BLOG 2nd July 2018

How can our Cultural Sector Embrace Digital?

This past March I attended the Westminster Media Forum Event (WMF) Digital transformation in the UK Cultural sector: opportunities, business models and developing new expertise. The WMF is one of sixteen cross-party forums which have their origins in the UK Parliament. Their work extends to policy decided here in the UK in our devolved Parliaments and Assemblies, and further afield in the Oireachtas, and the European Commission and Parliament. None of the forums has a policy agenda of its own, other than simply to raise the quality of debate on public policy developments. Forum conferences are frequently the platform for major policy statements from senior Ministers and regulators, opposition spokespeople and leading opinion-formers in industry and interest groups. This was my first time attending a WMF event and I’m not sure I’ll be at any more but as always it was useful to hear different perspectives and make connections that could benefit the sector here.

The WMF I attended was chaired by Ed Vaizey MP and former DCMS Minister and Rosie Millard, Chair of Hull, City of Culture 2017 and Chair of BBC Children In Need.

A range of speakers spoke on the challenges and opportunities around digital for arts and cultural organisations. Those opportunities ranged from how we operate using cloud-based systems to be more efficient, the content we create using technology, how we distribute that content via digital, and of course, digital marketing.

Culture is Digital Report

The kick-off keynote was by Helen Williams, Head of Digital Culture, DCMS who was discussing the Culture Is Digital report that DCMS had launched the previous week. This is worth a read and I am following up with Helen to see how Northern Ireland can be more involved in the implementation of the report recommendations.

As you might expect, the CEO of The Space Fiona Morris and the Arts Council’s England’s Director of Enterprise and Innovation Francis Runacres, spoke about how digital can help organisations reach new audiences and that for ACE funding, supporting digital development in England is a priority. It was great to hear Fiona talk about the Minecraft project from the Playhouse in Derry but that was a lone appearance from the NI arts scene.


Playcraft-Live-screenshot.png?mtime=20180629135357#asset:956Screenshot from 'Playcraft Live'

The heads of digital from both the National Gallery and The National Theatre brought great case studies to the day and emphasised that even in big cultural institutions the move to embrace digital can be very slow. The National Gallery for example is still using the same ticketing system it has had for 20 years and the desire to introduce dynamic or ‘airline’ pricing has been impacted by the age of the system. But challenges aside it was inspiring to hear how these leading organisations are continuously trying new things to improve what they do, why they do it and who they engage with.

Top Tips for Digital Transformation

It was a day that was very rich in content which I can’t detail here but there were a few things that struck me as pertinent to arts and cultural organisations in NI.

  1. Stop talking about digital. It’s not something new, it’s simply part of what we do every day and should be central to our organisations not an add-on. While I agree with this sentiment the sector here is very far behind most arts organisations in other parts of GB as there has been a lack of strategy and investment in digital transformation.
  2. Skills gaps exist. There is a bit of a generational divide in the sector as a lot of those in senior positions aren’t familiar, comfortable, or skilled in knowing what exactly digital could and should offer. Do we need to try and skill up our leaders and encourage those who have those skills to see the cultural sector as good career option? Who can help with that upskilling?
  3. Give it a go. The speakers all advocated taking a small bit of insight and trying something to see what happens. If it works think about how you can scale it up. Importantly we need space to trial things in this area. It’s fine to say move your accounting to a cloud-based system, but that takes time to research and implement the change. With organisations’ core structures being cut back how can we do this work effectively?
  4. Audiences should be at the heart of what you do. The digital things you want to do must be user centric – simply that’s about thinking what it can do to enhance the audiences experience and/or reach audience you’ve not been able to before. All the case studies on the day talked about the audiences. Don’t do something because it sounds like it could be good. Think about your audiences, get some data and then work out what might enhance their experience with your content.
  5. Leadership is key. Transformation means change and change is very hard especially in challenging times. We need sectoral leadership to deliver a new mind set and develop a path to support the sector in maximising what digital can offer.
  6. Partnerships can help.  We can’t do this on our own. The digital companies who attended the session said they really do want to talk to arts organisations about what their challenges are. They know we don’t have big budgets but what we have that say a bank doesn’t is great content so the digital agencies enjoy working in this sector. We’ve a lot of great digital companies here in NI but we don’t seem to communicate with them well beyond needing a website. Maybe we need to start up informal meet-up between the arts and digital sectors in NI – it couldn’t hurt? Maybe these already happen?

Resources that can help

There were a number of resources mentioned on the day that were new to me and may be of interest.

Art UK  works with the UK’s public art collections to showcase their artworks to the world. The art they put online is for enjoyment, learning and research.

They don’t just supply the platform, they also photograph and digitise art collections, produce stimulating content around the artworks and create opportunities for public participation both online and offline.

There are already over 200,000 artworks on Art UK. Some of which are from NI. The art is from museums, universities, town halls, hospitals and even a lighthouse. Much of the art isn’t usually on display in real life and a high proportion had not been photographed before they started their work in 2003.

art-uk-homepage.jpg?mtime=20180629145028#asset:957Art UK Homepage

Digital theatre is a commercial organisation that offers world-class theatre via streaming on a subscription basis to the education sector. While this may not be for everyone it was interesting to hear a nice but very commercially minded chap talk about how content from live theatre can be monetised to create income revenue.

Embracing digital is vital for cultural organisations

At thrive we are hoping to bring some of these speakers to NI but it’s about more than that. If the NI arts and cultural sector is to try and maintain a place in society we need to start embracing and investing in digital and what it can do across all areas of our organisations. We need to encourage funders to support that too and invest in strategy, skills, capacity, and content. We need to use the data we have and fill the data gaps to make sure we are making decisions based on fact. There’s lots to do but innovation needs to be part of our culture. Audiences are transforming faster than we are, and if we don’t catch up, we’re in trouble.

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I’m happy to follow-up on any aspects of the events over the phone, via email or over a coffee.

Fiona Bell

Chief Executive

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