I’ve just been catching up on the reaction (Guardian, The Stage) to the news that Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt has asked Dame Liz Forgan to step down from her position as chair of Arts Council England at the end of her current term. From the press release:
The next chair of the Arts Council will have to steer the organisation and the sector through another challenging period, in particular in increasing the amount of private giving to the arts and encourage the sector to make the most of technological changes.
I have to say I’m not really interested in the politics of it all and, although everything I’ve heard about increasing levels of philanthropy makes me sceptical, in truth I don’t know enough about it to venture a useful opinion.
However, I am interested in that bit about ACE having to ‘encourage the sector to make the most of technological changes’. The implication is that this is something ACE is responsible for, that hasn’t been done correctly or enough and isn’t likely to be at this rate. On balance, I’d probably agree.
What’s been done
The big initiatives that have taken place over the past few years include:
- The Digital Opportunities Programme (2008-11) which was a research exercise that culminated in a series of reports
- The Digital R&D Fund for Arts and Culture which, by and large, is aimed a little further ahead of the curve
- The Space, which I’m trying (and struggling) to keep an open mind on until it launches
- The Building Digital Capacity in the Arts programme which is a deeply unimpressive joint thing with the BBC Academy
In terms of the national stuff, I don’t think much of it has been particularly effective. From what I can make out, the organisations that have done well so far are the ones that:
- have people at the top who are sufficiently engaged with technology and digital media themselves and have been able to pass that on to the workings of their organisations; and/or
- have the means at their disposal to hire good, tech/digitally-savvy people and/or engage decent consultants and agencies (yes, people like me and Made) to get them pointing in the right direction
Everyone else is asked to attend lectures where they’re told that the future is digital and they really should get on and do something about that. Oh, and here’s some (massively oversubscribed) project funding you can apply for.
On that last point, there’s a further problem with doing digital activity on a project-by-project basis. It means that when the project comes to an end, the staff who worked on it then have to leave and take their valuable experience with them. There’s an assumption that doing a digital project will somehow inform and develop the approach of the organisation as a whole. Maybe that’s the case with small organisations, but generally I just don’t think it works like that.
What needs to happen?
Before I start, I realise that I’m mainly looking at things from the admin, marketing, operations and distribution side of things, but then the Digital audiences: Engagement with arts and culture online report from Nov 2010 said (on p7):
One area of investment which can yield clear financial returns is marketing and audience development
and I believe in picking up the easy wins where you can. I imagine someone might have something useful to add about re the cuts to organisations working in digital artforms but I’ll let them do that.
That said, here are some suggestions. Take them, leave them – even better, suggest your own. I have more if you want them.
Idea 1: Lay the foundations
This one’s forehead-smackingly obvious. There are basics that every organisation should have in place. Those should be the priority. Call it the No Organisation Left Behind programme or something but at least get every RFO/NPO up to a basic digital standard.
This is actually the starting point of most of the work I do with organisations because it’s pointless building on weak foundations. It’s pretty satisfying because you know that, in a reasonably short space of time, you’ll leave them stronger and better equipped, both for their general day-to-day work and any individual projects they take on. It’d be entirely possible to roll this out to a few hundred orgs too (yay for having good processes in place).
Idea 2: Find and fix existing problems
My initial disappointment with the Digital R&D Fund mentioned above was that some of the projects seemed to be trying to fix problems that don’t exist. Maybe that was harsh and not the point of the exercise, but I’m convinced there are pressing concerns out there that aren’t being addressed and therefore there’s a gap to be filled.
I know many organisations wrestle with the same problems – be they general difficulties, inefficiencies and/or duplication of effort – but has anyone tried to identify them? It’s actually basic business sense:
- Identify a problem
- Offer a solution
How about surveying RFO/NPO staff to find out the things that drive them up the wall, then putting a call out for digital (or in fact any other) solutions? If there’s a sufficient business case for any of the ideas that are put forward they might not even require funding.
Idea 3: Understand the cost of conferences and seminars
Forget about projecting a #hashtag search onto a screen and project a meeting ticker instead. Then be damn sure that running the event is worth the money. For the record, I’m not sure how serious I am about this one. Maybe it’s just because I felt like I had my time wasted at an event last week.