When seeking to make sense of emerging trends, futurists often look to artists in search of early signals and new practices before they hit the mainstream. Much of the experimental work that arts and cultural organisations support is, by its very nature, forward-looking and concerned with the consequences of social, technological and political change.
Curiously though, the publicly-funded arts and cultural sector itself has generally been characterised by considerable continuity with the past. Arts and cultural organisations have seen nothing comparable to the digital revolutions that have played out in retail, travel or other parts of the creative industries. In the main, business models have not been upended, and technologies have not led to a seismic change in relationships with audiences.
Many of today’s major institutions were around decades ago, operate out of the same or similar buildings and with a recognisable mix of activities. Predictions that live performance would be displaced by digital and that millions would make a living thanks to the ‘long tail’, as platforms like YouTube made it possible for producers to find niche audiences, have not yet materialised.
There are, however, reasons to anticipate a period of greater turbulence. Today, Nesta publishes a rapid horizon scan commissioned by Arts Council England as part of its consultation for their new ten-year strategy to 2030. A primer for arts and cultural organisations rather than a comprehensive evidence review, we look at a number of drivers (with a focus on technology and experimentation) in order to sketch out the changing landscape in broad brush strokes. We have also spoken to a number of experts and practitioners, and invited several of them to respond to the report with their own short provocations for the sector here.
A recurring theme (addressed by Deborah Bull, Pauline Tambling, Jonothan Neelands and Tim Joss in their blogs) is the challenge of reaching a broader cross-section of society in order to sustain the relevance of publicly-funded arts and culture over the long-term. It is widely acknowledged that the UK’s high levels of economic inequality and low social mobility are reflected in the polarisation of audiences for art and culture – meaning that the most privileged are often (although not always) more likely to access the benefits of public spending on the arts. Growing pressures on public finances, driven in part by rising health and social care costs, means that public investment in arts and culture is likely to come under greater scrutiny from governments of all political persuasions in future. A blog from Nesta’s Sam Mitchell looks at what today’s patterns of fragmented engagement in the arts might mean for the sector in the years ahead.
If the prospects for public funding seem uncertain, then globalisation and digitisation could be seen as presenting opportunities for arts and cultural organisations to identify new revenue streams and engage with growing international markets and audiences. In practice, however, it takes time, access to skills, resources (and sometimes scale) to integrate new technologies, broker international relationships and capitalise on digital assets. Nesta’s John Davies looks at the risk of further ‘divergence’ between smaller and larger organisations who may be better placed to commercialise their offers and compete internationally in years to come. Francesca Sanderson meanwhile, looks at how creatives and arts organisations of all sizes could be better positioned to reap the benefits of the economic value they create.
In his provocation, Professor Jonothan Neelands reminds us that that ‘the arts thrive in interesting times’. As institutions and organisations look to adapt to the interesting times ahead, they will need to find creative strategies to diversify business models and cater to the needs of the audiences of the future. This is where public funding plays such a critical part in backing risk-taking and sustaining a wider culture of experimentation - from pragmatic and small-scale tests through to large-scale trials and more formal R&D. Irrespective of their size and offer, those institutions open to experimenting with (and learning from) alternative approaches and new partnerships will be better equipped to thrive, despite the uncertainty and complexity on the horizon.