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The greater success of some arts organisations boils down to a few key ingredients. Money isn’t one of them, writes Ash Mann.

Two women sitting at screens facing each other in a Zoom call
Good as New by Peter Hedges, produced by MCC Theater

Of all the many unprecedented things that have happened over the past year, the extent to which digital has shot up the agenda is one of the most interesting and potentially exciting. You may have seen this shift characterised as ‘10 years of progress in 10 months’ – for some organisations that has definitely been the case. Certainly, audience expectations around digital cultural content and experiences have never been higher. It has been fascinating to see organisations capitalise on that shift and begin working in new and different ways. However, that shift has not been universal.

The ingredients for digital success have long underpinned the way I work with organisations. What are the conditions needed for an organisation to identify digital opportunities, capitalise on those opportunities, and create longer term change and progress? Why do some large and resource-rich organisations fail in this area when other much smaller organisations thrive? Through conversations with colleagues across the world, it has become increasingly clear that digitally successful institutions share some common themes and conditions.

Curious and unafraid

The cultural sector is blessed with creative and curious people. However, this doesn’t always translate to institutional culture.

Change is inherent to working in the digital space, and the digital sector thrives on this. But for many people, change can feel threatening. This fear often manifests in the way organisations think about and engage with digital. It surprises me that a sector with creativity at its core, a sector that constantly comes up with new ideas, can be so conservative when it comes to work that is less obviously to do with creation.

The organisations that have engaged with digital most confidently over the past year are those that thrive on change and embrace new ideas across everything they do.

Sense of purpose

If you have a deep understanding of who you are as an organisation, it’s far easier to respond to setbacks or uncertainty with action that feels ‘right’ for your staff, stakeholders and audiences.

Digital should never be the starting point for why you do something. The organisations that utilise digital most effectively are those that aren’t necessarily looking at a digital solution initially. Ankur Bahl, Director of Content and Audiences at Sadler’s Wells, says it quickly became clear that their mission to “make and share dance that inspires the world” could be as effectively delivered in a digital context as in physical spaces. This had obvious relevance and value when those physical spaces could no longer welcome audiences. Having a clearly articulated mission drove digital activity and allowed Sadler’s Wells to experiment with paid digital content when lockdown hit.

Opera North’s Couch to Chorus programme was a similar example of an organisation’s purpose – “create extraordinary experiences every day, using music and opera to entertain, engage, challenge and inspire” – driving their use of digital. The question they asked themselves was not “how can we do stuff on Zoom”. It was “how do we continue to meaningfully engage with people and share the expertise of our company”.

Brand, mission, vision, culture, values, whatever you want to call it: a clearly communicated, deep-rooted sense of purpose anchors the thinking and activity of the most successful and confident cultural organisations.

Ask the right questions

Shifting away from delivering work in physical spaces is challenging. You no longer have control over every aspect of the audience or visitor experience.

Of course, the most successful digital organisations have a deep and nuanced understanding of how digital technologies work. But they also have an equally strong understanding of how to shape audience experiences. Storythings’ Director, Matt Locke, suggests thinking not about the specifics of ‘digital’, but about ‘remote’ vs ‘building-based’ models of delivery.

Digitally successful organisations do not see digital as the answer to everything; they aren’t asking how they can make the most out of TikTok or debating the merits of YouTube over Vimeo. Their questions are about audience, value, mission, or impact. If digital is part of the solution then they engage with that, but it is not assumed that digital is the answer.

Out with the old

The best digital projects transcend traditional organisational structures. Digital isn’t a ‘marketing thing’ or a ‘sales thing’, and the best digital activity in recent months have come from truly collaborative team efforts.

MCC Theater in New York quickly responded to new local restrictions by commissioning a series of benefit readings and one-act plays for digital delivery. They managed to reach thousands of people, including many new audiences, and raise significant amounts through fundraising. The team that delivered this work represented all parts of the organisation, from marketing and sales, through to development, public engagement and education, and artistic workers. They recognised delivering work in a new way depended on harnessing skills from every part of the organisation. They also recognised the skills they were lacking and brought us in to help.

This dynamic of collaboration and partnership working is something that you see time and again with successful digital work.

Get help with the gaps

So much of the digital content we’ve seen this past year has involved organisations working in new ways, from commissioning and curation through to promotion and delivery. There has been a lot of ingenious thinking and admirable experimentation. However, the best work happens when you acknowledge your gaps in knowledge or capacity and fill those gaps with expert support.

If we want to build solutions for the longer term, we must understand what we can do ourselves and what needs expert guidance. So much of what the cultural sector is now prioritising around digital has a well-established ecosystem of artists, technologists, platforms, suppliers, and consultants who are ready to help.

It’s not a revolutionary idea: ask for help and trust the experts.

Literate leadership

Digital literacy is much more discussed among galleries, libraries, archives and museums than in the performing arts.

Research initiatives from the V&A’s Kati Price and National Museum of Wales’ Dafyyd James, the Europeana Foundation, and sector development programmes like One by One have found digital literacy amongst leadership is a key component of digitally confident and successful organisations.

For good or bad, the digital world increasingly shapes our communications, social interactions, politics, and sense of identity. If cultural leaders cannot comprehend and understand these forces, they won’t be able to lead organisations to respond to these shifts in meaningful ways.

I do not think this means leaders necessarily need specialist technical skills or knowledge. But they should be able to understand the potential impacts – and potential threats – that digital presents.

Bridging the divide

Studies from Nesta have shown a pronounced and growing gap between the digital haves and have nots in the UK cultural sector.

While the progress made this year has been admirable and welcome, the organisations unwilling or unable to capitalise on this shift risk creating a two-tiered sector which will negatively impact artists, audiences, freelancers and creatives working in the sector.

None of the attributes I have described here are dependent on financial investment. Institutional culture and attitudes are a far more important element of digitally confident and successful organisations than the amount of money they throw at the problem.

As is so often the case, the real success boils down not to technology or finances, but to people, vision and culture.

Ash Mann is Managing Director at Substrakt, Strategy Director at Creating Impakt and a consultant.

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Head and shoulders image of Ash Mann