In June 2014 I had the pleasure of interviewing Diane Ragsdale on behalf of Native, the online magazine of the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts. Diane is based at Erasmus University in Rotterdam researching and talking about cultural economics with a specialism in the performing arts. She previously spent six years at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and is one of the leading thinkers on arts governance of our generation.
Here is a copy of the interview, originally published in Native, in which we spoke about technology in the changing context of arts leadership – how technology is no longer something to fear, but a tool that can help the arts deepen its influence and contribution to society.
TW: You’ve worked in the arts in various capacities since 1988, how do you think the relationship of the arts to society has changed in recent years?
Diane: Over the last 30 years, several changes in society have made things more challenging for arts organisations. On a basic level, there has been a loss in the sense of legitimacy. Many arts organisations in Europe and in the US came into their power and bloomed in a time when it was taken for granted that the arts were important and a key part of civil society. We are increasingly put in the position of needing to defend the value of the arts.
Second, audiences and their tastes, the ways that they like to participate in the arts, and what they consider to be art, have also shifted. Some of that is related to technology, and some is related to other forces.
Third, we’ve seen income inequality grow in many regions, which arguably serves some arts organizations, who depend upon private contributions from the very wealthy. , however, Ultimately, the two trends puts pressure on those arts organisations that have historically catered to the upper middle class to work harder to bridge economic divides and to serve the greater good, rather than a minority elite. These are real shifts in the larger environment that we have to deal with – and many issues have become more acute in the last few years in response to the recession.
Technology could be used to open things up, to enable funders to be more present in the world, more responsive, and more engaged and on the streets—rather than locked up in ivory towers, as they are often perceived to be.
How is technology changing the arts? And how are arts leaders dealing with changes in technology?
Digital technology is helping us overcome geographic, time and financial barriers. One really exciting ramification: we could mean reaching millions of people – rather than hundreds. New formats and forms of art could also lead to the possibility of more intimate and dynamic experiences for people. Finally, technology is making it possible for organisations to not just communicate with their communities on an ongoing basis but to be more deeply in tune with what the community needs, and take the needs and input of the community into consideration as they take decisions.
One other anecdote: I recently worked with a number of departmental leaders from arts organisations on scenario planning for the future of the arts. I was amazed to see (though should not have been) that almost all of the small teams built scenarios based on a future assumption that a primary way in which people will receive artistic experiences is digitally, through either large screens or small. We’re seeing a generation of leaders come up for whom digital (rather than live) distribution is not something to be feared, but rather is seen as quite legitimate.
Arts organisations are now forced to decide whether they will exist exclusively to perpetuate the live experience, or whether they will, instead, seek to evolve themselves in response to the new and varied ways that artists want to make work and audiences want to experience it. They also have to think about how their live and digital strategies work together.
What kind of future for the arts would you like to see?
We need to be in the centre of civil society, not at the margins. The question that I’m always asking myself is ‘How do the arts matter more to people, or matter to more people?’ I’d like to see a future in which greater percentages of the population having a meaningful relationship with the arts – and I don’t buy into the notion of large segments of society being ‘disinclined’ to arts and culture.
I believe everyone’s life could be improved through some kind of participation (and we must thing broadly about what we mean by arts participation); moreover, it’s the role of subsidized arts organisations in particular to collectively try and reach as many people as possible through options that are as diverse as possible. Arts organisations need to take responsibility for educating people and helping them develop a taste for various forms of art and comfort with participation.
What excites you about digital technology in the arts?
I’m most excited by the potential for technology to change the governance practices of arts organisations. Boards set policy, hire the staff, the staff educate the board and make strategy recommendations that boards generally adopt – it’s a closed circuit. These days, it is rather rare for the public to have influence on the strategic direction of an arts organisation in any coordinated way.
Nina Simon, author of the book ‘The Participatory Museum’, and executive director of The Santa Cruz Museum of Arts and History, is modelling what it means to be an organisation that chooses to grow in response to a continual feedback loop of information on how people are or are not engaging with each other through the museum. This information comes to her and her staff through small experiments with new tools and methods, or just active, ongoing observation and reflection upon people and their interactions while at the museum. She’s using all of this information to drive an incremental and ongoing evolution of her organisation in response to the public.
