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Why digital isn’t enough



Child wearing virtual reality headset looking upwards.

As Covid-19 has pushed culture online, Danielle Child, Karen Gray, Harry Weeks and John Wright examine how arts and cultural organisations have attempted to make the digital more social.

This article was first published in Arts Professional on 26 May 2021.

Many cultural producers in the UK have turned to digital in the face of the on/off closure of physical spaces through various phases and degrees of lockdown. But the shortcomings and limits of digital (over-saturation, lack of access, narrow audience reach and digital fatigue) have become increasingly apparent.

Based on interviews with over 80 cultural producers conducted as part of the Centre for Cultural Value’s research programme into how Covid-19 is shifting and shaping the cultural sector, we trace the adoption of ‘blending’ as a means of offsetting these shortcomings.

Blending

Blending refers to any number of practices which in some way combine the digital (online platforms and tools, including mobile technologies) with in-person or physical provision. It encompasses working practices such as organisations providing on-site workspace for staff without digital access to facilitate their attendance at Zoom meetings.  This in turn alleviates the ‘digital divide’ by introducing a non-digital element.

Blending has also become intrinsic to programming and engagement activities across the sector. For example, one interviewee discussed socially-distanced ‘garden gigs’ that are live-streamed as part of a festival forced online by lockdown. Here blending allows two distinct audiences to engage with the programming.

In theatre, blending has often been tied to performance, with interviewees describing creating podcasts, ‘headphone’ performances, or downloadable stories designed to accompany lockdown walks.

In museums and galleries, blending has proven intrinsic to engagement and outreach work. Activity packs distributed in advance of digital engagement activities develop a greater depth of participation, adding a ‘hands-on’ interactive dimension. They’ve also helped engage audiences who might have been alienated by a purely digital approach.

Making the digital social

Notably, according to our interviewees, the blended activities of museums and galleries have strived for depth rather than breadth of engagement, seeking to build and sustain meaningful relationships with specific and largely local audiences.

Care packages, for example, fulfil institutions’ desires to reach and help vulnerable and in-need communities, usually in the immediate locality of the institution (referred to as the ‘hyper-local’ by one interviewee). One interviewee discussed their ‘creative food provision’ programme, in which recipes were themed and tied into the institution’s (online) artistic programming.

Similar practices are employed by festivals – putting on virtual gigs in support of local food banks for example – and theatres – distributing creative packs to accompany Free School Meals provision.

As these forms suggest, the primary motivation behind blended engagement is audience-focused, driven by social and civic responsibility. Although the social value of culture has long informed activity in the sector, it seems to have been further prioritised through the pandemic.

For some organisations, this engagement has been transformational and signals a realignment of their core function and strategy; while others have built upon and strengthened pre-pandemic activities and partnerships.

Risks and opportunities

As we emerge from the latest phase of lockdown, and ‘normality’ seems more imminent than at any point in the past year, it remains to be seen to what extent blended practices will persist.

Will the new and often vulnerable audiences reached by blended engagement continue to engage with institutions? Even despite the inevitable digital cutbacks that will happen as staff return to their ‘business-as-usual’ roles? Will the social and civic impetus behind blended work prove to be a temporary and pragmatic realignment of core values, or a more lasting change in direction for the sector?

There are indicators from interviewees’ discussions of their planned changes to the uses of physical spaces post-pandemic. These are often aligned with the priorities underpinning their blended engagement.

One museum hopes to build on a move during the pandemic to open one of its spaces to social enterprises (including a surplus food café), while another plans to convert a former café into a civic hub offering resources and amenities of use to the local community.

Theatre workers have, on the other hand, expressed an overwhelming desire to return to pre-pandemic norms at the expense of the adoption of digital or blended forms of delivery. This raises the prospect that the rise of the digital and blending may produce new fissures across the cultural sector, whose distinct priorities and values could diverge further.

Uses of, and attitudes towards, blending have also been influenced by scale. Dependence on the digital (even when blended) has required upskilling and reskilling, and while larger organisations may provide their employees with the necessary equipment and training for this, smaller organisations rely on self-learning and in-kind support between workers. This is not to mention the freelancers that prop up the cultural sector.

There is much to learn about the efficacy and post-pandemic implementation of blended approaches. But the tantalising visions of inclusivity and choice inherent to this way of working are surely too important to ignore as the cultural sector returns to on-site ‘business as usual’.

While the sector begins the process of recovery, blended approaches offer another opportunity to showcase the social value of the arts, and to direct this towards those who need the arts most. As one interviewee put it, ‘we are of more use’ now.

Danielle Child, Karen Gray, Harry Weeks and John Wright are researchers for the Centre for Cultural Value’s research programme.

Danielle Child, Manchester Metropolitan University, Senior Lecturer in Art History
Karen Gray, Centre for Cultural Value, University of Leeds
Harry Weeks, Newcastle University, Lecturer in Art History
John Wright, Centre for Cultural Value, University of Leeds

This work is part of a large-scale research programme examining the impacts of Covid-19 on the cultural sector and implications for policy. The programme is led by the Centre for Cultural Value in collaboration with the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre and The Audience Agency. It is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) through UK Research and Innovation’s Covid-19 rapid rolling call.

Photo: Giu Vicente on Unsplash

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