The other day I was asked how the coronavirus pandemic has impacted the business models of UK performing arts organisations.

More specifically (because obvious answer is obvious), has there been an increase in the number of digital initiatives, or have there been other important implications?

I sent back the answer below. It’s not a complete answer, and I was possibly being a bit pessimistic. Still, I thought I may as well put it here.

Here’s what I said…

There’s certainly been an increase in digital initiatives, some better thought through than others, but this comes with all sorts of caveats.

a) A lot of digital activity has been driven by an idea of public service, rather than as a way to generate income. There are some exceptions – but I don’t think any venue-based organisations are succeeding online to such a degree that they’ll want to go 100% digital from this point on. I also think there’s some evidence that the public-serving missions of arts organisations can be an obstacle to fully exploiting revenue-raising possibilities (and whether this is a good or bad thing will be a question of degree and individual philosophy).

b) Performing arts organisations have furloughed, reduced working hours, or made redundant large swathes of staff, meaning that in many cases i) there are fewer people around to work on new solutions proactively, and ii) those remaining are over-worked just trying to maintain buildings and a small level of activity, with little scope for exploiting new avenues.

c) There’s a well-documented lack of digital skills within many organisations, which may mean that opportunities aren’t executed as well as they could be, or aren’t grasped by executive teams and boards in the first place. Add to this that there’s not a lot of funding about for R&D and solutions are needed now – not 12 months down the line.

d) With the financial outlook looking bleak for some time yet, few organisations are looking to place bets on new strands of activity that might not pay off. I know of several who aren’t able to sign off on work by agencies unless there will very definitely be a positive financial return.

e) I think (too?) many organisations are thinking about how they generate activity for their existing audiences (with the aim of keeping top of mind until they can welcome them back into venues), and are failing to think about how they could/should be collaborating with others and developing cross-organisational platforms for presenting work. We’re starting to see some interesting exceptions, but not many. And compare this to companies in the commercial sector who have had to pivot a lot more urgently to stay in business.

(Photo by Masaaki Komori on Unsplash)

Published by Chris Unitt

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