Though this might not represent a shift in the formal governance structure of the organization, it does signify a willingness to invite the public to have influence on the organisation. Nina still has a vision and is strong and clear about what she is trying to achieve, but she is continually watching to see what happens as a result of the various actions she takes, and is adjusting to how people respond. It’s clear such a “participatory shift” is a difficult, or even controversial, one for some organisations. However, even if organisations have traditionally been more closed – it seems it is possible to slowly shift that orientation—to make a conscious choice to open up one’s organisation to the public.
You’ve previously criticised funders calling for innovation in the arts, can you tell us more?
First, there has been a ‘fetishisation’ of innovation in the sector, often driven by foundations. What does it mean to organise in order to be able to innovate? How can we make sure innovation doesn’t feel like something foreign and ‘one-off’, and is made possible because of the resources, people and processes that are allocated and structured to foster it? The processes that lead to innovation deserve more consideration. Additionally, we must know why we are trying to innovate – what problems are we trying to solve? It’s important to understand the social or artistic goals that we hope to achieve through innovation.
Second, sometimes funding processes end up rewarding ’known entities’—that is, historically leading organisations—which are not necessarily the most innovative or the most willing or able to experiment and fail. Another problem is that when funders invest in innovation they tend to shine a light on projects that are still being incubated and that need the opportunity to fail. High profile funding seems to put pressure on organisations and funded projects to succeed; I worry that this constrains genuine experimentation and leads to limited learning.
Arts organizations often lack the appetite, board support, and resources for risk. This is hardly surprising, if you consider that arts organisations are often undercapitalized. The values of security, stability, and self-preservation pull in the opposite direction from those of daring and experimentation. Arguably, funders should play a role in creating space for the experimentation and failure that are often critical to the process of innovation. They could provide money that it’s okay to lose—funds that may not have an immediate return other than the organisational learning that comes from trying something new, whether or not it succeeds.
How can funders best support arts organisations to make the most of technology?
More than 10 years ago I worked in an organisation and the Paul G Allen Foundation gave me a grant to attend a two-day session on strategic technology planning. It fundamentally changed my thinking at a critical point in time. Not only was I given guidance in how to undertaken a process of risk assessment, but I began to think about the goals and issues that we faced more broadly, and how technology could help us achieve those. I also realised how we could engage different parts of the organisations and partner with other organisations to make progress towards common goals.
The implications of technology are wide ranging, and need to be dealt with strategically and holistically. When I was at the Mellon Foundation, we received many proposals requesting funds for technology projects; however, too often the necessary deep thinking wasn’t happening and the technology strategy was being outsourced to others rather than being brought into the overall strategy of the organization.
This is difficult stuff to wrap your head around. In addition to supporting experimentation, fstructured opportunities for arts organisationsget off the treadmill; gain knowledge from those (in other industries) who have successfully (or unsuccessfully) transformed their business processes, relationships with customers, and value propositions; think deeply and systemically; engage in debate and discussion with their stakeholders; and develop new visions and strategies.
What advice can you offer funding bodies in relation to technology?
Some funders are difficult to communicate with at times, and can seem a bit out of touch with the world. Funders expect non-profits to be more transparent and open, to communicate with more people and give stakeholders the opportunity to provide input into their processes and programmes; however, they are often reluctant to undergo similar changes. By-and-large, private foundations, at the very least, need to have greater transparency about how they are setting their priorities (including the factors and people that are influencing those priorities). In addition, I think it would be transformative for the field of arts and culture if they would consider opening up their formal and informal processes for making funding decisions.
How can the arts maximise the potential of technology?
No doubt, technology is one of the driving forces that has changed the ways people create and consume and commune and communicate, and that is at the heart of the matter for arts organisations.
There was a time when we all looked at technology as a challenge to be overcome, but I think we’re moving into the stage where its seen as something beneficial. It can help us achieve goals, and it’s not something that has to be feared. I’d like to think there is an enthusiasm now, a willingness to embrace technology, rather than a fear that we’re going to cannabalize ourselves by going down this path.
In 2008 I gave a talk ‘Surviving the culture change’ even the title of it suggests a sense of ‘threat’. Now, I think more about how we are influencing the culture – not just preparing for it or surviving — how we are jumping into it, and wrestling with it in a really dynamic way, talking back to it, and bringing our own tools and ways of working to it. This is what arts organisations do best. We need to see ourselves as powerful agents who can influence and contribute to the culture, as much as respond to it. Technology can be a tool for us to have even greater influence, and that’s a really exciting thing.
Photo courtesy of Joshua Feist