One in ten arts organisations is now reporting ‘a major positive impact on revenues’ from their digital activities, while a third claim that digital technology is essential to their creative work.

Man crouches with a video camera
Digital development fund project by Sheffield Doc/Fest and Blast Theory

A three-year study of how arts and cultural organisations are using new technologies has revealed that up to a half of all organisations are finding that their digital investment is having a ‘major positive impact’ on their audience development, creative output and operating efficiency, and just over one in ten are generating significant revenues from their digital activities. Digital technology is being used in all aspects of their work, but is most extensively used in relation to marketing where it is being effective at helping organisations to grow their audiences, reach new audiences and engage with them more extensively.

These findings have emerged from a research programme co-commissioned by Arts Council England, Nesta and Arts and Humanities Research Council to explore the impact of technology adoption on organisations. The survey consulted with nearly 900 organisations from across the arts and culture sector in England and this first stage of a longitudinal study is reported in Digital Culture: How arts and cultural organisations in England use technology. The findings provide a baseline against which the impact of the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts on the organisations it funds will be measured over the next two years. To date the fund has supported 24 projects involving collaborations between arts organisations, technology providers and researchers who want to use digital technology for audience development or to develop new business models for the arts sector.

The research report covers both the arts and museum sectors, and on the whole, arts organisations are found to have considerably more digital expertise and engagement than their counterparts in museums. Nonetheless, the report pinpoints some key barriers to using digital technology in the arts, with lack of resources in terms of internal budgets, staff time, and external funding top of the list. Skills shortages are holding some organisations back, with the most significant skills gaps being in data analysis, database management and software development. But almost a quarter cite a lack of understanding of what digital can do as a barrier and 9% report that digital is not valued in their organisations. In terms of expertise, the research has exposed wide variation across organisations. Digital knowledge and expertise is clearly lacking in many organisations, both at senior level and across the organisation. Almost a third of organisations reported that most of their senior management are not that knowledgeable about digital.

The 10% of arts organisations that value digital technologies most highly are enjoying the larger digital audiences and making greater financial returns than everyone else. This “cultural digirati”, which includes organisations of different sizes across a range of artforms and regions, is most likely to use a wide range of resources for advice and expertise, to embed digital skills across their whole organisation, and to be open to experimentation – an approach which is putting them in the best position to take advantage of opportunities to develop their products, improve their efficiency and generate revenues.

Commenting on the report, Hasan Bakhshi, Director for Creative Economy, Policy and Research, at Nesta, said: “Digital technologies are disrupting how we work, learn and socialise, but there remains little evidence on how they are affecting the arts and culture sector. For the first time we have a detailed account of how theatres, performance spaces, galleries and museums in England are innovating with new technologies.  This evidence challenges preconceived notions about how the public engage with culture and illustrates the potentially vast dividends still to be reaped.”

Liz Hill