As with innovation more generally, arts and cultural organisations have a great deal to learn from the successes and failures of others, but for this they need mechanisms through which they can share and tap relevant insights.
Nesta first joined forces in 2011 with Arts Council England and the Arts and Humanities Research Council to build a programme for just this purpose. The Digital R&D Fund for the Arts, since developed into a three-year programme in England and separately piloted in Scotland and Wales, funds arts and cultural organisations who in partnership with technology companies and academic researchers want to test audience engagement or business model propositions involving the innovative use of digital technologies.
Today the partners of the Fund publish a report – Digital Culture: How arts and cultural organisations in England use technology – describing the findings from the first of three annual surveys tracking the use of digital technology by arts and cultural organisations in England.
The surveys will enable individual organisations to map their development against that of their peers and monitor over time the influence that the R&D Fund is having on the wider sector.
Thanks to the 891 arts and cultural organisations who responded this year, we have for the first time a detailed account of how theatres, performance spaces, galleries and museums in England are innovating with new technologies. This evidence challenges preconceived notions about how the public engages with culture and illustrates the potentially vast dividends to be reaped.
The survey finds that while digital technology is permeating all aspects of arts and cultural organisations’ activity, it is most important in relation to their marketing activities: almost three-quarters of respondents across arts and cultural forms now regard digital technologies as essential to their marketing. This is followed by almost 60% who view it as essential for preserving and archiving, and for their operations.
Almost half are creating ‘born digital’ works native to and created for the digital space, and one-third see digital technology as essential for distributing and exhibiting their work. There are significant variations by art and cultural form, however. For example, 64% of visual arts organisations report producing born digital artworks compared with 34% of theatres.
The last year has seen significantly increased adoption, with many organisations undertaking their digital activities for the first time in the 12 months before the survey. Live streaming stands out as one of fastest growing digital activities. Whilst still only 15% are engaging in simulcast or live streaming of performances, more than half say they started doing so in the past year.
Whilst specific technologies will obviously be more relevant to some organisations than others, the research suggests areas for greater experimentation. For example, museums report much lower levels of activity and impact from digital technology, particularly in terms of audience development and revenue generation.
We look at those organisations who judge digital technology to be most important to their different activities (creation, marketing, distribution and exhibition, preserving and archiving, operations and business models). These ‘cultural digirati’ are far more likely to say that digital technologies have had a ‘major impact’ on their ability to fulfil their missions effectively, and they are over three times more likely to say that digital technology has had a major impact on their revenues.
The survey suggests that they are more experimental and more likely to prioritise Research and Development. They are more likely to have created standalone born digital works and to have adapted/re-staged works to have made them suitable for digital consumption. They are also far more likely to have digital expertise distributed across their organisation, and to say that digital technology has had a major impact on their strategy. They place greater value on external sources of technology-related expertise, advice and ideas, including their trustees.
A longitudinal study, the surveys should over time provide us with robust and valuable insights on how and why behaviours like these impact on the performance of arts and cultural organisations.