Digital Culture 2015: a few thoughts/observations

Just before Christmas the 3rd annual ‘Digital Culture’ report was released, this is a longitudinal study looking at the adoption and impact of “digital technologies” in the arts sector.

There seem to be a number of idiosyncrasies with the survey, namely that it tries to force everything into little Arts Council shaped boxes that have come straight off a funding application, also that the number of participants that have participated in all 3 years (240ish) is far fewer than those who have just participated in 1 or 2 of the years (350) – which renders longitudinal comparisons slightly tricky. But leaving all that aside, I read the report and have vomited up some thoughts on it all below. Something perhaps worth noting, I have only read the report, I haven’t taken a look at the raw data, thus my observations are made on the assumption that the analysis in the report is correct.

TL;DR:

Digital is apparently becoming less “important” for arts organisations, everyone seems to see it as a marketing thing and not much more than that. Those that are making the most of digital are those with more money, particularly NPOs who seem to be leaving the rest of the sector behind somewhat.

Headlines:

National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs) are more digitally active, experience fewer barriers, have better access to skills, are more likely to be engaged in R&D activities, and are more likely to report positive impacts. There is also evidence that the gap between NPOs and the others is widening

The above, not-really-all-that-surprising, quote is the main thing that jumped out at me (and seems to be the main thing that others have picked up on). Unfortunately this seems to be becoming applicable to more and more aspects of arts organisations’ activity, this probably points to deep-rooted funding inadequacies and entrenched sectoral issues but I’m not really qualified to answer either of those particular problems.

If you look at the “factsheets” for each artform covered in the survey it would appear that “business models” and “distribution are the two things that the organisations perceive “digital” least important for. Pretty much everyone says that it is “most important” for “marketing” and most artforms also seem to stick “archiving” in the “most important” box (I’d argue there could or should be a fairly tight link between distribution and archiving but hey ho, these are the labels they’ve gone with).

Interestingly, or misleadingly, the executive summary presents this as “Digital technologies have also become more important for revenue generation, with 45 per cent of organisations now reporting that this is important to their business models, up from 34 per cent in 2013” i.e. most organisations in the study do not see digital as important to their business models (which Chris Unitt explores, under the wider scope of “digital leadership” a bit here).

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The depressing thing is that the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts (which conducted this report) clearly sees these things, particularly business models and revenue generation as the more important areas for the sector to try and focus on (judging by both the “guides” on the homepage of their website and the premise of the Fund i.e. “supports ideas that use digital technology to build new business models and enhance audience reach for organisations with arts projects“) so this points to either a failure on the part of the Fund or the sector in this area. Either the Fund failed to push money towards the right projects to achieve its aim of proving new business models that are adoptable and adaptable across the sector or the sector has proven itself incapable of understanding and utilising the findings that these funded projects have thrown up (I suspect it’s a little of both).

Bad stuff:

Basically, no-one has any money and this is stopping people from doing things. And the only people who do have money are the people who have loads of (or at least more) money anyway, for everything (i.e. NPOs, specifically the bigger NPOs):

  • more organisations have highlighted concerns around access to finance, with 73 per cent of organisations now seeing lack of funding for digital as a barrier to their aspirations (up from 68 per cent in 2013).
  • National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs) are more digitally active, experience fewer barriers, have better access to skills, are more likely to be engaged in R&D activities, and are more likely to report positive impacts. There is also evidence that the gap between NPOs and the others is widening
  • significantly fewer organisations (especially smaller ones) report that they exhibit the R&D behaviours that the survey suggests correlated with digital success, such as experimenting and taking risks, and evaluating the impact of digital work” which chimes with the other finding that “Take-up of data-led activities has also stalled or fallen back, for example 43 per cent now use data to develop their online strategy, down from 47 per cent in 2013” given that data-led activities and effective evaluation share similar skillsets this possibly highlights a bit of a skills gap.

