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Exploring risk and enterprise in the arts: An evaluation of the Digital Arts and Culture Accelerator

Following on from the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts, Arts Council England and Nesta commissioned the Digital Arts and Culture Accelerator (DACA) to test whether a now-mainstream business support approach (the accelerator model) could help arts and culture organisations create investment-ready ventures. This meant developing propositions to commercialise digital products and services with the aim of attracting new forms of finance beyond grant funding. In May 2016, nine arts and culture organisations started a bespoke 12-week intensive support programme delivered by The Accelerator Network. We’ve followed the process these organisations went through in previous blogs and project updates.

This week we launch the evaluation report from Tom Fleming Creative Consultancy, which tracks the portfolio of projects through the programme and in the six months after completion.

A new route to investment in the arts?

Overall, the report concludes that the DACA had a significant positive impact on individual participants and, in some instances, on their organisations. While the accelerator approach helped all nine organisations to refine and test their ideas rapidly, the organisations were at different stages on their entrepreneurial journey. This meant the process was more useful for some than for others.

A hurdle that most had to overcome was the need to develop a clear focus on a venture or product, when currently the core aims were geared to nurturing complex ecosystems of activities and relationships. The DACA supported and encouraged each organisation to rapidly test and iterate ventures and propositions, giving a clear indication of their potential for commercial value at an early stage. The evaluation found that all the participants emerged with a higher degree of confidence in developing ideas and in understanding the different types of financial instruments available to support their work.

The report identifies a number of issues that charities, or other forms of ‘not-for-profit’ organisations, might need to work through in developing ideas for investable products or services, these include:

  • How to incentivise and reward employees (or ‘intrapreneurs’) to commercialise and exploit ideas that have grown out of a hitherto not-for-profit organisational ethos. There are various ways to do this, through subsidiaries or share agreements for example, but the culture change that this might require can be daunting.
  • The need to take senior directors and board members on the journey towards the commercial exploitation of ideas or products, particularly when this can sit slightly uncomfortably with the core goals of the organisation. The largest impact occurred where the individuals working on their project had gained the buy-in of their senior management.
  • While the DACA focused specifically on investment readiness, financing solutions can be multi-faceted. A wider set of funding tools could also play a part in the development of new ventures - from crowdfunding to social investment and philanthropy.

Six months is a short window to evaluate the types of impact that an accelerator is aiming to achieve – which might include internal culture change, as well as the investigation and sourcing of additional sources of finance – and there has been progress even since the report was finalised. Two of the projects are in the process of setting up separate subsidiaries or new companies to drive their projects forward. Some have continued to gain external recognition, with the National Holocaust Centre and Museum’s Forever Project Highly Commended in the 2017 Museums + Heritage Innovation award.

Remaining open to new ideas and testing different approaches

The DACA showed that an accelerator approach, when targeted at ventures at the right stage of development, can suit some arts and cultural organisations. An investment-readiness seminar event held at Nesta in May 2017, to reflect on recent business support and resilience initiatives in the arts, including the DACA, concluded thought that a range of new options to support entrepreneurialism should continue to be looked at and tested. This might include a mix of funding and business support from debt financing and loans, through to crowdfunding, mentoring and philanthropy. Accelerators (or pre-accelerators) might be part of this mix, but will only be appropriate for some organisations and will never be the whole solution. The role of the Arts Council and Nesta will be to spot new opportunities when they arise and, as we have tried to do through the DACA, to create the conditions where they can be trailed and tested in a supported and nurturing environment.

Read the full evaluation report by Tom Fleming Creative Consultancy.

Image credit: Flickr CC0 Public Domain


Rachael Bull

Rachael Bull

Rachael Bull

Programme Manager

Rachael was the Programme Manager for Arts & Culture Finance.

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Sam Mitchell

Sam Mitchell

Sam Mitchell

Programme Manager, Digital Arts & Media

Sam Mitchell was a Programme Manager in the Digital Arts & Media team at Nesta

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Paul Glinkowski

Paul is Senior Manager for Arts & Technology at Arts Council England.