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The way arts organisations responded to the pandemic offered a glimpse of how they could evolve. But a rush to any ‘return to normal’ risks squandering these lessons, says Ash Mann.

an audience member records a performance


Collaboration and interdisciplinary thinking are at the heart of all successful digital projects. However, the way cultural organisations are traditionally structured does not make it easy to work like this.

Many of the interviews I conducted for the Digital Works podcast during the pandemic identified that a sudden blooming of interdisciplinary working was one of the few benefits of the chaotic atmosphere created by Covid. 

As traditional departments were thrown into disarray by furlough and closure, new organisational structures emerged in response to the increased need to produce a broader and deeper programme of digital content and experiences than ever before.

This made it far easier for organisations to respond rapidly to the new and unique challenges presented by Covid as new project-specific teams were formed, often featuring people who would not usually work alongside one another. 

“Suddenly all those departments had to interact with each other. [...] people absolutely needed to know each other, which never happened before.” Simon Baker (Wise Children) - Digital Works Podcast, Episode 19.

No return to legacy structures

Working in this new, more experimental way became more straightforward because there was no possibility of ‘business as usual’. Venues had to close, administrators and artists were working from home (many for the first time), audiences couldn’t leave the house.

But as in-person audiences and visitors return, the lack of fundamental, structural change to how our cultural organisations are set up means these embryonic ways of working have ceased. People have scrambled to resume working within the legacy structures and expectations that existed prior to 2020.

Research such as the AHRC-funded Digital Access to Arts and Culture Beyond Covid-19 project has shown the snap back to the pre-Covid (mostly non-digital) status quo has been rapid, and pronounced, and as a result the breadth and depth of digital programming on offer has tumbled.

The Arts Marketing Association reports that “people are overstretched, and expectations are particularly high post-pandemic to continue to deliver digital content, as well as ‘getting back to normal’ with in-person events, shows and/or programme”.

New roles with 360-degree remit

Some, more digitally mature organisations have begun to rethink and restructure the departments and roles responsible for digital work. It has been interesting to note the emergence of roles such as Chief Experience Officer – predominantly in larger museums to date - with an expanded ‘360-degree’ remit that encompasses all aspects of the visitor/audience experience (including digital touchpoints).

It has also been encouraging to see the increasing number of product experts in the sector. These roles make a significant contribution to more efficient and effective working practices, focusing on developing effective briefs (for internal teams or external agencies), clearly prioritising work (something many cultural organisations struggle with), and ensuring that impact and outcomes are measured, analysed and acted upon.

In addition to not having the right roles in place, there is an ongoing challenge around the digital literacy of cultural leaders. Organisations such as Culture24 are actively addressing this and there have been numerous other such initiatives such as One by One over the past decade. 

These things matter. They dictate what is, and isn’t, taken seriously in strategic decision-making. They indicate the types of expertise that exist in the upper echelons of an organisation, and they have a very real, tangible impact on how easy it is (or isn’t) for organisations to work on particular types of projects, or in particular areas.

But this is only part of the problem. The way our organisations are designed is as much of a block on progress.

A lack of leadership of digital work

A recent piece of speculative research by Aubrey Bergauer looked to redesign a performing arts organisation for the challenges of 2022 and beyond. I agree with many of her conclusions, not least the overarching observation that in order to succeed, cultural organisations need to radically reshape how they are organised.

At Substrakt, we have recently been involved in a number of projects that are looking to analyse how organisations need to restructure in order to be able to work more effectively (particularly around digital projects). 

This work has identified that at many cultural organisations there is a lack of senior ownership of digital work, and that traditional organisational structures actively work against the interdisciplinary, collaborative working that digital projects require.

Traditional structures result in a lack of oversight and accountability, a lack of clarity, a lack of alignment, and a lack of effectiveness. Organisations are leaving money on the table, frustrating existing audiences, not reaching new audiences, and not exploring new artistic and creative possibilities. 

These projects have also highlighted a significant lack of structure around how digital work is evaluated and prioritised. There is a lack of understanding about ‘what good looks like’ and a lack of clarity about what is (and isn’t) working. It is likely that cultural organisations are going to have to make cutbacks in all aspects of their work, so the need to be clear-eyed about what should be prioritised becomes crucial.

Clearing aligning strategic objectives

In his recent keynote at ICOM 2022 in Prague, Seb Chan (CEO of ACMI) spoke about the need to align choices around technology and partnerships with institutional mission and purpose.

This alignment is just as important when it comes to how decisions are made about what organisations choose to do, and not to do. Clearly aligning the strategic objectives of your institution with the day-to-day decision making, in a way that is coherent and actionable, should make it far more straightforward for overstretched teams to make the right decisions about what they do, and don’t, prioritise to deliver.

The cultural sector is lucky to be full of hard-working, talented people. But they need to be supported with senior expertise and leadership, clear priorities, and the right conditions to be able to do their best work. For those teams to be able to operate most effectively we need to begin to reshape our institutions.

Ash Mann is Managing Director at Substrakt and Strategy Director at Creating Impakt. 
  www.substrakt.com | www.ashmann.medium.com
 @substrakt | @biglittlethings 

This article is part of a series contributed by Substrakt exploring the many ways in which arts and cultural organisations can embrace the world of digital.

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Head and shoulders image of Ash Mann