Has the Arts Council done enough to push technology and digital media?

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:

There have been regional efforts over the years too, including AmbITion England, Melt, the DCD Programme, ad-hoc efforts by audience development agencies and various other things.

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
  • Profit!

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.

Published by Chris Unitt

I work at One Further, doing digital projects with cultural organisations. Follow @ChrisUnitt or find me on LinkedIn.

6 replies on “Has the Arts Council done enough to push technology and digital media?”

  1. Totally agree Chris, however it seems that there is a greater emphasis on being seen to “be digital” then there is on actually applying any of the things that are discussed. There also seems to be an unhealthy obsession with certain things/initiatives that are already defunct in the wider ‘digital environment’ (aka the real world) or failing that a concerted, relentless and almost inexplicable desire to reinvent the wheel on an alarmingly regular basis. There also seems to be next to no focus on anything even approaching best practise.

    As you say, focus on the quick wins, the low-hanging fruit, whatever you want to call it. Do the basics well, get something like a solid, sustainable grounding and work from there!

  2. Thanks, Ash, I appreciate the comment. I’ve been going back through your blog and it seems we agree on a few more things besides. Congrats on the new job too, that could be a lot of fun!

    A couple of further thoughts – I wonder to what extent the audience development agencies have been best placed to do this kind of work with their members.

    Also, this is off on a slight tangent, but I wonder how many arts marketers would recognise themselves as working within ecommerce, especially bearing in mind the percentage of ticket sales that have shifted online. I wonder whether that kind of framing would make any difference (other than to the kinds of conferences people might attend).

  3. an interesting point, I’ve been following the #GoogleArts session this morning and the things that people are finding revelatory is worrying, the fact that people don’t know anything about things like search volumes, various Google tools, how quickly users make decisions etc on your site – and the factors that effect this would all see you sacked in any other ecommerce job (in fact, you would never have been hired in the first place!). Whilst it might be boring and ‘commercial’ to have detailed knowledge about the things that effect your conversion funnel (etc), surely the commercial aspect is a key element of so many arts companies websites?

  4. I think you’re spot on Chris.

    I’ve found it all very confusing.

    I used to work for ACE’s national office, and in 2006 drafted a proposal for a ‘digital distribution plan for the arts’ that got no further once they made us all redundant.

    And, as I recall, my bright idea was that RFOs should simply be asked, as a start, to think about what digital might mean for them – and to then think about what very basic toolkits they might use (ie Laying the Foundations). What’s come since – lectures from the BBC and all – is that it’s top down, and seems very dismissive of what some arts organisations were already doing (yes, including my own).

    Around the Digital r&d fund there was a lot of talk about them wanting ‘game changing’ proposals, which I thought was a bit nuts, because it’s Facebook, Google, Twitter..etc..that are the game changers, and what the focus could rather be on how to utilise those tools. There seems a reluctance to learn from how we (audiences) already are ‘digital’. I gave a presentation to ACE people once that said how we saw our site as something people might engage with as part of their general digital diet, alongside guardian.org..johnlewis.com..amazon.. They looked a bit blankly at me.

    I know there’s a lot of good stuff that’s happening through their funding, but there’s some unutterable bollocks too.

  5. Hi Gary, cheers for chipping in. Do you happen to know who’s leading/guiding things at a national level these days? I wasn’t entirely convinced by Lyn Gardner’s suggestion that Liz Forgan’s presence on the Scott Trust board necessarily translates into a strong grasp on matters digital.

    Your point about focussing on how people use the tools that are available is interesting. Working as the content/training/consultancy guy at a web design agency, I know that it’s a much harder sell to make. With an app/website/whatever people feel happier to be feel like they’ve paying for a tangible thing.

    That said, I do think there’s scope for building new infrastructure/platforms/what have you. It’ll be interesting to see what comes of those R&D projects and I’m sure I heard

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