AMA Conference and “the digital question” (part 1 of ?)
I’ve been working at Opera North since November 2011. My job, Digital Communications Manager, is a new role within the company which means there is a hell of a lot to do but also that I am allowed to have mildly ridiculous ideas on a semi-regular basis and attempt to see them through.
I am a techie, or a developer, or maybe a ‘digital creative’ (hideous term) albeit with a fair amount of ‘traditional’ marketing experience. I am not, I wouldn’t say, an ‘arts marketer’. However, I gladly ignored this fact and made my way up to Glasgow for the Arts Marketing Association (AMA) Conference this week.
I like conferences, the breakout sessions are usually crap and the keynotes are complete bullshit peddlers but it’s always good to get away from the daily grind and talk to other people similarly revelling in being away from the daily grind in whatever industry it is you’re in (plus there is usually at least 1 good speaker that makes your brain think new things). Also it’s a good chance to see new places, e.g. I’d never been to Glasgow before, now I have.
I didn’t have huge hopes that my breakout experience was going to be hugely challenged, I’d only got at all excited by one session (from a list of about 30) – on Open Data – and the prospect of one of the keynotes talking about ‘digital success’ made my heart sink. Now would probably be a good point to try and excuse, or at least explain, my cynicism. I don’t come from an arts background (lots of my immediate family do, but that’s another story), I have worked for agencies, as a freelancer and for a university in recent years so moving into the arts sector has been a bit of a weird and wonderful experience. I love the atmosphere in arts organisations, the people are great and there is always something interesting or odd going on, however I despair whenever I am dragged into a conversation with anyone with what I’ve come to recognise as ‘digital pretensions (or,often, more accurately, delusions)’.
The arts sector (and I’ve mentioned this before) is almost scarily lagging behind ‘the curve’ when it comes to embracing digital developments (which in this context usually means “stuff that’s happening with the internet”), I think this is relatively easily explained when you look at the problem. Who would be best placed to recognise, understand, explain and apply the latest technological advancements? Technologists, developers etc…essentially digital people. These people are almost entirely absent from the arts sector. They simply don’t exist in a sector that has never really needed them before. Most arts and cultural organisations’ dealings with this type of people are through short-term, project-specific agency relationships where, more often than not, the arts organisation tries to explain what they want (or think they want), hands over some money and sometime later receives what they paid for. These relationships were never intended to build understanding, capacity, knowledge or any of those other intangible but essential and sustainable things – why would they be? The agencies were never going to want to put themselves out of business and the arts organisations really didn’t have the time, money or inclination to even think about things in these terms.
BUT, then digital became important, it became fundamental to the way that people communicate, understand, consume and create. So the arts organisations suddenly had to understand, or at least seem like they were trying to understand. The way in which this process took place to me seems incredibly strange. It seems (and I have only my own perceptions to go on for this, as I say I have no history of working in the arts sector until last year so have very little in the way of facts to go on) that instead of going and trying to find people with the skills to help them make the huge leaps required in the ways that organisations understood, used and worked with technology (and really, change the way that these organisations worked in a fundamental way) they instead established a list of arbitrary ‘must-haves’ (e.g. a website, an e-newsletter, some sort of social media presence, maybe some multimedia content – essentially marketing assets in digital form) – found a bunch of people already working in the arts sector and put them in charge of making these things happen. As a result the management of digital strategy, digital activity and digital development in the arts has been driven and carried out by a group of people who, whilst incredibly enthusiastic, don’t have the fundamental understanding of what they’re doing or the technology they’re working with. For me, and I may be in a minority of 1 on this, to properly use something you simply have to understand it, ESPECIALLY with a vast, unwieldy and complicated field of development such as web-based technological developments (wow, that’s a clunky way of describing things).
I could continue to waffle on about this but I don’t think that’d be very interesting for anyone, I simply wanted to explain why sometimes I seem like a cynical bastard when people in the arts claim to have struck upon some revolutionary digital concept as more often than not when trying to explain themselves they make so many factual errors that it makes the gods of the internet cry big, wet, binary tears of woe. I wanted to get that out there because I think it’s an important bit of context for my views on almost everything to do with the application of ‘digital’ in the arts. Although I do realise that it does make me seem like a bit of a nob (probably).
Oh and I’ll actually write some actual things about the actual conference (and Glasgow, and the weird Dutch, Japanese-concept hotel we stayed in) some time next week.
P.s. I am also aware that I don’t have all the answers, I probably don’t even have one of the answers. I understand that arts organisations are (sometimes) slow, weird, idiosyncratic, stubborn places and that even with the best will in the world perhaps some types of change are almost impossible to accomplish at the pace required, or maybe even at all. I do however think that there are several elephants in the room that need to be roundly pointed at in as loud a way as possible, and that’s what i’m trying, in a small way, to do.