What should an arts organisation’s website do?

Ash Mann has written a post called ‘Digital’ in the arts where he gets a few things off his chest with regard to arts organisations’ digital activity in general and their websites in particular.

I thought this was well observed:

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.

Uh huh. There’s also the best description of the ubiquitous ‘Support Us’ section I’ve seen to date (not that I agree 100% with it):

a load of tedious information that serves no purpose than to be some sort of odd, permanent funding application

The bulk of the post is about approaches taken to websites. I have to tiptoe a bit here because Ash names a couple of Made Media‘s clients and I have confidentiality agreements to abide by. Still, there’s a whole train of thought set up by this:

What should the website of an arts organisation do? What should it look like? What function should it serve?

You should read the whole post. It doesn’t pretend to offer solutions but it’s one of the better (and impassioned) ‘something must be done’ posts I’ve seen lately.

For my own part, I’m not going to offer any solutions here. I recognise what Ash is talking about, strongly agree with many things and mildly disagree with others. What I’d like to do is pick out a couple of things and layer some further thoughts on top.

Suppose that the website is intended to support the organisation’s offline activities

Firstly, I’d argue that a lot of arts organisations are fairly well-represented by their websites. The sites support messy, real-world organisations that are the result of vision and compromise while constantly being pulled in 101 directions (with the resources to satisfactorily serve about a quarter of those).

They don’t have the luxury of presenting a very clear offer and have to present as much as they can coherently. Part of that involves taking input from people who are very skilled in their areas of expertise but often not so much when it comes to what can be done online.

When Ash complains that:

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

I totally see where he’s coming from, although it might not really be a lack of desire. Who knows? Maybe it is. Thing is, organisations tend to be built for the the creative stuff to happen in the studios, rehearsal rooms and on the stages. Not online. As Ash’s points out, there’s a lack of digital capacity. But then it goes both ways – I know my digital stuff pretty well, I’d be lost trying to run a workshop for schoolkids.

I also think there’s nothing much wrong with trying to reduce a website’s purpose down to ‘selling some products’. I’m full of admiration for the people who are able to take a website design project by the scruff of the neck, deal with internal pressures and avoid design by committee by saying ‘Above everything, our website needs to sell tickets’.

I think there’s an element of comparative advantage that applies here. Of all the functions that an arts organisation’s website could fulfil (and you’ll have to excuse me if my thinking skews towards venues – they account for the majority of my clients), selling tickets is something that can be done vastly better online.

Why not put as much of your budget into doing that one thing excellently (giving a nod to other departments, of course) to increase income and cut operational costs. The resulting (hopefully higher) income can then go into further website enhancements – either to bring in further income or fleshing out the departments that had been deprioritised on the website first time round. Or the money can just be used for supporting the organisation’s core activities.

It’s not the only approach, but when funding is being cut you can see how it might be a compelling one. Related: I’ve argued for digital capital funding before.

Of course, Ash’s point that all this could always be done with more flair and imagination (while preserving usability) still stands.

Suppose that the website is intended to support the organisation’s overall mission

Of course, this applies to the extent that a website is subservient to the offline activities of the organisation. When the whole ‘digital’ thing kicked off it made absolute sense for things to be that way round, and it’ll remain a very important part of what an organisation’s website will do (especially for a venue).

However, I think what Ash is hinting at in places is the potential for an organisation’s digital presence to eclipse the organisation’s ‘traditional’ reach, or achieve the organisation’s overall mission in very different ways.

I think things will evolve that way. That’s something that we’re just starting to see (to greater and lesser extents) from the larger incumbents, with things like BFI Player, NT Live, Walker Art Center, Curzon Home Cinema, The Berliner Philharmoniker’s Digital Concert Hall, Be A Playwright and the like.

Here’s an article that just cropped up in my feed – MoMA Seeks an Audience Beyond Its Walls. Ignore the project itself – it’s the sentiment and overall context that’s starting to prevail. There’s more and more of this stuff about.

The question is how you get to the point where you can dedicate resources to this kind of project. I suspect the majority of organisations are faced with a classic case of The Innovator’s Dilemma:

First published in 1997, Christensen suggests that successful companies can put too much emphasis on customers’ current needs, and fail to adopt new technology or business models that will meet customers’ unstated or future needs; he argues that such companies will eventually fall behind.

Not tackling this is what Ash calls this ‘storing up a whole world of woe for the medium term’. Tied into that is the idea that feisty upstarts who do have their heads wrapped around what can be achieved online will supplant some (or some of the roles of) existing organisations.

Like I say, I’m not offering solutions here (that’s the day job) but it’s a good conversation to have.

Published by Chris Unitt

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

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