Arts And Culture In A Digital World

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The worlds of technology and art are colliding.

The recent State of the Art report produced by ‘innovation charity’ Nesta looks into the meeting of art and technology in the UK (including collaborative meet-up groups both on- and offline). It concludes that new technologies, including virtual reality and the internet of things, are leading to ‘radical changes’ in audience conception of art.

It’s an exciting time for the sector. But how can arts and culture organisations capitalise on this influx of digital?

Let’s begin with the impact of technology of arts audiences

Marc Spiegler, the global director of Art Basel, has spoken on how emerging young artists are ‘digital natives’ who have grown up with broadband at their fingertips. This has led young artists to use technology and digital; both in creating their art, and in allowing audiences to experience it. Visitors to the Berlin Biennial, for example, were able to use Oculus Rift to view the work of artist Jon Rafman; while Amelia Ullman’s recent Excellences & Perfections performance took place entirely on Instagram.

Today’s arts audiences are unphased by technology in their art in the way they would have once been; Camile Henrot’s 2013 Venice Biennale piece featured cascading screens of wildly different videos, which Spiegler believes would have “overwhelmed viewers not already accustomed to simultaneously scanning multiple feeds on their phone, tablet, tv and laptop.”

In the UK, Arts Council England has declared that it is committed to “supporting digital change and innovation across the arts and culture sector” with projects such as The Space set up to commission and fund work that “uses technology to help people enjoy the arts.” It’s time for arts and cultural organisations to recognise that if digital is accepted as part of the art experience by their audiences, it can be utilised to engage with them.

Arts and retail

Frances Croxford, product developer at Tate Enterprises, believes that arts and cultural organisations need to get better at recognising and generating value from online cultural retail, especially as public funding for the arts is squeezed, and that there needn’t be a complete separation of culture and commerce.

She has stated that cultural organisations need to respond to the behaviours of today’s audiences and reinvent their offer online, with souvenirs and mementos forming part of the experience of visiting in person or online. As a brand can be expressed through an object, the purchasing of an object can be an online experience in itself: “As anyone who has shopped online knows, it’s not just about the physical store anymore.”

Tim Plyming from Nesta has likewise hailed the value and possibilities of retail within the arts. He believes that retail could pave the way for more active engagement with arts and culture visitors: “What could we send a customer ahead of their visit? How do we engage with the customer after the visit?”

As arts and culture audiences’ connection with brands are often positive ones, with a high degree of trust and appreciation of the brand, Plyming believes that this relationship can be moved in a commercial direction without losing its value for the audience themselves. He points to John Lewis and Currys PC World as examples of brands that have successfully adopted an omni-channel approach and fully understood customer behaviour.

Art via social

Nesta’s State of the Art report, using data from the social platform Meetup, found that social media platforms allowed for collaboration and co-creation, as well as response to user feedback in the creation of art, creating a more personalised experience for audiences. Similarly, Spiegler stated that technology, including social, allows people today to “source endless amounts of material, work across time zones, achieve stunning results without any capital, and promote their work directly to their own generations curators and collectors”.

Frances Croxford, however, has warned of a scattergun approach within arts organisations themselves towards social media platforms, pointing out that organisations often “feel they have to be online on every platform without understanding that you have to have the right thing on the right platform at the right time.”

For an arts organisation looking to streamline their social approach, it makes sense to head for the most visual platforms. The inherently image-led nature of arts and cultural experiences lends itself perfectly to online engagement and shareability. Just one Instagram post of a striking piece or exhibition can do more to encourage prospective visitors than a thousand-word review; simply because the user can see it through the eyes of a fellow visitor.

Spiegler has gone so far as to call the photo-sharing platform the biggest influence on the market today, as it is “perfectly designed to make a gallery’s pieces go viral”.

Practical considerations

Culture 24’s Let’s Get Real action research brings together cultural organisations (including the V&A, the RSC, the Wellcome Collections, and National Museums Wales and Scotland) to help it understand digital change and build digital capacity. In its most recent report, Let’s Get Real 4, it notes the importance of collaborating across organisations to build understanding and best practice around digital. It encourages focus on audience needs rather than organisational needs, and want to see digital embedded across organisations, not within silos.

The report encourages ‘storytelling strategies’, with the audiences put first and public value put before marketing value. In terms of digital and website content, this means instead of continuing in the role of ‘holders of knowledge’, broadcasting to passive audiences, online content-publishing should focus on mediating genuine two-way conversations with audiences.

It states that “For many organisations, this requires not just a shift in online approach but a more fundamental re-evaluation of their public mission and identity.” Meaningful online stories need to reach and engage audiences, which means considering digital not only as a tool that helps us to connect with audiences, but also as a distinct culture within which audiences operate.

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