Where eager sun-worshippers chase the last rays of the summer solstice in a parallel life, we’re instead faced with an elapsed first half of 2021 played out in fast-forward. Snatching glimpses of familiar frames, deprived of full immersion or enjoyment, and now we’ve reached a pause in the tape. Stop. Eject. Check the cassette. Blow on it a little. Insert once again. Hit play. See what the second half holds.
90s revival analogies aside, the pandemic has been beyond challenging, and the question to ask now isn’t “What happened?”, but “What’s going to happen next?”.
We have a chance to pause and reflect on what this means for the arts and cultural sector, for there is no longer a ‘normal’ to return to. Institutions and organisations need to think strategically, collaboratively, and in the long-term – we’ve had our time for reaction, now is the time for response.
Our clients are increasingly turning to us to help figure out how they can actively meet their strategic objectives, all the while becoming increasingly inclusive, accessible, and representational of the communities aimed to serve in the post-pandemic 21st century.
The answer to this begins at the intersection between market need and an organisation’s own ability to innovate and develop its own offer. Our gaze and vision in the cultural sector needs to shift to be more than just product-oriented, it needs to embrace the visitor-centric.
A small digression to set the scene, if you will: Like with AI or new technologies, organisations are only as ‘good’ as their creators and, as with attempting to solve any problem, asking the right question to begin with is crucial to address the right need.
In the private sector, particularly in Product Development, a Product Owner’s biggest fear is failing because the wrong problem was ‘solved’, as opposed to not quite getting the right solution to the right problem. Think Thomas Edison and his 1,000 ways to not make a lightbulb – but he sure knew he wanted to make a lightbulb.
In Edison’s scenario, a product ‘fails’ because the sum of its parts do not quite fit but the circuit board is on the right chip. Finding yourself in the former situation, however, is considerably more perilous: it means that you’re building a chip not knowing you need copper.
The consequences of not identifying, let alone addressing, your key question are damaging and costly to your organisation.
This highlights two main components that we take into account as we help our clients adapt, evolve, and reshape themselves: first is understanding that the need to take a user-first focus is essential – to create spaces and safe fora where new audiences feel seen, heard and welcomed. Second is the need to find innovative pathways so that the framework upon which institutions and organisations exist can pivot nimbly.
Maybe it also needs to be said: innovation is a mindset. It’s not the application of one given solution as a silver bullet; it’s the constant quest to answer the right question and to keep asking ‘why?’. A cultural institution will always have multiple stakeholders to answer to and it will pull its decision-makers in as many directions, but there are ways in which an organisation can innovate sustainably.
Beyond that, being innovative, equitable, and accessible is not a ‘nice-to-have’, it is a prerequisite. One only needs to have a speedy glance through Arts Council England’s latest strategy to see that this way lays the road to success.
And, whilst having socially-focused mission and vision statements is a no-brainer, it would be naïve to not also see a cultural or arts organisation as a brand in this day and age. In order for a brand to be successful and sought after by its audience, it needs to build visitor trust and deliver the expected values.
The simplest way for a cultural entity to do this is through developing their audience accessibility, which will naturally lead to engagement. Case in point: if your visitor feels seen, heard, and represented, they will build trust and loyalty to the brand since they will perceive the brand to reflect an understanding of who they are and how to match their needs. Think about brands you like, you buy, and identify with – why is that? This behavioral driver is mirrored across sectors.
Running an arts or cultural organisation in today’s world is not for the faint-hearted. It requires boldness, integrity, compassion, a deep love of art, and an even deeper love of sharing it. An innovative mindset, and an integrated drive for accessibility across the organisation will be key in achieving a sustainable presence.
In the words of Paulo Freire: “If the structure does not permit dialogue the structure must be changed”. Now is the time for change and, hopefully, towards a more inclusive and encompassing future.
If you would like to explore your next steps or discuss any of the ideas shared in this article, get in touch with us.