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Venues of the Future: a conversation with David Collins

11/07/2022 4 minutes read By Kathryn

Venues of the Future (VOTF) is a creative Research and Development project exploring the digital future of cultural organisations. The impact of covid-19 has significantly reshaped the way arts and cultural organisations engage with digital and has reinforced that they are more than just their physical buildings. There is now a huge opportunity to expand these institutions into greater digital spaces. This project will examine what a new ‘hybrid’ model might look like - a venue that embraces the potential of both the physical and the digital space.

As part of this, we’ve been having conversations with folks across the cultural sector to gather initial thoughts, ideas and reactions to the project. Like most projects of this nature we’ll be learning as we go, so we want to bring you on our journey from the very beginning and share the insights we’re getting real time. That way we’ll all have a better chance of knowing what a Venue of the Future could look like.

This is one in a series of posts we’ll be sharing to showcase these conversations.

David Collins is the Executive Director/Deputy CEO of Opera North, having previously fulfilled the role of Director of External Affairs where he led the marketing, box office, communications, digital and development teams. Most recently he has overseen the capital fundraising campaign for Music Works whilst leading on Opera North’s growing digital output, finding new ways to connect with audiences during the COVID pandemic.

Before joining Opera North, David was Head of Marketing at the Royal Shakespeare Company. He is a Board member of Opera Europa, the association of European opera companies, and a Trustee of Pilot Theatre.

In this conversation with David we covered a range of interesting topics, including digital progress, the realities of returning to the pre-pandemic status quo, and the huge opportunities offered by digital from both a production and audience reach point of view.

Digital vs the status quo

While progress has been made when it comes to organisations recognising the value of digital work, the pre-pandemic status quo stuff still comes out on top. David points out that he doesn’t necessarily need to convince people of the importance of digital in the overall mix (unlike in the pre-pandemic era), but when the question is ‘shall we spend money on digital activity OR the same things we were doing before’, it’s the latter that wins.

This is because to an extent (while less so than before) digital is still seen as an add on, a nice-to-have in a lot of leadership teams. Understandably, senior teams seek a lot of certainty that digital work is going to be successful before committing to the investment. The problem is that the level of certainty needed is so high, it’s almost impossible for digital to clear the threshold, which in part is down to the iterative nature of the work itself.

David sees a real opportunity to use digital to fundamentally change how the business of a cultural organisation is run, but is clear that there needs to be “a more fundamental embrace of technology across everything”, not just as a way to share artistic work. He suggests that the sector needs a greater understanding (and use) of data and digital ways of working if these steps are going to be made.

Demonstrating Return on Investment (ROI)

The challenge now is that any digital activity needs to demonstrate a return on investment (if not more). This is problematic because a lot of digital stuff is embryonic and reflective of new thinking. This causes tension when we argue that digital should be its own revenue stream, because it’s so much more difficult to demonstrate the direct monetary value of this work over the short term.

Return to Business as Usual (BAU) is squashing any room for experimentation

The pandemic enabled a test and learn environment because there was no pressure to go about BAU. But the return to normality means that these walls are firmly being put back up, so the room for experimentation is vanishing. Ideas can’t be tested.

Production opportunities

There is a real opportunity to experiment with production and how digital work is made. David talks about the potential for Opera to be created in different, non-traditional production environments like virtual reality. This would mean operating in a greener way while also creating a space to access international Opera talent without people needing to be on-site, in the physical building to watch the performance.

Digital as a route to market for new audiences

If the pandemic has shown anything it’s that digital can enable organisations to reach audiences they otherwise couldn’t (i.e. audiences that wouldn’t come to the physical venue for one reason or another).

This prompted questions around how this might be done more frequently. If digital is a route to market for new audiences, how do we embed this within our regular activity and equally importantly - how do we do this beyond live streaming? As David says, “digital has to be part of our future, but how do we enrich it beyond just pointing cameras at productions on stage”.

You can read all about our other conversations with Ruth McCullough and Catherine Waddington (Abandom Normal Devices) and Cimeon Ellerton-Kay (Social Convention).

And if you'd like to hear more about our VOTF project, have any questions or just fancy a chat, please do drop us a line and we'll be in touch: