Venues of the Future: a conversation with Ruth McCullough and Catherine Waddington
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.
Abandon Normal Devices (AND) is a nomadic commissioner, born-digital producer and curators of the biennial AND Festival. With a distinct emphasis on creative enquiry and provocation, AND’s commissions foster a richer and more critical digital culture, offering complex and global perspectives from the worlds of cinema and contemporary art. Audiences around the world and in the UK, are invited to interact with bold ideas, encounter new art-forms and experience art, in the everyday and in unexpected locations.
For over a decade the AND team has been pushing the boundaries of digital work. In this conversation with Ruth and Catherine a few key themes emerged around innovation, finance, the challenges of competing with commercial channels and how difficult it can be to change audience behaviour.
Over the last few years, in the arts sector, the words dynamism and innovation have cropped up a lot. There is a general entreaty to the sector, from funders in particular, to be ‘innovative’ and certainly the pandemic pushed some organisations to experiment in ways they hadn’t before. Ruth is clear that to do real innovation is hard because it takes time and requires resources, alongside an openness to risk and a patience in process. The different structures, systems, economics and/or demands on venues often doesn’t allow for these conditions to enable innovation to flourish. She also recognises that over the past 10+ years, the approach the sector has taken to innovation has been to adopt and map strategies from the technology sector (such as accelerators and incubators), but says that AND have found that this has always been a difficult fit, suggesting that new, more nuanced approaches need to be taken.
Ruth says that more often than not it is in a cross artform scenario where real innovation happens because historically, in the world of performing arts, there has been a tendency towards skeuomorphism, where a physical experience is simply ‘converted’ to a digital one. And of course it is easy to get bogged down in the technical possibilities of digital hybrid work but in many ways working out the technical side of things is the easy part.
Audience motivation & behaviour
If the pandemic taught us anything it was that while a switch to online engagement did result in some new audiences, it was mainly audiences who already engaged physically i.e. our sector’s response to Covid, with a range of online events, workshops and other experiences, did result in engagement from more audiences but it didn’t broaden the type of audiences reached.
Several organisations have experimented with reaching users that are highly engaged online but not necessarily with arts and culture, for example, Birmingham Museum Trust’s involvement with Occupy White Walls or Manchester International Festival’s work within Fortnite Creative, which was also streamed to Twitch. While there is undoubtedly fascinating work being made with these projects, the challenge is maintaining engagement with these audiences for the longer term.
How we tackle the issue of engaging different audiences is an issue many organisations continue to work on, Ruth and Catherine point out that the venue of the future will likely be more of a community venue that has a two way conversation with audiences, so that audiences become a part of it in more of an ingrained way (in this context a community could be defined by either its physical location or some other characteristic). It will be networked into communities and vice versa, which they say holds exciting potential for audiences and access, shifting the dynamic of programming, participation, value, meaning and representation.
The other challenge with reaching new audiences is our collective preference for familiarity. AND has always produced work that aims to challenge and generate discussion and therefore the team are very familiar with working to engage audiences that may be experiencing something new (there are of course groups of people who do look for new experiences but they are the minority). It means that many people tend to stick with what they know and online this can mean the mainstream, commercial channels.
As Ruth and Catherine explain, “There is a language that we have to develop to speak to audiences so they know how to engage and what they get out of engaging with ‘non standard’ experiences. Really people need to feel that it will give them what they want, for example, entertainment, excitement, food for thought and so on, and it needs to not feel intimidating. At AND this is very much about how we describe and present things.” To work successfully it is likely that a venue of the future will need to be similarly straightforward in its language.
You can read all about our other conversations with David Collins (Opera North) 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: firstname.lastname@example.org