Technology has been disrupting the way audiences engage with arts and culture for more than 70 years. From artist Ben Laposky producing one of the first electronic images with his 1952 work ‘Oscillon 40’, to the opening of the Virtual Online Museum of Art in 2020 (more on this later), the collaboration of art and technology has ruffled feathers and pushed boundaries.

Pre-Covid, most arts institutions had a digital presence through websites, online ticket sales and merchandise. Many had started to explore new directions: the Smartify app was launched in 2015, which lets people scan millions of objects in museums, galleries and heritage sites to learn their stories – or discover them from home just as easily. Some organisations were starting to think about how digital could improve accessibility, like the Courtauld’s initiative to digitise two of the world’s largest photography collections – an enormous undertaking spanning several years of effort from a largely volunteer-led team.

And then the pandemic hit. Covid brought digital into sharp focus, accelerated its adoption among groups that would otherwise have resisted for longer, and forced arts organisations to think more boldly about how digital could play a part in their future strategy.

The effect of Covid on the arts

Lockdown shut the doors of galleries, museums, dance studios, theatres and cinemas. With no visitors, followed by severe restrictions on numbers – plus limited world tourism – attendance dropped by 70%1. Reduced takings from admissions and events hit revenues hard: in 2020, the museum sector lost 80% of its annual revenue compared to 20192. And while the Government supplied a £1.57bn Culture Recovery Fund in July 2020, it did not save every venue.

It has been a very challenging time, and the industry has had to find new ways to protect revenue streams. Digital transformation has given institutions a lifeline to boost resilience and support sustainable development.

Four digital routes to a faster post-Covid recovery

1. Using digital to raise revenue

Covid has impacted the economy, GDP and of course the way we spend our money. This now has to be a consideration for the arts in ensuring the ongoing optimisation of their revenue streams.

Entrance fees can only do so much, especially in the face of restricted numbers. It’s important that fees and funding can be bolstered by alternative sources of income. Merchandise is proving to be a key area for digital transformation, with online gift shops having the potential to play a significant role in recouping lost revenue.

In our recent work with the Tate Gallery, we used digital insight into customers’ buying patterns to optimise the purchase journey and improve the overall experience. The changes we implemented led to a 10% increase in sales and lifted the average order value by 8%.

2. Using digital to expand your offering with limited risk

When the future is uncertain, it can be tempting for institutions to play it safe, with commercially viable shows or exhibitions. But this limits the opportunities to display new or challenging work that can provoke opinion, discussion and perhaps even societal change.

Digital technology allows institutions to take calculated risks. Online exhibitions can operate with minimal investment, as there’s no need to package or ship physical works. Data confirms what’s garnering attention, informing strategic decisions. And, with up-to-the-minute audience profiles, organisations can drive highly targeted promotional campaigns with confidence.

3. Using digital to increase footfall

Not all digital is about virtual exhibitions – although more on that later. It can also be instrumental in getting people back into buildings.

A strong online presence generates a buzz about upcoming exhibits through regular blogs, social posts, emails and newsletters. In fact, the value of social media to tell your story, reach a wider audience, encourage repeat visits, monitor opinions and even crowdsource ideas can’t be underestimated – and all can ultimately help bring people through the door.

Once in the building, digital technology can deliver engaging and interactive experiences that connect visitors with objects and their stories. This is exactly what we’re currently working on with London’s Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) on its latest project, V&A East, as it aims to attract the most diverse audience of any national museum.

Of course, while many people love interactive elements, plenty prefer to experience the arts without the use of screens. The important thing is to provide a choice, so every visitor gets a rich experience whether or not they opt into any digital offering.

4. Using digital to reach new audiences

When people can’t get to you, what can you do? The obvious answer is: take your art to them. And many have, with virtual gallery tours, live-streamed theatre shows, podcasts, webinars and videos all giving people access to the arts from the comfort of their own homes. We’ve seen an explosion of this over the last couple of years, and it’s been fundamental to keeping the connection alive with audiences.

However, this is just the start. Digital brings possibilities that go beyond replicating the in-person experience. Virtual shows and exhibits that have been designed around digital can open up important routes to new artists and audiences alike.

The Virtual Online Museum of Art (VOMA) opened its computer-generated doors in 2020 as a direct result of lockdown. It showcases 3D reproductions of art from all over the world, including groups that are traditionally considered to be under-represented. And it gives free access to anyone with an internet connection. You can ‘walk’ around the museum and zoom right up to the exhibits, learning all about them as you go.

Technology also gives arts institutions the chance to work with enthusiasts everywhere. The Courtauld Gallery has an army of remote volunteers transcribing information about its collection of architectural images as they’re digitised. This excellent example of crowdsourcing will not only make the photographs eminently searchable for future audiences, it also develops deeper connections with today’s supporters.

The challenge of digital

For institutions, the challenge is often one of infrastructure and resources. Legacy systems aren’t always equipped to handle new technology or the digitisation of collections. Employees may not have the time or the skills to navigate unfamiliar digital channels. With limited funding, it can be a challenge to know where to invest, especially when there are rapid and constant changes in the landscape. Finding a solution that is scalable, agile and sustainable is key.

Done well, technology opens the door to innovative and inclusive thinking that makes the arts more accessible. Its vital role in nurturing the connection between artists, performers, institutions and audiences means it must be considered for any future strategy. It’s clear that digital is no longer a back-up option, but essential to a successful post-Covid recovery.

1UNESCO 2021 (page 5):
2UNESCO 2021 (page 4):