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Three years of arts, tech and academic partnerships at the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts

After three years of activity between 2012-2015 the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts has drawn to a close. The Fund, a collaborative endeavour established by Arts Council England, the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Nesta, followed a successful year-long pilot in 2011. Overall, 52 separate R&D projects were completed, and the total number of arts and cultural organisations, academic institutions and technology companies directly funded through the programme was 154.

The starting point for the Fund was a shared feeling that the arts could benefit from the sort of structured Research and Development that we take for granted in science and technology, as outlined in the paper 'Not Rocket Science: A Roadmap for Arts and Cultural R&D'. It was felt that cultural institutions, while constantly innovating and developing new approaches to performance and production, lagged in terms of experimenting in their approaches to audience development and business models.

We also felt that more could be done to support valuable collaborations between academic researchers and cultural institutions. This particular challenge was additionally explored by the AHRC’s Knowledge Exchange Hubs for the Creative Economy, which ran in parallel.

This week, the Fund partners have published two evaluation documents looking at the Fund’s performance:

  • An evaluation report by Tom Fleming Creative Consultancy (TFCC) based on a review of documentation on the Fund and a range of interviews conducted with R&D project participants and other stakeholders.
  • A quantitative report by MTM London that uses data from three years of the Digital Culture survey to examine the impact of the Fund on both the cultural institutions involved in the R&D projects and the wider arts and cultural sector.

Evaluating the impact of an initiative like the R&D Fund is challenging - the diversity of the objectives of the different projects, ranging from deeper audience engagement to organisational change - makes it difficult to boil down the Fund’s impact to a single number. For example, how should we aggregate the impact of London Sinfonietta’s iPhone game based on Steve Reich’s Clapping Music (downloaded over 100,000 times since launch) with the Culture Counts, a value measurement platform for the arts by HOME and partners (which is gaining international recognition and now running a large-scale pilot). Another challenge, common to all R&D, is how to evaluate the benefits to the sector of projects that may not have met their original objectives but that robust insights on what organisations should not do.

Impact on Audience Development

The report by TFCC demonstrates that the R&D Fund had a major positive impact on audience development in the sector. In particular, the Fund generated a number of key insights into how digital technology can open up wider access to the arts (and how it cannot).

MTM London’s report also supports this conclusion - the percentage of R&D Fund participants that saw digital as important to ‘distribution and exhibition’ of arts and culture rose from 70% to 83% over the period of their project, whereas for other organisations this figure dropped from 61% to 50%. When the two reports are read together then, it seems as though the Fund made a real difference in how the projects funded approach audience development.

Changes in business models related to technology

The Fund had an additional goal of helping cultural institutions to develop new business models through the use of digital technology. The reports indicate that the impact of the Fund in this area has been more mixed. TFCC’s report finds no evidence of substantive change in this area - any discernible impact there was felt in the enhancement of existing approaches and some limited monetisation of the products and services developed.

This finding is echoed to some degree by MTM London’s report too. At the start of their projects, 26% of Fund participants expected their project to have an impact on their organisations profitability, whereas in the event only 5% of organisations realised this impact. Despite this though, TFCC noted that:

“A small number of arts and cultural organisations took their technology solutions to a stage where additional investment could assist the generation of new business models”
- Tom Fleming Creative Consultancy

Next steps

In a statement responding to the evaluation of the Fund, Arts Council England, the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Nesta together outline a series of ongoing activities in relation to the Digital R&D Fund. In particular, following on directly from this evaluation, Arts Council England and Nesta are piloting an accelerator programme for nine organisations from the R&D Fund - aiming to increase their potential to draw in investment from social and commercial sources.

The evaluation suggests that organisations in receipt of R&D funding through the programme were left more confident, experimental and highly skilled in their use of digital technology as a result. However, it remains to be seen whether this will translate into a longer lived shift in organisational practice - something we hope to revisit in the Digital Culture survey that Arts Council England and Nesta are planning to run again next year.

Author

Sam Mitchell

Sam Mitchell

Sam Mitchell

Programme Manager, Digital Arts & Media

Sam Mitchell is a Programme Manager in the Digital Arts & Media team at Nesta, working across a range of areas such as crowdfunding and business acceleration. Previously he was the R...

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