Ash Mann

Sep 25, 2020

3 min read

Cultural sector+digital: After the storm

I was asked to set the scene as part of a session at Leeds Digital Festival. The session looked at the cultural sector’s response to Covid and the digital activity that has formed a key part of that. As part of this presentation I asked a few questions and suggested some priorities for the cultural sector in relation to digital activity. These were meant to act as much as a provocation as anything and are not intended to be a diagnosis of all the sector’s problems in this area. They were:

Know your enemy — ignorance is not an excuse. And online artistic activity did not start in 2020. Digital literacy has not really been a requirement to lead a cultural organisation, I think that has to change.

Collaborate with digital experts — I would like to see far more cross-pollination between ‘traditional’ cultural practices and those artists and experts who are already experienced and operating confidently within a digital space.

Sector infrastructure — funding for digital initiatives over the past 15 years has been at best patchy and at worst muddled, ill-conceived and wasteful. I’d hope to see the organisations focused on funding and supporting the sector making a better job of identifying the core, sector-wide, needs and addressing the capacity gaps around things like artistic development, performance capture, Intellectual Property, contracting, distribution, and commercial models.

Restructure your teams — digital should not sit solely in marketing, it could and should cut across everything you do. Operational structures aren’t sexy but they are vital for success as I’ve previously discussed with the V&A’s Kati Price.

Find, understand and value your digital audience — your digital audience may not be the same as your physical one, they may exist in different locations, have different motivations and needs or respond to different work. Find them, understand them. I think the overwhelming primacy of the ‘in venue’ audience needs to shift.

Understand what success looks like — who do you want to reach with your digital work? How will you judge if it is successful? Is something being seen by 500 highly engaged people more meaningful than cursory attention from 5000? What sort of role does this work play in the artistic, curatorial, engagement and financial models you operate with?

Explore models for monetisation — the time has passed when digital activity can be funded as an afterthought and equally it needs to pay its way, if physical visitors and audiences can’t or won’t return in their pre-Covid numbers for the next 12–18 months, or maybe at all, what gap does revenue from other sources need to fill? And what might those models, micro-payments, subscriptions, memberships, one-off, or otherwise, look like?

You are not Netflix — do not attempt to match the production values of Netflix, whilst the reality is that audience expectations are stratospheric when it comes to digital content you should be able to offer something different in terms of storytelling, form, engagement, emotion and more. MCC Theater’s Artistic Director, Will Cantler had an inspiring perspective on this final point in my conversation with him earlier this year.

The cultural sector has needed to confront the challenge presented by digital for a decade or more. Perhaps 2020 is the tipping point? I certainly hope so.