The Digital R&D Fund for the Arts has resulted in several playful yet valuable collaborations between the arts and technology providers and researchers. Jon Kingsbury describes four projects.

Image of Circus Starr performance
A Circus Starr performance in Stoke

Three years ago Nesta published some ground-breaking research on the National Theatre’s new initiative NT Live that clarified what is meant by innovation in an arts and cultural context. The research found that the live broadcasting of plays in cinemas can extend audience reach dramatically and that audiences in the cinema achieved high levels of emotional engagement with the performance, despite not seeing actors in the flesh. This research set out a rigorous model for more systematic and transparent research and development within the sector and led to the founding of the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts.

It is a £7 million programme created by Arts Council England, the Arts & Humanities Research Council and Nesta to encourage collaboration between arts organisations or arts projects, technology providers and researchers, to enhance audience reach and develop new ways of generating revenue for the sector using digital technology. It was set up in 2012 after a successful pilot which had the same objectives and aims as today’s fund. In the pilot we funded eight projects and the findings from the research undertaken by these projects can be found on our website.

These projects generated substantial evidence and learning material for the arts and culture sector, and proved that the value of risk-taking can outweigh negative feelings around ‘failure’. Paul Gerhardt, author of a series of case studies on the project, suggested: “It is time to stop being anxious and to start being playful, as well as efficient, with the new tools in the toolbox.”

These projects generated substantial evidence and learning material for the arts and culture sector

There are similar Digital R&D pilot funds live in Wales and Scotland.

Fast-forward 18 months and the fund in England has supported 24 different and varied projects to test ideas and questions that could benefit the wider arts and culture sector. More projects will be announced shortly and the progress of those currently running can be viewed on our learning website Native.

I want to highlight a few projects to show how they are using technology to tackle challenges or opportunities that are being questioned or experienced within the sector. They also show the depth and range of projects we are supporting.

Circus Starr, a touring circus which works with local businesses and children, has partnered with communications app developers Therapy Box and North Wales School of Art and Design to create Show And Tell, an interactive ‘Social Story’™ app designed specifically for children on the autistic spectrum, their parents and carers, to enhance their experience of performances and arts events. This project will investigate how digital technologies can assist autistic children by creating visualisations and coping strategies to deal with experiencing the arts. Research has shown that some people with autism have difficulty coping with social interaction and situations that are loud or are different from the usual routine. The theory is that by showing children at home what they are about to experience at a circus, they know what to expect and as such enjoy the event so much more. If it works, one can see how the social story technique can be used by any arts or cultural venue to help attract and support audiences.

Another great example of how technology could reach those that the arts may currently exclude is the project from Extant, Britain's only professional performing arts company of visually impaired people, with technology partner Haunted Pliers and the Open University. Extant’s previous research showed that its immersive theatre experience was engaging for all participants but that there were differences between the sighted, partially sighted and blind visitors’ personal journeys. It will now test the question: how can cultural experiences be created for which it makes no difference whether you are blind or sighted, as everyone would be using all their other senses to engage with what is there?

This project will allow blind and sighted people to engage with an artistic installation based on the 1884 satirical novella ‘Flatland’. Set in complete darkness it will use haptic (touch) devices, as a navigation device to guide people through the installation. With two million people in the UK experiencing serious sight loss, this project hopes to offer arts and cultural organisations a radical new approach to widening engagement through its uses of digital technology and again the knowledge learned could have real impact in influencing others to think about how they connect with those who are visually impaired.

The fund also supports those testing potential ways for the arts to generate income. The Artellite‎ project from, digital agency Snowflake Digital and Kingston University is a great example of this. Artellite will provide a platform that will help artists and galleries develop and evolve their own online presence, with a view to selling art. The initial research has confirmed the vital role galleries play in the commercial success of artists. They are now exploring how galleries, artists and arts organisations can participate in an online community for the benefit of the sector. In keeping with the learning ethos of the fund, Artellite will also produce a guide for artists and galleries on how to manage their brand on social media.

Qualia is another project that could have a great effect on business models for the arts. Cheltenham Festivals‎ has worked with I-Dat and the University of Warwick to create an app for festival-goers which allows audiences to record thoughts and feelings on their experience at events, and organisers to see this feedback as it comes in. It incorporates new ways of gathering, analysing and visualising data from audiences in real time. This includes sentiment analysis, social network feeds, SMS interactions and GPS tracking of app users around the site. We hope that the techniques developed by Qualia can be used by other arts organisations to broaden the conversation around cultural impact and even the programming of live arts events ‘on the fly’ responding to audiences’ appreciation of performances. As incentivisation, Qualia allows users to create their own schedule of events and access detailed information about each event on their phones.

A prototype of the app was trialled at the Cheltenham Literature Festival in October and following adaptations made in response to the feedback, an open source version of Qualia will be available to all in the spring.

Many of our examples are still being developed and tested, and not all of them will succeed in the traditional sense. But we hope that the unique element of the fund – being open with the knowledge created and lessons for the wider benefit of the arts sector – will encourage others to share their experiences with their own digital R&D projects. One day we think that all R&D funding for the arts will follow this model of openness.

Jon Kingsbury is Director for Creative Economy Programmes at Nesta.

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