Perhaps related to the above was the finding that “respondents report a number of organisation-related factors which might inhibit use of digital technologies. More report there being no senior digital manager in their organisation, IT systems being slow/ limited and there being a lack of suitable external suppliers“. I think the first part of this is most important, if there is no senior, or at least dedicated, digital person in an organisation then digital is never going to get the attention or understanding that it requires (this also relates back to Chris Unitt’s post that I linked to early on digital leadership) and if an organisation has very limited funds then they’re not going to free up space on the payroll to employ a dedicated digital person – this issue is even further exacerbated when digital is seen as not important to business models and/or revenue. It’s hard to make a case for something that you don’t believe will have any impact on the bottom line when funds are tight. The point around there being a “lack of suitable external suppliers” is, frankly, untrue. Although if people are reporting this then clearly work needs to be done around making organisations more aware of the numerous, talented suppliers out there (although, again, if you have no dedicated digital resource looking at this then of course your understanding of the options available is likely to be limited or non-existent), everyone’s favourite Chris (Unitt) has, once again, done something useful to this end; a big database of suppliers, split by services offered – which can be found here.

Further on that “digital person” point, rarely if ever do I see digital people employed in anything other than an administrative capacity (which this report would back up). I understand that these skillsets (i.e. being able to input on the administrative or creative sides of a company’s activity) are (or can be) quite discrete from one another, maybe that’s because I’ve lived a sheltered life or maybe it’s because, as still seems to be the case, the arts sector very much sees digital as a “marketing thing” that shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near creative practice. Which is a shame and, I think, fundamentally shortsighted. Especially when you get to the point of “distribution”, if you as an organisation have no history or understanding of how to integrate digital into the artistic side of your work then how will you ever be able to meaningfully adopt any form of digital distribution for that work. Anyway, that’s possibly a thought for another day.

Lastly on this particular point, the basics still seem to being ignored on a fairly vast scale:

  • 40 per cent of organisations still do not have a mobile-optimised web presence
  • 41 per cent now accept online donations (up from 35 per cent in 2013)” – what on earth are the other 59% doing!? Most of them are registered charities! All the charities I am aware of accept donations online, through JustGiving or whatever.
  • 72 per cent are now publishing content onto their websites (77 per cent in 2013)” – I think maybe this was a poorly-worded question cos…like….content makes up the vast majority of what websites are. But, regardless this sticks out as one of the strangest things in the whole report…
  • outside London around 41-44% (depending on area) of organisations sell tickets online, compared with 54% of London organisations” perhaps this is such a strangely low statistic because they’ve lumped in organisations who simply don’t sell tickets for anything (museums and whatnot) but, taken on face value, this seems very surprising and worrying.

Good stuff:

Whilst this report cannot hide the fact that the sector on the whole isn’t doing brilliantly, there are pockets of good practice. This is usually to be found within organisations who have the time, money, willingness (or a combination thereof) to invest in digital things

  • it is the digital experimenters (those that are willing to embrace and take risks with technology) and digital leaders (those that place the most importance on digital) that are most likely to see positive impacts on their organisations – in the audiences they reach, the way they operate, and in their creative capacities.
  • NPOs have continued to increase the number of digital activities they are undertaking

A few other (mostly depressing) tidbits:

  • Over three-quarters (78 per cent) plan on introducing something new next year, with crowdfunding being the most anticipated activity” – it then, about half a page later, goes on to say “Crowdfunding and livestreaming, for example, have sometimes been more difficult and resource-intensive than expected
  • We moved to a new booking system which works very well except in terms of online booking. This relates to a lack of resources to integrate into our website, which is not fit for purpose. We need to build the ‘front window’ for the technologies we invest time and money in by developing a new website. The Garage [performing arts venue in Norwich]” – I’ve seen this in numerous sectors I’ve worked in, organisations end up lumbered with (more-often-than-not) legacy systems which were never conceived for the modern, interconnected technological landscape that we now have to deal with. Luckily there are a growing number of forward-looking suppliers in this specific area (i.e. ticketing) so that pretty much any size organisation should be able to find something that suits their needs/budget.
  • in many arts and cultural organisations, particularly the smaller ones, an earlier appetite for more digital innovation has been replaced by greater caution.” – whilst caution is, of course, a perfectly valid element of approaching new things if it is replacing an appetite for trying out ‘digital stuff’ then that is perhaps not good news

