I’ve been wanting to write something about the digital aspects of how cultural organisations have reacted to the shutdown, but…

Well, firstly, there’s just too much going on. Every ‘what if…’ thought experiment from the past twenty years is currently playing out allatonce. There’s been a flood of helpful and not so helpful prognostications (sometimes they’re one and the same think piece), and I’m wary of adding to the wrong side of that pile.

Plus I have got a toddler, a business, and a personal life to keep up with. 

And anyway, in complicated situations you want to be sure that you’re asking the right questions. So here are some that have been pinging around my brain the past few weeks. Answers to some of them are forming, but I’ll try to keep those out of this for now.

Here we go…

1. With furloughs, layoffs and restricted activity kicking in at cultural orgs, what constitutes an effective skeleton crew when visitors/audiences can (temporarily?) only access them digitally? Or is the cash from the job retention scheme more important than all of that in the very short term?

2. When will more cultural organisations start collaborating (with each other, their communities, or across other sectors) whether formally or informally, rather than competing for attention in an increasingly flooded market? Interesting to see that Manchester and Bristol are ahead of the pack on this.

3. Despite early hopes for the internet being a federated or distributed system, people have tended to congregate around a few key platforms and providers. Will consolidation happen and, if so, in what areas? For instance, there might be room for an orchestra in every city, but when geography is less of an issue, then what happens? What does that mean for smaller orgs?

4. Unbundling has been another key element (think of the revenue-earning bits of local news being picked off by property websites, online classifieds, dating apps, etc). How’s that going to come into it? I’ve never thought it made much sense for hundreds of cultural organisations to toil away on their own rarely-visited educational resources.

5. Is the rush to release free content going to turn out to be a bad idea? After all, it’s generally accepted that discounting tickets should only ever be done with a very specific aim in mind. For what it’s worth, this is the one that I have the most opinions on. The answer is obviously ’it depends’ but within some reasonably knowable criteria.

6. To date, very little digital programming by cultural orgs has been expected to contribute directly to earned revenue (it usually gets a pass as innovation, marketing, or is funded in some way). I’ve long suspected this is why it’s not taken particularly seriously and tends to be a bit flabby. With a lack of business model, is a rush to do more of this stuff going to be a drain on organisations that can no longer subsidise it through other activity?

7. Is the requirement to have an easily deployable ‘shutdown mode’ going to become a standard feature of website briefs?

8. What are the new (or existing but underserved) attention patterns that organisations can/should adapt to? Fewer people are commuting, and nobody has to rush for the last train home. So for live events, what are the good times for communal activities?

9. Similarly, you can play/take liberties with an audience’s attention when they’ve paid money, come to your building, are sat in a dark room, and social pressure is preventing them from getting their phone out. When they’re sat at home on their laptop or mobiles with work, children, or Candy Crush vying for their time, how’s that 4.5 hour performance looking then?

10. Art has often/always been shaped by its canvas (or played against it). What are the emerging formats? Which existing ones translate well digitally, and which don’t? Put another way, if people can’t come to an exhibition, would it still make sense to put paintings on the walls of a gallery and then walk around filming them? What achieves the ‘point’ of an exhibition (insert other analogue presentational format) but uses the affordances of digital media?

11. People complain about live performance not translating to digital (ie screen) media very well. But why is that usually framed as being the fault of digital media, rather than the inability of the thing to adapt from one space to another? I’ll answer this one quickly, because it’s not a particularly new question. The only real faults here are in the facile criticism, and a lack of imagination used when translating something from one setting to another.

12. Again, not a new question, but have some artforms become over-specialised to the extent that they can only thrive in certain conditions (high capacity venues, corporate support, and tonnes of public funding)? Have they been encouraged to become giant pandas (which, don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of) when it’s the foxes that’ll thrive right now?

13. For a simple rule of thumb to use as a guide to which organisations are likely to thrive and which are more struggle, how about seeing how many people in positions of influence are aware and open to digital possibilities, versus those who complain that it’s not the same as the ‘real’ thing?

14. More of a comment than a question (ugh), but this could’ve been consumer VR’s moment.

And the ones that I’m really interested in…

15. Which cultural organisations are going to come out of this situation well? What are their characteristics? What have they been doing over the past few years? What are they doing now? Who are the people responsible for leading and executing on their plans? Were they hired in or trained up?

16. If/when things return to ’normal’ how many organisations will carry on with some/all of what they’ve been doing over the past few weeks?

17. Will that happen before organisations are really forced to consider longer term changes in order to stay operational? And what does ‘operational’ look like then?

Maybe one day I’ll get the time to write some thoughts down on some of these.

(Photo by Clint Patterson on Unsplash)

Update: I had a chat with Ash Mann on the Digital Works podcast about some of the questions above.

Published by Chris Unitt

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