Building digital capacity for the arts

I attended and spoke at the Arts Council and BBC event to promote their building digital capacity for the arts programme to “support the development of the arts sector’s media production skills by bringing together the BBC Academy’s media and digital experience with the Arts Council’s extensive knowledge of the arts sector.”

It is unequivocally a good thing and it was genuinely encouraging to see both organisations in listening mode.

The programme is still in development and will initially focus on five specific ‘tactics’ sessions on:

· creating system-ready content for IPTV, mobile platforms and applications
· commissioning A/V content
· rights
· digital approaches to raising revenue
· archive material

These will then be followed by further sessions, the focus of which is yet to be agreed.

I was part of the panel looking at “What are the challenges and opportunities in using digital technologies” and talked about this from the perspective of Culture24’s work in doing just that.

The panel was chaired by Will Gompertz with his usual (slightly acerbic) charm and he did it very well. I loved his question to me: ‘What is Culture24, as it seems to keep changing?’ – of course!

Ten years is a long time to have lived online and you have to evolve in order to grow and thrive. This has meant for us a radical journey from being a ‘portal’ (one website), to a publisher (many sites) to a platform for content aggregation and distribution. Where next, I wonder ….

Anyway, the end result I think was a good overview of the issues and questions and you can see it all on the videos here.

I came away with a few key thoughts:

– Everyone is talking about how to use different platforms to reach audiences. Everyone wants to get better at connecting with audiences via online channels. But to do this we must work together more and we need central data sets (in the model of Culture24) to do it properly. It’s not about who gets the credit here for a service, it’s about getting the data to the audiences that want it, in the platforms that they are already using.

– There is now hard evidence of how some institutions have used online tactics to revolutionize their audience attendance, participation and engagement. BUT, there are a lot more venues who are seriously challenged by how to engage with this stuff. They may lack the knowledge to understand how to integrate it strategically, and as a result are lost when deciding which tactical solutions to pursue.

– How we evaluate success and how we define the different forms it takes is a big challenge that needs serious work. Check out the Culture24 led action research project in this area and contact me to if you want to be kept up to date as it progresses.

– One size does not fit all. To actually build capacity in the arts you need to consider the needs of artists, performing arts venues, collection-based organisations, festivals and campaigns separately. The strategy and tactics will be different for each.


Below are my speaker’s notes, most of which I ‘actually’ said:

I was at an event yesterday called “mobile for the cultural sector” (see previous post) and I was struck by the clarity with which the commercial organisations there were able to articulate clearly what they are doing, who (specifically) it is designed for, and what their measure of success is.

I don’t see this kind of clarity when it comes to the core digital offerings of most cultural organisations. There is not the same degree of focus, perhaps because the nature of ‘public funding’ is inherently ‘public’ and for everyone. But this is nonsense! If you try and make one thing for everyone, it usually ends up not really meeting the needs of anyone.

I don’t see the current digital output from the cultural sector as being strategic as it really needs to be in its approach to audience segmentation. The lessons they know so well from the physical spaces (galleries, exhibitions, museums etc), the skills of curation, outreach, education, engagement, don’t seem to be carried over to the online world.

Since October 2010 Culture24 has been leading an action research project called ‘How to evaluate online success’ with a group of 17 big cultural organisations to begin to consider these kind of issues. To look in details at what we are all currently doing on our websites and social media channels and to try and define success and failures. To get real about what is not working – which in honesty is only ever a problem if you are ignoring the things that are not working well and not doing anything about them!

An example of being more specific could be if one of your organisation’s strategic aims is to increase your visitor numbers from the surrounding local community, you could analyse your web output by segmenting your audience in Google Analytics by location.

The project has raised a lot of questions about the differences between making decisions that are based on strategy as opposed to tactics. This means that the questions are not about how to build something mobile, but who are my users and what do they want to do on the move? Quite a different starting point.

So, the big challenge for all institutions (and you could say the Arts Council as well) is “what is their strategy behind digital?” . Specifically who are they trying to reach, what is it they are trying to achieve, what would success look like (so they can tell if it’s working) and then finally, how will it best be delivered (platform, technology, channel, brand, partner etc).

So where I work at Culture24 we have been publishing a mix of editorial, venue info, events and resources into our various channels for nearly ten years. We have a network of over 4,500 venues around the UK who contribute content into our system about their venue, events, exhibitions and resources.

This has created a big database of stuff that can be sliced, packed and shared in a multitude of ways either:
– into our own channels, or
– packaged and shared with others for reuse.

The epiphany came several years ago when we realized the potential for many different reuses and the economy of scale of the kind of centralised infrastructure we have built.

The most significant example of this packaging comes by way of a three year agreement with the BBC to be their ‘official cultural data provider’ of cultural activities in order to support their new ‘Things To Do’ project which will go live in April 2011. We are very excited about this and believe that it will slowly have a big impact on developing reach to audiences for cultural activities once it is live.

You could say we are becoming a platform and in that role face new challenges that come from curating data for sharing. This is difficult stuff and comes with a seemingly invisible set of skills and requirements that you don’t even know you haven’t thought about until you are in it.

We have found that our partners want the bigger picture so being a central system for certain kinds of data (content) is really valuable.

In fact, Culture24 have built what I believe is a necessary piece of the national central cultural digital infrastructure that the sector needs. There are others too: Culturelabel (buying), Culturegrid (collections), not to mention those outside the public sector such as FlickrCommons and GoogleArt.

My last point is about a project we coordinate called Museums at Night, which is a weekend of late night openings that are about doing something different to appeal to audiences who may think museums and galleries are not for them. The thing is that Museums at Night is not a digital project, but it would not be possible to deliver it without the central digital infrastructure that we have.

This means that:
– We use our network of venues to share ideas and resources to help them plan better events
– They use our database to tell us what they are planning
– We use the database to interrogate their plans and package events by audience or theme and pull them out to relevant press and audiences.

The end result in 2010 was more than 85,000 people doing something different with their evening by attending a Museums at Night event, of which 47% had never been to the venue before. The opportunity here is to consider how the infrastructure supports more than the obvious online outputs.

Read the speech by Mark Thompson from the BBC

Read the speech by Alan Davey from ACE