Other responses:

Hannah Nicklin also had a very worth-paying-attention-to rant on Twitter, a few excerpts below but it’s worth checking her feed for the whole thing:

I’d agree with all those points to a certain degree (although I think distribution can/should be important, just the best option hasn’t been cracked yet) and have written about them specifically in the past.

A couple of people also made the point that the model of funding works counter to the low-level, iterative, agile experimentation that NESTA apparently want to see (which, again, I’d totally agree with)

What to do?

I’m not sure this all tells us much that we don’t already know although I was pretty shocked by the lack of basic activity being undertaken by a significant minority of organisations. Maybe the Arts Council/whoever should be looking to raise the capabilities of the bottom end of the sector before it tries to do anything too fancy, the fact that you still can’t give so many organisations your money via the internet is pretty ridiculous. Narrowing this gap would surely then help to create a more solid foundation from which ‘innovative’ things could be explored. It also seems clear to me that funders should be looking to seed-fund projects which could benefit the whole sector and provide micro-grants to encourage experimentation, whether or not either of these things will actually happen is open for discussion though.

Around some of the issues such as there ‘not being enough/good enough suppliers’ I think there are simple things that can be done, I’m not talking about anything as OTT as the RAR (http://www.recommendedagencies.com/) but maybe something that is trying to achieve similar things, although I do think Chris U has almost achieved this with something a straight-forward as a simple spreadsheet (although why it took Chris – off his own back – to do this – about 3 years ago – is beyond me)

‘Digital’ in the arts

So, returning to an old subject, about which I’ve got very annoyed in the past.

Last week Arts Council England (ACE) published the second version of their 10-year strategic framework for 2010-2020 (you can read the whole thing here). Now they mention ‘digital stuff’ quite a lot (the always excellent Chris Unitt has done a good job of breaking this all down here). I use this by way of an introduction, not to explore the specifics of the ACE framework (Chris U does a much better job on that front than I could anyway – see previous link), but more to draw attention to the fact that, yet again, ‘digital’ is being put front and centre. My point of desperation and frustration comes from the fact that despite positive noises that have been fairly consistent (certainly in the 3 or so years I’ve been at Opera North and anecdotally for longer than that), there is very very little by way of actual, tangible signs that anyone in the arts sector really ‘gets’ digital in any meaningful way. By that I mean there still seems to be no understanding of, or desire to confront the reality that digital/technological development has brought about. I can sort of understand why this happens, arts organisations find themselves confronted with an uncomfortable reality, audiences are down, funding is reduced (and from certain sources, gone altogether), they’re expected to do more with less, people are accessing and experiencing the world in a ways that – for the most part – arts organisations are completely clueless how to engage with. I get that, it’s scary, it’s difficult, there isn’t really an obvious answer to whether or not it’ll pay for itself, ever, it’s easier to just do what they’ve always done, change just enough to tick a box on a funding form and hope that the situation will improve one day. Unfortunately I can see absolutely no way that that is going to happen.

I was following the tweets from a conference the other day (I forget which one, there are so many, how do people find the time?), and one of the speakers was quoted as saying “an industry has to nearly collapse (like media, TV, music) before it realises the power of digital“. That feels like the situation we’re currently in in the arts sector. Everyone sort of grudgingly accepts that ‘digital’ is something you need to at least pretend to be doing but the situation hasn’t quite reached the point where reality has caught up, we can still kid ourselves that having a website and ‘doing Twitter and Facebook’ is enough.

