The divide between organisations is big, and it may get larger still.
The largest arts and cultural organisations attract a significantly bigger audience than the rest. As a striking example, the 10 most visited museums and galleries in England, all of which are in London, receive just under half of all recorded visits . Whilst the recorded visits don’t represent the total, the fact that a small number of national museums and galleries attract far higher levels of visiting is not in doubt. The forces of globalisation and digitisation may widen the gap further still.
The world’s population is expanding, it is getting richer and more mobile and, barring geo-political instability, this is likely to continue in the future. This is reflected in international tourism being forecast to increase at the rapid rate of 6.1 per cent a year , providing the opportunity of a diverse and growing market for the UK’s arts and cultural institutions.
At the same time, however, globalisation and economic development are not just creating a bigger market - there’s more competition too. Competition from the growing arts and cultural sectors of countries around the world. Competition from the expanding range of leisure activities online and offline that did not exist when many museums and galleries were established. Competition from countries with, dare one say it, better weather.
In this environment it is very useful to have international recognition and visibility. The world’s arts institutions are global brands. The Tate and National Gallery in London, the Met in New York, the Louvre in Paris, the Prado in Madrid, the Uffizi in Florence, the Smithsonian in Washington. These and a select few others are naturally on the itinerary of tourists across the world. Not only are the world’s tourists coming to them, but the brands are travelling too, with initiatives such as the Guggenheim in Bilbao, the V&A in Shenzhen and the Louvre in Abu Dhabi. Increased tourism created by globalisation is likely to provide these larger institutions with more economic opportunities, opportunities that will be harder for smaller, less visible, institutions off the main tourism trails to access.
Digital is often seen as a great leveller, bypassing the traditional physical distribution channels which conferred fame on a select few and relegated everyone else to relative obscurity. Now, anyone can use technology to market their organisation/work and in principle reach a large audience. Then again, the resulting deluge of people and organisations fighting for attention has made it harder to stand out. People’s expectations of digital experiences are also rising all the time with technological progress. Expectations among the younger generations i.e. future audiences which are typically formed by its sophisticated use in film and games, rather than the limited digital offer of most museums and galleries.
In this, again, more competitive environment, larger cultural organisations have an advantage both in terms of having a critical mass of recognised content, likely to attract a larger audience and the resources to present it effectively.
In the performing arts where, traditionally, visit numbers have been restricted by theatre size there are some notable examples of this. Since 2008 the Berlin Philharmonic orchestra has had a ‘digital concert hall’, which allows users around the world to listen to live and past archive performances. The UK’s National Theatre NT Live has been streaming live performances to cinemas around the world since 2009 attracting an audience of millions . As a world famous orchestra and theatre respectively it is much easier for these organisations both to raise capital to invest in and to maintain this kind of operation. Realising the potential of digital activities also benefits from access to specialised technical skills which are easier for organisations located in larger urban areas to access.
These trends reinforce each other and present a risk of the more visible, larger national organisations attracting ever larger audiences both online and physically, relative to smaller ones, thus exacerbating existing divergence within the arts and cultural sector. This is not to suggest that smaller arts and cultural organisations cannot reach international audiences: examples such as the Hofesh Shechter dance company and 1927 theatre company show that they can. Digital technology can also, as shown by the Zabludowicz Collection’s recent conversion of a comparatively small rooms into a dedicated virtual reality space, deliver experiences that transcend the size of the physical space.
Neither are we saying that large organisations have it easy. Bigger institutions face challenges too from dealing with high volumes of visitors and the maintenance of their complicated buildings and collections. Also, size makes agility more of a challenge and visibility brings increased media scrutiny of controversial decisions, such as the Met’s abolition of free entry for non-residents of New York state and the consequent identity checks. A greater commercial ability to raise money may lead to a reduction in public funding, whilst at the same time large collections confer wider public responsibilities such as the critical goal of improving access to national collections around the country .
Many will anyway argue that all of the above misses the point. Smaller arts and cultural organisations, mostly, are not about attaining the heights of international artistic excellence, reaching huge global audiences, cultivating a ‘brand’, or commercialising their offer to maximise revenue. They offer accessible arts and culture for local communities. They connect places to their past in a way that’s impossible for national organisations. They foster new talent, rather than celebrating artists successful hundreds of years ago. This only highlights what is at stake, as digitisation and globalisation have the potential to compound ‘winners’ bias’ and put the vital work of smaller organisations at risk. The divide between organisations is big, and it may get larger still.
1 Calculation based on data from Visit England (2016) ‘Visitor Attraction Trends in England 2016.’
2 Deloitte and Oxford Economics (2013) ’Tourism: jobs and growth.’ Deloitte.
3 Bakhshi, H. and Whitby, A. (2014), ‘Estimating the Impact of Live Simulcast on Theatre Attendance: An Application to London’s National Theatre’, Nesta.
4 Mendoza, N. (2017), ‘The museums review’, working in partnership on collections, DCMS.