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Funder Q&A: digital transformation in the arts

Funder Q&A: digital transformation in the arts

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Arts Council England, which invests public money in arts and culture organisations, focused upon digital development among its fundees several years ago. Francis Runacres, executive director of enterprise and innovation, shares the funder’s insights into how to make digital transformation a reality.

Q: Why is improving digital important for the arts sector?

At a basic level, the arts and culture sector is no different from any other sector: digital is a ubiquitous fact of 21st century life that isn’t going to go away, so arts and culture organisations will have to adapt to the digital economy and the consumer behaviours and expectations that flow from it in order to function effectively as businesses and to remain relevant to the public.

Digital technologies have an important role to play across all areas of their work. Digital systems and technologies are essential to the commercial and operations side – from the basic hardware and software, to state-of-the-art box office systems. They have become an integral part of the way that organisations communicate with, distribute their work to, and understand their audiences, through, for example, social media channels and the audience data that such channels provide. They are also an increasingly important component within the creative process, allowing artists and museum curators to extend what they do through, for example, experimentation with emergent technologies such as virtual and augmented reality, or machine learning.

We know from the Digital Culture survey that we have repeated regularly with Nesta since 2013, that there are wide variations in digital literacy and practice within the arts and culture sector. Our aim is to support the digitally advanced organisations – such as the Royal Opera House or the Royal Shakespeare Company – to continue to experiment and to be world-beaters, whilst at the same time supporting the less digitally advanced organisations to develop.

Q: What are the key barriers faced by arts and culture organisations?

The Digital Culture survey consistently shows that the key barriers are lack of funds and lack of staff time. Other major barriers reported consistently include lack of in-house skills and knowledge, lacking a senior manager with a digital remit, slow or limited IT systems and lack of access to suitable expert advice. Lack of confidence and lack of strategy or planning are also reported.

Q: What is Arts Council England doing to support this agenda?

There are a number of ways in which the Arts Council provides funding directly to organisations to support their digital work, through core funding, grants and strategic funds. Beyond direct funding though, the Arts Council has a developmental role to play in supporting cultural organisations of all types and sizes to better understand and benchmark their digital capability and develop appropriate improvement plans.

For example, in the latest funding round for the organisations we support with core funding, all organisations receiving over £250,000 a year are required to have digital policies and plans. As many of these organisations are not used to digital planning, we provide guidance, training and, in some cases, one-to-one support.

“There is no one-size-fits-all approach for how to achieve digital transformation. A programme must be specific to the nature and needs of your organisation”

Our feeling is that discrete digital plans are needed now to support structured development in this area, but we hope that by the next four-year funding period, digital will be more established and strategically embedded and can be integrated as an essential and ubiquitous element of an organisation’s overall business plan, rather than a stand-alone document.

The Arts Council is also leading the delivery of a number commitments listed in the government’s 2018 Culture is Digital policy paper, all of which speak to the aim of helping cultural organisations to better understand and benchmark their digital capability and set plans to improve.

The third commitment is to set up a Digital Culture Network, investing £1.1m over two years to create a network of expertise and best practice. This network is supported by nine tech champions, each with a particular digital specialism – digital marketing, web design, CRM systems, etc – and  their expertise is available to troubleshoot and provide advice to arts organisations across England.

Q: What tips do you have for organisations which are embarking on digital transformation projects?

There is no one-size-fits-all approach for how to achieve digital transformation. A programme of this kind must be specific to the nature and needs of your organisation, its activities and ambitions. It should have senior level buy-in and should engage staff across your organisation.

Digital transformation means changing the culture of an organisation and the results will have an impact on everyone involved, your customers and supporters as well as your team.

It should be rooted in your organisation’s mission. It should consider how digital can help you to achieve your wider objectives and how the unique qualities of your organisation can best be supported by digital technology.

Don’t set digital objectives that are too numerous or wide-ranging to be achievable. Instead, focus on key areas that will enable you to achieve measurable results with a realistic level of resource and an ambition for excellence.

Evaluate what audience and other data is telling you and ensure that your activities and targets are realistic and sustainable and can generate good results for your investment.

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