Data and next steps for arts, culture and entertainment

by | 1 Sep 2020 | Innovation

As we enter into the second half of 2020, we are left to contemplate the chaotic events of the past six months. Many of these events have seen us locked away in confinement with limited human interaction, recreation, and at times, a lack of essential supplies. We’ve risen to many of these challenges, albeit with some complaints along the way. The reality is that COVID-19 is here to stay, at least for the short term, and it is highly unlikely that the world will ever fully return to the “old normal.” As we continue to suppress the virus and manage outbreaks, we are also beginning to plan for a “new” normal. As part of this, we will have to consider which of the innovations that have arisen in response to the pandemic should become embedded in our new way of life.

There is no doubt that we will all be impacted by changes to our normal office jobs. However, there has been less commentary on what the impact will be to arts, culture and entertainment — industries that depend heavily on face-to-face contact and may find appropriate social distancing difficult. How are museums, art galleries, theatres, concerts, zoos, aquariums, places of worship and other similar institutions responding to COVID-19? Many of these activities have turned to the use of digital solutions, such as online streaming. In doing so, it is likely that they are generating more data than they realise. Data could be the unlikely tool that keeps many of these facilities and activities thriving in a post-pandemic era.

How has the sector fared?

Commencing in March 2020, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) began publishing ‘Business Indicators, Business Impacts of COVID-19’, which seeks to track and report the impact of COVID-19 on Australian businesses. In its first release, the ABS reported that approximately 75% of the surveyed businesses from the arts and recreation services industry experienced losses due to a reduction in demand (Figure 1). Approximately 65% of the surveyed businesses said that their losses were due to Government enforced restrictions. These figures are not unexpected. For an industry that relies heavily on foot-traffic and physical service delivery, it was inevitable that mass lockdowns would result in arts and cultural services suffering significant financial impacts.


Figure 1. Selected business operational impacts, by Industry division(a)(b). Extract from Business Indicators, Business Impacts of COVID-19, March 2020


In the June 2020 release of the ‘Business Indicators, Business Impacts’ report, the ABS reported that only 18% of arts and recreation services businesses surveyed were operating under normal conditions, while 78% of surveyed businesses were still reporting decreases in revenue. COVID-19 presents a challenging environment for arts and recreational businesses to manage and, put simply, many haven’t. While some businesses temporarily closed their doors, many had to shut down permanently, effectively bringing the industry to its knees.

These figures also exclude other not-for-profit activities such as attending cultural or religious ceremonies. It may not be essential that these services operate from an economic standpoint, but the health and spirituality benefits lost as a result of their closure are significant. As lockdown restrictions have almost eliminated public gatherings entirely, many of these services and places of worship have had to close their doors to the public and found themselves in similar situations to the arts and recreation services industry.

It is likely that these challenging conditions were mirrored in many other countries as similar scale lockdowns to that of Australia became a worldwide reality.

How have they responded?

Like many other businesses, arts and recreational service providers were forced to experiment to continue operating during these times of uncertainty. Kevin Fernandez, Partner and Head of Advisory Services at Novigi, has previously written about this topic in his blog, Accidental Insight and Forced Experimentation in Uncertain Times. Innovative methods of transforming services have enabled some businesses to comply with restrictions and remain afloat.

  • Art Galleries/Museums — Being a source of both recreation and education, many art galleries and museums recognised the need to find new ways to make their services accessible. Time reported some took the simple approach ofy contributing photographs to social media initiatives such as Instagram’s #museumfromhome, while others either developed their own online presence or contributed to existing platforms such as Arts and Culture powered by Google. Although they have been around for a few years, online viewing rooms — such as those offered by Art Basels here — have become increasingly popular as a way of enabling access to content that would otherwise only be viewable in galleries and at art fairs.

  • Musicians/Entertainment — With pubs, clubs and theatres having to close doors, many musicians, actors and other performers turned to social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Youtube and popular streaming platform Twitch as ways to continue performing to audiences. Examples of this include bedroom DJs and musicians, as well as online live streams of performances of popular orchestras and operas, such as The Met Opera.

  • Zoos/Aquariums — Although many wildlife enclosures such as zoos and aquariums have remained closed throughout the COVID crisis, some have come up with innovative solutions. For example, TarongaTV at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo allows people to conduct a virtual tour of the zoo through live streaming of animal enclosures.

