Since 2013, Nesta and Arts Council England have collaborated on Digital Culture, a longitudinal study within the arts and culture sector which examines the perceived importance of digital technology, the activities it is being used for, the impacts it is having, and the barriers that are impeding digital aspirations of arts and cultural organisations. In 2019, nearly 1,200 organisations told us about their engagement with digital, allowing us to identify major trends over the past seven years.
Here, we share some of the major findings from the report, along with some discussion points raised at the launch event, which took place in February 2020 at Nesta’s headquarters in London.
Since the survey was first carried out in 2013, the proportion of organisations reporting that digital is important to their business models has grown from 34 per cent to 49 per cent. However, at 49 per cent, they remain in the minority, and only 22 per cent of organisations report that digital technology is making a major positive impact on their revenue and profitability. There are reasons to be positive, as the latter figure has doubled since 2013, but there appears to be plenty of room for further growth in this area.
The evidence suggests that the digital knowledge base of senior arts leaders needs to be significantly developed; in 2013, 22 per cent of respondents felt that their senior management were knowledgeable about digital technology and this figure has dropped to 13 per cent in 2019.
This is reflected in other findings; 11 per cent of respondents agreed that coming up with new digital ideas was a priority for their senior management teams, down from 17 per cent in 2013, and 17 per cent agreed that their senior management teams were more focused on innovation in non-digital areas, up from 12 per cent in 2013. At board level too, a similar picture emerges; 57 per cent of organisations indicate that they don’t have board members who make a significant contribution to their digital strategy, while only 19 per cent report that they do (the latter figure is down from 21 per cent in 2017). The apparent decline in digital expertise at senior levels is a concern, and addressing this issue would appear to be of pressing importance for the sector.
Only 13 per cent of organisations report that they experiment with digital technologies, a decrease from 18 per cent in 2013. Conversely, there has been an increase in organisations who prefer to let others experiment and then adopt the ideas that work best, up from 8 per cent in 2013 to 18 per cent in 2019. Some may argue that this is a smarter way to work and that organisations have adjusted to the realities of experimentation, but there is a sustainable balance to be found to ensure that there are a healthy number of early and late adopters within the sector.
The panel of sector experts discussed how arts and culture professionals can make better use of data, and the challenges unique to this sector when trying to determine what success looks like when evaluating digital activities. How do we benchmark a metric like conversion rates, for example, when the events and experiences that we are marketing are not directly comparable to each other? Rishi Coupland, Head of Data Intelligence at the National Theatre, suggested we might explore measures of success which better reflect the values specific to our sector, rather than importing them from more commercial, metrics-driven sectors such as retail or even the wider creative industries. Gaining confidence and building consensus in this area seems to be a key challenge for the sector moving forward.
A number of threads of the panel conversation also highlighted the growing integration of digital technologies into general working practices. For example, it was posited that the apparent decline in experimentation in digital technology could be symptomatic of a broader retreat from risk given the political climate and the financial realities for a lot of arts and cultural organisations in 2019. This observation is a useful reminder that digital technology cannot, in itself, be the solution to a lot of the structural issues that the sector faces. Panellists Anra Kennedy from Culture24 and Sarah Madden from Arts Council England noted that the digital space is one where organisational values can be amplified but not necessarily created. The consensus was that digital technology provides a useful lens through which an organisation can reflect on its mission and values and it can help it to pursue them in a new way. But it should always be used to support those values, not to drive them.