not only did the programme seem misguided in its aims but it seemed to be proposing to take place in an incredibly blinkered way, a series of workshops would take place, mostly in London or Manchester – these would be videoed and then people could watch the videos. That was it, that’s the scheme. Some videos about how to make videos and apps.

The problem with digital capacity in the arts sector (in my view) starts with a widespread lack of understanding regarding a)how digital works, b)the potential of technology and c)how to engage with the technology in a meaningful and sustainable way. To ignore these fundamental issues just means it is surely inevitable that any investment now will have a limited short-term impact and almost zero long-term impact as the very specific short-term skills that’re taught (to a small group of people who can actually attend the workshops or can learn by watching a video of a workshop) will be out-dated relatively quickly and there is no widespread ‘bringing up to speed’ regarding ‘digital fundamentals’ that’d underpin any potential long-term impact or the a. Are ACE/BBC simply proposing to run a series of workshops every time a new technology presents itself? It all seemed hopelessly short-sighted and badly thought out.

There was some interesting chatter from a Google chap about the power of ideas or something similar but in reality that isn’t reflected in any aspect of the actual ‘capacity building programme’, which is depressing and will surely lead to a situation where, in 5 years time the arts sector will once again be massively behind the curve and will need a whole new training programme.

The scheme seems less to be about building capacity and more about teaching very-specific, non-transferable skills to a small group of people that’ll have little wider impact. Which is sad.

My proposal would be that the scheme does what ACE keep saying is important and empowers/equips the highly skilled organisations (there are some out there!) to upskill smaller organisations in their locality. This sort of scheme would surely have a wider reach, would get organisations working together and would be more sustainable than simply getting the Beeb to run a limited number of workshops to a limited number of people?

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