Last month, I participated in “Defining the New Normal”, an Arts Summit looking at the challenges faced by those in the arts, culture and heritage industries, with an emphasis on finding funding, especially post-Covid. Speakers and panellists were international experts, and sessions ran throughout the day, and the event was jointly hosted by the National Arts Fundraising School and Fundraising Everywhere.

So, why did I attend, given that I’m not a fundraiser and never will be? Well, I wanted to learn exactly what those challenges were from those who had first-hand experience of them, how they were solving them and where there were gaps in their knowledge.

As someone who wants to work more with the heritage sector, the Arts Summit seemed like the ideal place to network and see if any of my current offerings could be of use, or if I could create new products to help.

To secure funding, as well as completing an application form, organisations need to demonstrate they are actively focusing on certain key areas, such as inclusion and accessibility. Clients may need me to create content that does exactly that.

I wanted to make some good contacts and have a better understanding of the industry’s problems, which I did. I also took copious notes (occupational hazard!) and identified five key areas where the arts and culture sector are struggling.

Five Key Takeaways

Digital Technology is a Double-Edged Sword

When we think of the arts, we think of galleries, museums and theatres – all things which mean leaving the house and attending an event at a specific venue. There is a perception, I think, amongst the general public, that these places are old-fashioned and often formal, even if that’s no longer true.

Pre-Covid, the majority of museums and galleries had a small online presence – a website often not fit for purpose, and an uneven approach to social media. Very few use any kind of multi-media in their venues. The bigger sites, such as the British Museum, do digital really well, but most don’t.

The pandemic and subsequent lockdown caught a lot of organisations off-guard, because they had to quickly come up with ways to continue to engage with visitors and members while their premises were closed. Virtual museum tours have been popular, and some of the ballet companies and orchestras have streamed performances.

Of course, there’s no substitute for an in-person visit, but you can use digital to encourage people to want to come by showing off your collections and the stories behind your site. Offering interactive learning tools when people ARE at the venue can help them visualise what life was like at a particular time, and to put an object into a wider context.

People are going to expect to find your venue online, whether that’s on your own website, on social media or on an aggregate site like Trip Advisor, so you need to make sure you’re properly represented. And be pro-active with using multi-media and technology to aid learning and understanding for visitors. YOU might not be keen on digital, but your visitors are.

Relationships with Donors and Influencers are Vital

Many of the positive stories about coming through the pandemic with the business or venue intact highlighted how good relationships with donors made a big difference to their sustainability. Of course, a lot of these sites already had things in place to ensure regular financial contributions, but some were able to make new appeals to bring money in.

It appears that many arts organisations rely on a core group of regular donors, and the uncertainty of lockdown did lead to some of these people cancelling their subscriptions. However, new donors often appeared to show their support.

Many venues wrote personally to their supporters, asking them how they were doing and also to remind them that they were still there – the direct approach often worked well. Donors want to know what’s in it for them, so venues had to be creative with what they could offer. There was also an acknowledgement that sites need to strengthen their ties with donors in case of another lockdown.

Alongside the more traditional fundraising route of offering subscriptions, member perks and exclusive events for regular donors, there was quite a lot of talk about ‘influencers’, particularly from speaker Usha Menon. I was surprised to hear about influencers in the context of arts and culture, as I’m more used to them in the world of online marketing.

In this context, though, an influencer is not likely to be a reality TV star or the most successful content marketer, but a donor or supporter who has the ear of many other potential supporters, and who can put in a good word for you if you cultivate the relationship in the right way.

These influencers are passionate about the arts, and your site in particular. To get them onside, you need to provide them with outstanding experiences, and their encounters with your online content need to be memorable.

Focus on the people and the personal connection, rather than the organisation, and you will encourage them to be advocates for you. Give them incentives to support your venue and to ask their friends to do the same, whether that’s in-person or online events – preferably exclusive. They need to feel appreciated and motivated to keep on donating.

