A lack of money and staff time are preventing digital progression and confidence in digital skills has stalled, according to a new report on the role of technology in the arts.

Photo of virtual reality headset
The number of arts organisations engaged in complex digital activity has fallen

Arts organisations are becoming less experimental and more focused in their use of digital technology, the findings of the fourth Digital Culture survey run by Arts Council England (ACE) and Nesta suggest.

Although more than half of the 1,424 organisations surveyed now consider digital to be important to their business model, most arts organisations continue to point to limited finances and lack of staff time as barriers to their digital development.

More arts organisations are using the internet and digital technology for revenue generation – such as by selling tickets online or accepting donations – and they are increasingly using technology to enhance audience engagement. But overall they are engaging in fewer ‘digital activities’.

The survey, which asks arts organisations about their use of digital technologies for a range of purposes, found that organisations’ confidence in their digital skills has largely remained static.

Hasan Bakhshi, Executive Director for Creative Economy and Data Analytics at Nesta, welcomed the findings but raised concerns about the decline in experimentation.

“One of the robust findings across all four years is that organisations that experiment with technology are the ones that see the greatest impacts,” he said. “It is of some concern therefore that proportionally fewer organisations this year say they are experimenting with digital technology.”

Longitudinal research

The longitudinal research, which began in 2013, aims to understand the role that digital technology plays in arts and cultural organisations in England and how this has changed over time.

The survey is distributed to organisations that have applied for ACE funding and contacts of the UK’s Museums Accreditation Scheme. This year it was completed by 1,424 organisations, including 394 National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs).

The findings are presented in a report and via an interactive online portal which allows respondents to benchmark themselves against their peers. ACE has also published a series of factsheets on individual artforms, museums and on NPOs.

“Overall, the digital culture study continues to show that the benefits of technology are widely felt in the arts and cultural sector,” says the report.

“There has been a notable positive change in activities related to, and impact felt from, business models and revenue generation. Positive impacts related to audiences are also more widely reported.”

They continue: “Despite this though, many areas have either remained static – such as the use of data or how well-served organisations feel they are for digital skills – or have fallen back – such as the perceived importance of digital for creation and the number of organisations engaging in some more complex digital activity, such as search engine optimisation.”

Digital skills

Responding organisations were positive about how engaging with digital is helping them reach new audiences and engage existing audiences more deeply. 67% said digital helps them boost their public profile, up from 58% in 2013.

Despite this, organisation’s digital skills in relation to areas such as marketing, production and database management have remained largely static.

‘Multimedia and website design skills’ was the only area in which organisations reported a significant drop in confidence, with 50% saying they were well served compared with 57% in 2013.

The report authors speculate that the lack of reported growth in digital skills may not indicate a lack of improvement, but may simply be down to the constantly changing nature of digital technology. “Despite having built up their skills and capabilities, organisations may not therefore feel any better equipped,” they write.

‘Data analysis’ was the only one of 14 skills areas that significantly more organisations feel ‘well served’ in, compared with respondents to the 2013 survey – 34% up from 29%.

However, engagement with most data-led activities was found to have remained stable since 2013, with less than half using data to better understand their audiences.

Commenting on this finding, Francis Runacres, ‎Executive Director of Enterprise and Innovation at ACE, said: “We need to encourage more organisations to make better use of data to understand their audiences better.”

Digital activities

Overall, the number of ‘digital activities’ arts organisations are engaging with has fallen, from an average of 9.2 in 2013 to 7.8 in 2017, with “significant declines in seven of the 23 activity areas monitored,” including email marketing and providing educational content online.

While the proportion publishing content online has fallen, the proportion engaging with paid-for search and online display advertising has increased significantly, from 14% to 33% this year.

Other revenue generating digital activities have also seen an increase in engagement, including selling tickets online, which 52% now do, compared with 45% in 2013, and accepting donations online, which has risen from 35 to 43%.

The survey also reveals that use of social media has now become almost ubiquitous within the sector: 92% of organisations using Facebook and 85% using Twitter. Instagram has also become much more widespread, with 48% using the platform in 2017 compared with 12% in 2013.


The proportion saying they experiment with digital technology fell from 33% in 2014 to 30%, but those that did were more likely to report a positive impact, particularly in creative output and the distribution and exhibition of work.

By contrast, the 27% of organisations that reported low levels of positive impact from using digital undertook fewer digital activities, and were “far less likely” to provide complex digital experiences such as livestreaming.

Organisations that do experiment with digital technologies were more likely to report having senior management who are knowledgeable about digital technologies and more likely to claim digital expertise were spread evenly throughout the organisation.

Gaps and barriers

Much like the findings of the 2015 report, NPOs were found to be more digitally active, have better access to skills, and be more likely to be engaged in research and development than the sectoral overall.

NPOs were also found to experience fewer barriers to engagement with digital. Overall, a lack of money and time remain the most often cited barriers, although the proportion of organisations saying a lack of funding to allocate to digital is a barrier fell from 68% in 2013 to 62% in 2013.

London organisations also remain more engaged with digital work than the rest of the country. They are more likely to engage in more digital activities – although the gap with organisations in other regions has narrowed – and more likely to see digital as important to their overall mission.