And this situation, in my view, fundamentally undermines all the worthy words that ACE come out with. The reality, at the moment, is that arts organisations can basically do the bare minimum in relation to digital/online and, at the moment, there are no consequences. The depressing thing is that this is simply storing up a whole world of woe for the medium term. The lack of ‘digital capacity’ in the arts sector is something I’ve bemoaned previously, the lack of impetus, the lack of ambition and the lack of understanding is exacerbating this situation horribly and nowhere, do I think, is this more painfully obvious than with the websites of most arts organisations.

What should the website of an arts organisation do? What should it look like? What function should it serve. I’d say that 90% of the sector couldn’t really answer these questions with any degree of confidence. Maybe they’ve never asked them, maybe there are too many conflicting agenda within the organisation for them to be able to have a clarity of purpose. But worryingly this seems to result in a lot of websites that seem to serve the purpose of being an online brochure. I’d argue that this does noone any favours, not only does it reduce the websites of arts organisation to the level of blandly ‘selling some products’ and presenting a load of tedious information that serves no purpose than to be some sort of odd, permanent funding application, but the lack of ambition that these sort of websites represent point to the fact that, for many organisations, digital is still something that ‘sits with marketing’. There is no desire for – say – the programming or education teams to embrace the possibilities of digital and use that to represent their activities online in any meaningful way.

Some examples: this is the website for the National Portrait Gallery http://www.npg.org.uk/. Boring, huh. Unengaging, flat, unexciting. Here is how they’re displaying some portraits from the Tudor period: http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/explore/by-period/tudor.php (crikey that’s dull…so, so, so dull). Now, this is the website for the Google Art Project: http://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/project/art-project. How is that a technology company can so comprehensively understand how to present artwork and a NATIONAL GALLERY can so comprehensively fail to? It’s so depressing. The NPG’s Tudor collection is presented like some sort of never-ending brochure of tedium. Google makes the art feel vivid and visceral and present (Google also provides far more information about each artwork but that’s by the by). NOW THEN, I’m probably being slightly unfair (in fact I almost certainly am), Google is a multi-billion dollar, global company who can afford to fritter away millions on ‘hobby projects’ like the cultural institute, the NPG is a gallery that receives almost 50% of its funding from government and a large proportion of the rest from donations. But to provide a bit of balance, here’s a website of an organisation (in a similar field) that I think really do seem to ‘get it': https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/ – exciting, dynamic, engaging. Everything that the NPG isn’t. Add in the fact that the basic, underlying design architecture of the NPG’s website is hopelessly outdated (try using it on a mobile…or any screen that isn’t 800×600) and I think it provides a fairly good example of the worrying situation I think we’re in. This is a bloody national gallery. A national gallery should surely be setting the tone for the rest of the galleries in the nation? Or at least be subjectively ‘good’. This, quite simply, doesn’t, and isn’t.

Think this is unique to galleries? Nope. Soz.

The National Theatre is widely acclaimed for their NT Live stuff, broadcasting (live) from the NT itself into cinemas around the world. This seems to be celebrated as a great example of ‘digital’ – I’d argue that it isn’t really, it’s just sort of doing broadcast in a slightly different way, this essentially could have been done in exactly the same way 30 years ago. Again, have you seen their website? http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/ – I mean it’s not terrible but it’s hardly interesting, or exciting, or engaging, or representative of theatre in any real way. Now I suspect they are in a slightly less bad situation compared to other organisations in that a) they’ve got fucking loads of money, b) they’ve got blimmin’ loads of content and c) I’m sure someone, somewhere is working on a new site for them so my opinion will shortly be out of date. But once again this, to me, feels, at best, like a catastrophic missed opportunity and at worse a clear sign that they don’t get digital at all. I don’t know the people at the NT, so I couldn’t say which of these views is more accurate. But surely as the NATIONAL Theatre, as well as championing new writing (which I’m told they do quite well), they should also be championing and exploring what theatre is, or could be, in the 21st century and the future. At the moment they really, really aren’t. And don’t tell me NT Live is them doing that because, it isn’t. Spending £150k a go to shoot and stream a play from a theatre into cinema isn’t innovative or exploratory, it’s a great exploitation of proven distribution techniques and a proven brand being used in a slightly new way and it is very successful on those (and commercial/profile) terms, but an example of theatre in a digital world? No. Someone who had never been to the NT, who knew nothing about what it was, would not get an accurate or interesting impression from visiting that website. Equally it’s not particularly great at selling you a ticket (but I’ve rarely found a theatre that does this well) which, I assume, is probably its primary purpose at the moment.

