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If 2020 has given us anything, it’s a recognition that arts organisations need to engage with technology – and that they’re stronger for having it, writes Chris Unitt.

Mentor directing student on code in front of a laptop

This year, arts professionals have been required to demonstrate incredible levels of resourcefulness, flexibility and resilience. Many have had to muddle through, doing their best to achieve new objectives with unfamiliar tools. To a large extent, those tools have been digital. 

The spotlight on arts organisations' digital activity has highlighted some widespread issues. Digital expertise in the sector is limited and underinvestment in basic infrastructure has left many ill-equipped to face the current challenges. Over the years, there have been many digital initiatives focused on innovation, encouraging arts organisations to experiment with tools and techniques that they might not otherwise engage with.

Don't get me wrong: I think it's important for arts organisations to explore the possibilities offered by shiny new things. But when these initiatives are announced they often come with a grumbling undercurrent, with people asking: "Why is it easier for me to get funding for a VR project than a new website, when I know which is actually going to make a difference to us and our audiences?"

Bridge the gap

As it happens, the skills that have been most valuable this year haven't been in cutting edge technologies. Many organisations have been in dire need of the fundamentals:

  1. Strategic skills - with leadership teams able to make good decisions about their digital activity.
  2. Tactical skills - with staff who are able to carry out those decisions effectively.

How well were arts organisations positioned heading into 2020? Unfortunately, the signs weren't good. In fact, Nesta's Digital Culture 2019 report identified a widening skills gap.  

Their survey of 1,134 cultural organisations found "the proportion of all organisations that agree that their senior management are knowledgeable about digital technology has fallen from 22 per cent in 2013 to 13 per cent in 2019". It also found that "in nine out of 11 skills areas, the sector as a whole reports a decline in the perception of being ‘well served’ in 2019 compared to 2013".

Of course, there are areas of excellence across the sector, and a great many capable people. But overall the findings rang true. As of March 2020, precious few organisations had developed meaningful strands of activity that were delivered digitally. Many were more comfortable with producing brochures and leaflets than running digital ads, and their websites, despite being essential tools for serving audiences, didn't pass basic standards of performance, usability and accessibility.

For this skills gap to be bridged, organisations will need good leadership, internal team development and external support. Arts leaders need to understand the evolving digital landscape and identify opportunities for their organisations. This list of digital era competencies is aimed at public servants but it's a good starting point for understanding what will be required.

There are three ways to develop teams and ensure the right skills are available within an organisation:

  • Train existing staff
  • Recruit people with the skills needed (perhaps replacing existing staff)
  • Buy in the necessary skills on a temporary basis

There's no shortage of free and cheap online training available right now. Although it's worth remembering that sitting in front of a webinar isn't always an effective learning method. One of the findings from the National Lottery Heritage Fund's Digital Attitudes and Skills for Heritage survey was that respondents "wanted time to practise digital skills, mentoring from experienced colleagues, and the opportunity to swap skills and collaborate with others”. Projects such as the Digital Heritage Lab are addressing this through a programme of mentoring and networking participants together.

What’s actually needed

There is a role for funders to play. After years of equating digital with innovation, there now seems to be a recognition that the sector will be stronger for having organisations that can manage the fundamentals properly. Initiatives launched over the past couple of years seem to be more grounded in the realities of what cultural organisations actually need.

For instance, Arts Council England's Digital Culture Network is playing an important role in educating and signposting organisations that might not otherwise know where to turn. The National Lottery Heritage Fund's Digital Skills for Heritage initiative is being developed in response to sector feedback and is using a variety of methods to raise standards. 

It's barely been nine months since the cultural sector was turned upside down. Those working within it have had to find new ways to achieve their artistic and social objectives while salvaging what they could of their business models. The digital transformation of our cultural organisations has been accelerated by the need to adapt to this upheaval.

The genie's out of the bottle now. Arts organisations have discovered new ways of working, new partnerships, and new ways to deliver experience to their audiences. If there's a positive to be taken from 2020, perhaps it's that our organisations, and the people working within them, are on the path to becoming more digitally capable and confident.

Chris Unitt is the Founder of digital consultancy One Further
 @ChrisUnitt | @OneFurther

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Chris Unitt