  • Churches/Religious Services — Due to religious services in physical locations such as churches, mosques and synagogues having to be cancelled, religious services have increasingly moved online via public streams or private video conferencing calls. In contrast, the more personal aspects of religion such as confessions, counselling, and anointing of the sick, etc. cannot necessarily be conducted online. There have been some cases reported where drive through services have been offered so that adherents can receive fulfillment and guidance in times where these are increasingly important.

Although there are increasing numbers of arts and recreation service providers innovating to survive, sadly there are also increasing numbers of job losses and business closures. As the world continues to grapple with the pandemic, the trend to adopt digital platforms will become increasingly prevalent among both new and existing arts, culture and entertainment services. Digital innovation leads to data and data leads to opportunity.

What can data do?

Arts, culture and entertainment are bound together by one key motivation: engagement. Engagement is essential. How often have you heard a boring song on the radio and then proceeded to add it to your Spotify playlist? Never. It is crucial to be successful, yet with so many moving trends it is increasingly difficult to keep ahead of the curve. Herein lies the opportunity of data.

The Cambridge English Dictionary defines opportunity to be:

“an occasion or situation that makes it possible to do something that you want to do or have to do…”

We have a situation: an uprising of digital solutions; a possibility: using generated data to understand engagement; and a need: to engage users. The question lies in the how and we see two immediate use cases for opportunistic data innovations: marketing existing content based on data OR allowing data to drive the creative process behind content generation.

In the first instance, consider a museum. Under “normal conditions” the museum charges a ticket price to enter and as a result can track the amount of customers and daily total sales. Qualitative observation of certain times of day, or population demographics being busier than others are possible but not easily quantifiable. Now in an online, digital museum the amount of quantifiable information grows exponentially. The museum retains information about traffic and number of sales but will also gain quantitative figures about peak traffic times, how often were users on their webpage before leaving, how many users left the webpage after being prompted for payment, how many stayed on the webpage or which digital displays experienced the most traffic.

If users register for an account and provide some basic details — gender, age, geographical location — they can add an additional layer of detail and may enable museums to learn something specific along the lines of: between 10am and 3pm on Thursdays, webpage visitors are mainly aged 65 and over.These insights have always been available, the only difference is now they are measurable.

This allows the museum to be retrospective in their learnings. Think: “We are quiet on Fridays with mainly retirees using our services.” For further sophistication, adding in data science capabilities can enable attribution and segmentation of users. The data becomes prescriptive, actively predicting outcomes for certain “types” of users and allowing the museum to be specific in their approach to user engagement and marketing. The key difference is now rather than thinking “we are quiet on Fridays” the museum can start to think along the lines of, “Usually Friday’s are quiet, however this Friday is 150 years since the invention of the telephone and our previous anniversary style marketing campaign saw a 50% increase in traffic from users aged 40 and over. We should consider a similar approach for this Friday.”

Data can also drive the creative process. In many ways, this already happens. It is as simple as musicians analysing their most played tracks on Spotify and aiming to recreate similar sounds in their future work. However, we are beginning to see use cases of digital tools actually engaging in content creation. In February 2019, the “Faceless Portraits Transcending Time” exhibition was shown at the HG Contemporary in Chelsea. At first glance the images presented seem like yet another abstract piece of art. However, the viewer goes on to learn that these images were generated by a computer using an AI model. These types of developments are not without controversy as many hold a belief that this contradicts creativity. Some go as far as saying it may destroy art itself, such as in The AI-Art Gold Rush is Here. While in the first innovation we are suggesting that there is a definitive use case for data in the industry, in this second instance we recognise that this may be a bit of a stretch. Although it is certainly interesting to see AI-generated art appearing in their own dedicated exhibitions.

Many smaller service providers in the arts, culture and recreation industry will probably not immediately feel inclined to think about data, and fair enough. Some larger service providers such as zoos or museums may, however, see an immediate need to unleash data capabilities within their business. Whether a data program is suitable will depend on each business’ specific needs as they attempt to grow in a post-COVID era. The fact of the matter is that the opportunity to use data for beneficial purposes now well and truly exists, whether it is currently necessary or not. As digital dimensions continue to grow into the arts and entertainment industry, so too will the case for implementation of avant-garde data utilisation methods.

James Galea works in the Technical and Advisory Services functions at Novigi, and is based in the Wollongong office.

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