I know these are just two examples, and some would say the NT are doing just fine, ACE certainly seem to subscribe to this view seemingly ignoring the fairly substantial financial barriers to entry for this particular model of ‘doing digital’ (I don’t know about the NPG – I think they were advertising for a Director of Digital recently so maybe they’ll have their revolution soon), however these are two ‘national’ organisations, based in London, they are well-funded, they are in the capital surrounded by incredible digital talent and if THEY aren’t doing stuff that’s great then god help the rest of us.

I know it’s not easy to get websites built for arts organisations (I’ve been there, I’ve done it), a fundamental lack of understanding regarding the potential results in the organisational website being treated like a glorified brochure, the number of agendas which are suddenly ‘all equally important’ means that design by committee is, at present, an unfortunate reality in most situations. However I’d argue that arts organisations need a watershed, and soon, they need to grasp the nettle, and start getting their heads around what they can do with digital. Why is it that websites for theatres, galleries, dance companies, west end musicals and opera companies all, for the most part, look exactly the same (and uninspiringly so) when what these companies do is so different?

We need to move to a point where the websites of arts organisations are as exciting, inspirational and engaging as what the organisations do. Now don’t get me wrong, by that I do not mean that websites should be flashy and difficult to use and clever for the sake of it. They just need to be better and they need to be representative, this is the arts sector, not a bloody wallpaper shop. (wikipedia to the rescue here) ” Goethe defined art as an other resp. a second nature, according to his ideal of a style founded on the basic fundaments of insight and on the innermost character of things. Leo Tolstoy identified art as a use of indirect means to communicate from one person to another. Benedetto Croce and R.G. Collingwood advanced the idealist view that art expresses emotions, and that the work of art therefore essentially exists in the mind of the creator.” Do the websites of arts organisations, as they currently exist, even come close to achieving any of these things? Websites aren’t just catalogues, they can be, and should be, so much more than that. And the fact that they aren’t is deeply worrying.

To round this all off I want to credit a few places that I think are doing good things (although these are by no means flawless examples I think they’re worth a look). I’ve already mentioned the Rijksmuseum above but they deserve mentioning twice, not only do they look like they get it: https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/ but they act like they get it too https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/rijksstudio-award. The Southbank Centre’s new site is a million times better than their old one, it actually looks vibrant and exciting and diverse (which, I think, is what they want) http://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/ – not only does it give a sense of the place but the design would also seem to provide a fairly flexible platform for ‘messing about’ in the future. Important. Another decent effort is from National Theatre Wales (who genuinely are exploring what theatre might look like and be) http://nationaltheatrewales.org/.

Please feel more than free to disagree with me, or to point out other people who are doing ‘good stuff’ (they should be commended) via the comments below or on Twitter, I’m @biglittlethings.

p.s. I do worry sometimes that maybe I just misunderstand the entire situation and I should be more forgiving and patient and there are in fact lots and lots of completely great things happening that I’m simply unaware of. However the more I look, and the more I ask, the less convinced I am this is the case. I am aware there are some people doing good stuff, but I’d say they are very very much in the minority. Equally I am aware (as people have been quick to point out in the past) that this malaise is not unique to the arts sector, I know, but I work in the arts sector, I care about the arts sector and this post is about the arts sector.

