Is digital technology part of our cultural organisations?

Digital technology in our cultural organisations can stand for many things. From websites to APIs, on-site touch screens to audio guide apps, social media to self-service ticketing stations.

Some of it is bad. I can think of many ‘90s and early ‘00s computer panel installations that add nothing to a gallery experience, as well as many poor websites and apps that either need updating or scrapping.

But there’s plenty of good stuff, too - responsive websites with content, ticketing and social running through them; interactive projects by the Tate that allows visitors to add to the galleries’ content and also to communicate with other visitors.

However, the world of art and cultural organisations hasn’t been particularly good at sharing best practice.

To that end, Arts Council England, the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Nesta have commissioned independent research agency MTM to track the use of digital technology by arts and cultural organisations in England between 2013 and 2015.

The first survey was taken by 891 cultural organisations, giving an insight into activity, barriers and enablers across England.

I’ve been having a look at the resulting report, to see what digital and culture looks like in 2014. Here are some snippets.

An overview

It’s early days, still

Although 73% of organisations regard digital as essential to marketing, only a third see this tech as essential for the creation and distribution of art/culture. 

This suggests that cultural organisations still see digital as a means of drawing attention to a physical, site-specific event, rather than as a tool with which to spread the event itself, or even create new work. 

Despite this obvious ideological change (using digital to create) being more of a slow burner than digital’s adoption for marketing, 60% of organisations do see digital as essential for preserving and archiving. So the change is certainly afoot. 

Furthermore, despite creation with digital being undertaken by the minority, many organisations say they have tried new practices in the last year, with some activities such as live streaming and digital-first content creation having doubled. This indicates adoption is fairly fast-paced. 

Digital is growing audience size, diversity and engagement

35% of organisations claim event attendance has been increased with digital technologies and 51% say that reaching a bigger audience overall has been achieved with digital. 

These new audiences are also more diverse (32%), younger (26%) and more international (33%). Additionally, almost half of all respondents say digital technology is helping them engage with their particular audiences. 

Revenue is hard to come by, but operations increasingly relies on digital

Only 11% of organisations report digital technologies having a major impact on revenues. Revenue, as well as audience development, has been hardest come by within museums. 

This is hardly surprising as live performance such as music and dance, as well as art exhibitions, will have seen a benefit in increased ticketing that is moot for some free entry museums. 

Despite only 11% of organisations increasing their revenue with digital, 31% cite digital as having a big positive impact on operations. So, even is digital doesn’t appear to be affecting the bottom line as much as it could, it is surely playing a part in increasing efficiency in cultural organisations. 

Staffing and expertise are barriers

60% report lack of staff time and funding as digital constraints, with 40% constrained by lack of technical skills in-house. 

A breakdown of the skills shortages reveals that digital adoption is affected as following:

  • 41% lack data analysis skills.
  • 41% lack CRM skills.
  • 40% need further help with software development.
  • 40% find legal and intellectual property issues a barrier to digital activity.
  • 39% cite lack of skills in user interface design.

10% of organisations are streaking ahead

Around 10% of organisations are reaching bigger audiences with digital, generating new revenue streams, and producing experiences that are suffused with digital technology. Outside of this 10%, many organisations are far behind. 

The graphic below shows just how the so-called ‘cultural digerati’ are ahead of the competition. They are more likely to create digital work, use data when creating products, have skills disseminated across the organisation, and report revenue growth from digital. 

Social media has arrived

90% of organisations surveyed were active on social media. When this is compared with the 92% that have their own branded website, it’s obvious that social is pretty much all-pervading. 

Visual arts more likely to create ‘born digital’ work

Organisations that exhibit physical objects are more likely to use digital technologies to produce artwork itself - so-called ‘born digital’ artworks. 64% of visual arts organisations report creation of ‘born digital’ work, compared with, for example, 22% of music organisations. 

Some forms of digital distribution are the reserve of the bigger budget organisations

Smaller organisations (annual revenue under £100,000) are less likely to undertake some more expensive or less-established forms of digital distribution e.g. only 13% of small organisations have live streamed performances, compared to 32% of large organisations.

Conclusion

Although creation and distribution has been improved with digital technologies, revenue growth has yet to be realised. Making money is still difficult and is still easiest for those high profile institutions with the biggest visitor numbers.

However, the biggest organisations do seem to be pushing forward with digital. See my presentation on mobile and the arts for examples of what Tate and others are doing, showing the scope of expertise in the sector.

Over time, smaller organisations will need to garner best practice, as affordably as they can, to try to maximise audiences and revenue.

This new report is a great call to action for many across the industry, who can start to address skills gaps within their organisations. Check out the report here for lots more insightful detail on the state of digital in cultural organisations today.

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Is digital technology part of our cultural organisations?

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