 Transparency, Value and Unique Story are Key Messages to Communicate

Another thing that came up a lot during the conference was ‘storytelling’, which seems to be a bit of a buzzword at The grey stone front of the Shipley Art Gallery, with three arched doorways and two statues on the roofthe minute. Organisations really struggle to share what makes them unique.

Museums, theatres, galleries and other cultural sites are actually in a really strong position when it comes to communicating what makes them different – apart from anything else, no other venue has the same collections. The site in my local area all have a story about how they were founded and grown, and yours will too.

It will take a bit of time to dig into your own history, but you will quickly find things that make you unique. Look particularly at how you engage with your local community and how your organisation has been part of the area over the years – this will help you connect with potential visitors and donors and show your value.

You need to demonstrate your relevance, and to have a short, punchy mission statement that can be shared on social media, with a longer version to use elsewhere. Arts organisations are used to focusing on themselves as a whole and not as a brand, which is something that’s necessary to succeed with digital. Websites are a key part of this, and can also be difficult.

Another topic was transparency, which is new to me but key for charities, which many arts organisations are. This is about clearly showing where your funding comes from and what you spend it on, as well as who works in your business and who you partner with.

Accessibility and Inclusion are no Longer Just Boxes to Tick off

In many organisations, accessibility is something that they will say they do but without giving much information on how they do it. Wheelchair ramps, disabled toilets and large-print signs are often as far as they go, and they’re generally unchallenged.

Lockdown, however, has shown that accessibility and inclusion need to be at the top of the list when it comes to making improvements to your organisation as well as the building it lives in.

Programmes have gone online quickly, such as live-streamed concerts and performances, and these have given arts venues a wider, even global, reach. However, things like sign language and captions have been an afterthought, which is unacceptable.

Organisations must put access and inclusion first, rather than an obligation that comes at the end of the list. Go beyond the bare minimum of what’s required of you, and come up with creative solutions, and budget for these things from the beginning.

Much as we would like them to, things won’t go back to how they were before, and this should be seen as a positive. The future will involve digital elements of all programmes, and some things will only be presented online. There will also be a hybrid online/in-person way of working for staff, and that’s something to be mindful of too.

Digital inequality, is also a problem. Not everyone in your community has access to electronic devices or the knowledge of how to use them, even though they’re cheaper and more accessible than ever before. Equally, not all employees have the skills to use these devices for their own work, the data bandwidth to access shared resources, or the knowledge of how to deliver programmes digitally, and all of these things need to be taken into consideration.

Being Flexible and Responding Quickly to Change Ensures Survival

The Covid pandemic and the global lockdown took everybody by surprise, but smaller organisations tend to be more resilient and able to pivot quickly because there is less red tape and fewer decision-makers to slow things down. However, they have the challenge of not having the money to keep the lights on (literally) or pay their staff, and there was a bit of doom and gloom from some of the speakers and panellists.

But we MUST be able to think on our feet, and be prepared for another pandemic. If not another lockdown, then perhaps venues are at risk of the fallout from the coming recession – arts and culture are always among the first businesses to suffer.

If nothing else, the lockdown has shown just how important arts and culture are for communities, for learning and play, and for wellbeing. Nobody wants to see their favourite local museum close, and when venues were honest about needing support from members and visitors, most people did what they could.

Organisations also need to be flexible with how they offer things to people – many visitors still aren’t comfortable with coming back to sites, so a digital, hybrid solution is going to be an important part of engaging and communicating with people.

Collaboration is also going to help – don’t regard other venues as competition, but as a potential partner and someone you can learn from. It may seem that the bigger sites have done well with digital because they can afford it, but the truth is that having a bigger budget has simply enabled them to explore the options sooner. Digital is unavoidable, but it is affordable, so be open-minded to its potential.

This blog is based on a podcast episode I recorded for my Time Pieces History Show. You can find the episode and a full transcript here.

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