How can public money work to equip our arts sector with the tools to participate in the economic benefits they generate?
Ten years ago, your experience of culture tended to be quite self-contained, discrete. An evening at the opera, an outdoor arts festival, a trip out to the Gulbenkian whilst visiting friends in Lisbon.
Reading or listening to music on the move was as much as it penetrated into your everyday life (and 20 years ago that would have been limited to the specific book or minidiscs - remember those? - lurking in the depths of your bag). You might go to the theatre, piqued by a review in the local paper, or on the radio, visit a museum with school; buy a programme or some postcards as a physical touchstone to the experience. Recommend to friends, when you saw them. If you were an early adopter, you had a smartphone and took photos, then posted them so people could share the experience in real-time. If you were a musician, you might have started building a presence online, and felt liberated by the prospect of a disintermediated future as an artist.
Now you can watch a Facebook live broadcast from your favourite tech museum in Korea on the bus home to Leyton; watch Benedict Cumberbatch’s sweat dripping onto the London stage live from your seat at the Vue in Hull; explore the permanent collection of the Met from a tepid bath on the Isle of Wight. Culture is stepping boldly outside its boundary walls, whether the hallowed atria of the traditional institutions or the (less-traditional) canvas of a big top underneath the Brooklyn Bridge.
In ten years’ time, when you wake up in the morning, you might choose between whether your operating system speaks to you in the style of Kingsley Amis or Irvine Welsh. You might have downloaded an algorithm that uses historical biodata to decide whether Glenn Gould’s performance of the Goldberg Variations or Kermit Ruffins live at Vaughan's will be more likely to boost your mood based on the diction in your messages over the last 12 hours. You may hold meetings in a virtual location which is decorated differently according to the design preferences of each attendee; you may be able to pick which recent Parsons School graduate dresses your avatar in this space, and which famous actor is behind the bar to welcome your guests. You might need to increase your tango classes to every evening, to relieve your increasing hyper-connected isolation with the warm touch of an actual, physical human. (This might even be paid for by your local health commissioner in recognition of the long-term benefits for your mental and physical health.)
How much of the fees you pay for all of this (whether directly through cash or indirectly through advertising exposure) will go to the creatives behind your experiences?
How will the money flow between the taxpayer, the audience, the interface or platform and the creator?
In an environment of increasing focus on impact, investors and philanthropists may be hard-pressed to determine the ‘success’ of their interventions. Arts and culture organisations, typically constituted as charities, are likely to face structural barriers to accessing the risk capital to enable them to invest in the opportunities (and the returns) presented by the digital economy. How can public money work to equip our arts sector with the tools to participate in the economic benefits they generate?
The well-recognised gentrification cycle - in which artists breach the frontier of a disaffected area and beautify it, populate it, breathe life into it; attract visitors, residents, businesses and investment, and then inevitably get priced out of their rented space - is a neat illustration of how the arts sector can end up with the crumbs of the cake they baked. And then there’s the ongoing disruption of the music industry, in which platforms and conglomerates have squeezed artists’ shares: will this continue to the point of strangulation, or can the creatives stage a reversal, itself powered by new applications of technology?
The arts sector is creative by definition. Technology gives artists the opportunity to embrace the ancient patronage model whilst retaining creative control. Some arts organisations are generating increasingly large revenues by broadcasting live performances globally. This is the new cake, and the arts and culture sector needs rapidly to work out ingenious ways to capture the lion's share, or someone else will eat it.