This year has required some serious strategic innovation. The research that’s been undertaken internationally to explore the impact of Covid-19 on the arts has highlighted some very simple themes that will clearly resonate with arts and heritage leaders. Top of the list is that we need to ensure our audiences feel safe, our messaging is both relevant and urgent, and that we put our local community at the heart of our activities. It’s clear that proper integration between face-to-face and digital activity has become essential. Perhaps the no less important elephant in the room is the urgent need to work collectively and urgently to monetize digital content by better understanding what audiences value and will pay for.
Organisational resilience will be vital to make sure that we create effective business models for the future. We need to invest and prepare for possible future pandemic outbreaks and associated periods of inactivity. However, perhaps more importantly, we have a workforce that has been battered both emotionally and financially throughout 2020, through redundancy, furlough and non-stop work to ensure survival. All these things take their toll, with many arts and heritage workers going into the Christmas period exhausted. It will be kindness, support and collaborative work that will see organisations rebuild their spirit in 2021 and fight for the future.
So, what can we learn from the research so far?
1. Relevance and urgency
Many organisations have put frontline support for Covid-19 at the heart of their activities. Of course, this is the right thing to do, and it has the additional benefit of building greater connections between arts organisations and their local communities. These connections will likely inspire different styles of collaboration in future. Be it providing capacity or direct support to foodbanks, offering storage facilities, or supplying scrubs to the NHS, many arts organisations have delivered incredible work on the frontline. This has been valued by local communities, as well as by funders and donors. These frontline programmes will remain an important part of the arts story as we go forward.
2. Safety first
When it comes to marketing and audience development, messaging around safety measures and precautions will be as important as artistic messaging in the coming months. Several studies on audience attitudes, such as the ALVA Attractions Recovery Tracker and Culture Track, have shown that both factors are within an organisation’s power to address and will ensure audiences return more quickly. It is important for safety measures to be established and clearly articulated to increase the pool of people happy to return to cultural venues. The visibility of this sort of activity is also very important. Audiences will need to see evidence of additional cleaning and social distancing precautions if we are to rebuild confidence.
3. Community is central
Support for our communities is a central part of ensuring an organisation’s relevance and needs to be an essential part of our communications messaging. It’s likely that the desire to return to culture will happen ahead of audiences feeling comfortable on public transport, and therefore local arts venues will be more desirable. Similarly, as individuals see working from home as a long-term and normalised state, they may prefer to consume culture locally or virtually. Reports such as After the Interval show that using clear messaging that emphasises this localised perspective across fundraising and marketing will help existing audiences return, as well as being an important part of engaging new donors and audiences.
4. Digital is essential
It is no surprise that digital methods of fundraising, marketing and reaching audiences are more important than ever. This has been evidenced by reports such as Giving from a Distance, which shows the increase in donations made through digital methods, the uptick in audiences accessing content digitally, and in those using digital methods for marketing and engagement.
The challenge for the arts organisation is proper and effective integration of live and digital experiences, as well as seamless assimilation with communications and fundraising strategies.
5. Digital earned income models need development
However, while several pieces of research, including the Audience Outlook Monitor, show that significant numbers of the population are accessing culture digitally, fewer people are willing to pay for it.
Urgent work needs to be done to establish valuable digital offers with viable earned income models across the sector. We need to develop digital models that audiences will truly prize if we are going to protect the sector for the future. This development needs greater understanding and sharing of insight. It remains a pressing consideration for funders that distribute both private or public funds, as the ethical considerations of digital investment are complex when proof of concept (or financial return) is so embryonic.
2021 is likely to demand even more from arts, culture and heritage organisations against an ongoing and uncertain environment. While the emerging themes from research into the impact of Covid-19 might be relatively simple, the implementation of ideas and choices for investment are far from easy. The combination of relevance, community focus and digital investment will require a spirit of bravery, collaboration and resilience. The arts have a role to play in expressing and making sense of the diverse human experience. Our creative work itself will continue to inspire, entertain and inform, and we need to learn from the research to ensure our arts organisations stay strong enough to continue sharing that culture for many years to come.