Related:

Responses:

This seemed to strike a little bit of a nerve on Twitter n tha’, a few responses below…

Valid point about design vs function from @ammeveleigh

@etiennelefleur indicated that he thought my focus was too firmly on websites and digital at the expense of organisations’ core mission/purpose (which I disagreed with but it was an interesting discussion)

and then the always-excellent Chris Unitt wrote this very good response (far better researched and referenced than my original blog! I’ll write something properly considered in response to a couple of his points)

Some people definitely thought I’d over-exaggerated the importance of digital, although I’d argue this viewpoint is part of the problem that could land us all, as a sector, in trouble quite soon. And I am never arguing that digital is more important than ‘core’ activity, core activity/purpose/mission/whatever is the starting point for absolutely everything.

But it was also good to see that people seemed to agree (and yes this is bordering on the self-congratulatory but I don’t care)

Subsidised arts

A few inarticulate thoughts:

There has been a bit of a debate recently (that I’ve been reading, via my phone, on the way to work) about the place of subsidised arts in the ‘arts ecology’ of the UK. The general consensus seems to be that in these straightened times subsidised arts companies are becoming more conservative and as a result more overtly “commercial” in their programming. A friend of mine from Germany expressed the view recently that ‘if a commercial theatre is going to do it then a subsidised company has no business going anywhere near it’ and whilst I can completely understand the desire and need to maximise box office revenues I do agree with his point. The public subsidy surely exists in part to help create work that simply isn’t commercially in its (primary) focus.

I recently read an article written by Melvyn Bragg in the Daily Telegraph, the comments left under the article left no doubt that any public subsidy of the arts was an utter waste of money but given the readership of that particular paper that probably isn’t surprising. I have also heard directly from government ministers (who, depressingly, actually work at the DCMS) that there is ‘no point’ in public funding of the arts and it should be ‘left to the public to show what they want by where they spend their money’. But surely this is an utterly depressing viewpoint, if it was left entirely up to ‘market forces’ to dictate what art did and didn’t get made then we would (it seems to me) get stuck in a hideous downward spiral of banality until we reached some awful rock bottom that resembled the daytime TV schedule. Horrible.

But then maybe I’m just seeing this all through some lefty, guardianista, simplistic prism. Maybe we can’t afford to fund stuff that “noone wants to go and see”, that challenges audiences as opposed to to pandering to some arbitrary lowest common denominator of entertainment. Although if that is the case then I think I might move abroad, it’d be an entirely awful state for our society to end up in.

I’m aware that this is not an extensive, in-depth or particularly considered post, but it was on my mind.

Related stuff: (I realise there are a lot of Guardian links there so it’s probably not the most balanced selection of reading)

http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2012/feb/21/english-national-ballet-trouble

http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2012/feb/19/theatre-risks-playwrights-hare-ravenhill

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/9093724/British-culture-may-be-our-new-great-industry.html

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jan/11/uk-film-funding-david-cameron

http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2012/jan/11/cameron-speech-funding-box-office

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/news/film-world-hits-back-over-pms-call-to-focus-on-blockbusters-6288354.html

The Space.

So, you may have heard about one of the myriad new Arts Council funding pots called ‘The Space’. At Opera North we have a few ideas that we are considering pitching for funding, however, as always, the ACE criteria seems confused as to what it’s actually asking for.

On the one hand, the ACE guidance says “We are keen to see proposals that address the development of innovative, user-centred experiences and media work across one or more devices and platforms – mobile, tablet, PC and connected televisions. This might include proposals that utilise some of the unique capabilities and features of modern connected devices, for example: geo-location or GPS on smart phones and tablets; QR code readers; bluetooth, Wi-Fi or 3G connectivity; SMS messages; the ability to find friends or create groups or communities; or the ability to share or comment on material.

However in the technical document outlining The Space it is clear that this is ‘just’ a content platform, there doesn’t seem to be any mention of an API or any actual technical details so how are you supposed to integrate geo/qr/magic/whatever functionality with this platform? There is talk of metadata but if there is no way of easily plugging into the system to make sense of this then WHAT’S THE POINT!?

Or maybe I’m just missing the point.

But then again the ACE guidance also refers to SMS and QR codes as emerging technologies so we should probably all just pack up, go home and cry.