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Digital champions have a way of making the analogue world seem not just out of date, but those living in it to be dinosaurs, facing extinction.

Listening to representatives from ACE, Nesta and the AHRC discussing their joint Digital R&D Fund for Arts and Culture was fascinating from this perspective. The underlying message was very much about the need for arts organisations to get up to technological speed, to improve their performance on digital basics – like fit for purpose websites with content that can be used within a wider web context. According to a recent ACE survey, only 4% of current RFOs have high quality digital content as a destination in its own right.

But the aim of the fund is to future-think, to invest in digital innovation for the arts that doesn’t just make them fit for the present, but for the future – which is apparently a future that includes Smart TV and all sorts of other things I’d never heard of before today (thanks www.digitaltheatre.com).

£500k is available within six themes for research and development projects that will test a digital-type proposition for arts organisations in partnership with a technology company. This aim is to fund proposals that:

  • Generates new knowledge of use to the sector.
  • Has the potential to test a new business model/s.
  • Will generate new audiences for the arts.
  • May create new income streams.

Nesta insists on rigorous research and will supply research expertise to successful projects. This is a critical point in terms of realistic product creation, but also sends the message to technology companies that this is not simply a source of free public money. It also sends a message to arts organisations that this is not free public money for making art either.

What will be funded and what will the research outcomes be? It will be interesting to find out.  It’s a small amount of cash that will be spread between 5 – 10 projects.

There’s also a fast turnaround. Projects need to start this October and the research finish in October 2012. That leaves a small application window, a large amount of work to find a suitable partner, define a project and make the application, with pretty low odds on being successful. I also wonder how well it fits with commercial business models, who in times of recession cut back on R&D and concentrate on bringing business in, delivering to contract and banging out the invoice.

It seems to me that it might be most suitable for infrastructure agencies, those who work with arts organisations in a supportive role. Where the core business is about developing knowledge and systems that they cascade out to the wider sector. Audience development orgs perhaps, who’ve had their RFO money cut? Engagement and education organisations maybe?

But ACE is shortly to announce the details of a new 4 year £20m digital development fund, with similar aims but also including capacity building around digital stuff. If I was an arts organisation, I think I’d be inclined to wait for this one to come online. But then, I do have dinosaur tendencies.

More info on Nesta website here.

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3 thoughts on “Nesta R&D Digital Fund for the Arts

  1. But never forget that technology is only a tool to be harnessed. Bad ideas are not made better by technology – look at all the crap (underused) mobile phone apps and unvisited websites.

    In my opinion, this fund is a great resource for people (and I stress that people rather than insitutions) who have frameworks in place to enable collaborative development of well-honed ideas about how to facilitiate and enable engagement and participation amongst their immediate and extended communities of interest, in which technology can be identified as a core delivery platform. However, given the on-going cost of digital development, entering the field should not be taken lightly!

  2. Su – you make very good points as always. One of the questions I wanted to make sense of, and get some examples for, was in what ways are arts organisations expected to make use of digital technology to deliver their mission, particularly where digital is not core to what the organisation does? Another question was about the cost of doing this.

    As you point out, technology changes so fast that websites that were carefully thought through and expensive when they were made can now seem out of date and possibly not fit-for-purpose. Constant updating and engaging digitally does not come cheap.

    The response to my questions were vague but suggested that ACE considers a whole range of solutions as viable, from the relatively simple re-thinking of web content and re-contextualising what appears on the digital interface (which though time consuming does not have to be massively expensive), to technological bells and whistles that goes way beyond the marketing budget to the core of how an organisation operates and/or reaches out for new audiences.

    For techie people it all seems very obvious, and very easy. It’s a way of thinking for them. For myself – a techological ‘late adopter’ – getting my head around this stuff – just the options available – and staying aware of major developments, is hard work – and it isn’t an area I’m particularly interested in.

    There are probably many other people in the arts in a similar position, and probably asking similar questions. I suspect that much of that £20m fund will be spent on trying to find the answers, with “digital trainers” in great demand!

    • Points taken – but because of the ACE Key Performance Indicator pertaining to extending digital reach, everyone will have to show a strategy to measure this factor. But just like websites only draw traffic because you spend a lot of concerted and sophisticated time drawing folk too them, R&D – whether digital or otherwise – needs constant attention and serious and on-going budget allocations. The digital world doesn’t charge out at ‘non-profit’ rates – and neither should they – so the proviso inherent in the NESTA/ACE framework that collaboration – and matching with other sources – is vital. The visual arts is less easy and familiar with true open-ended collaboration so here’s an opportunity to try.

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