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This paper com­bines argu­ments first pre­sent­ed by Susan Jones at an engage annu­al con­fer­ence in which she ques­tioned the effi­ca­cy of our insti­tu­tion­al­ly-dri­ven visu­al arts ecol­o­gy with new research and enquiry into future cul­tur­al, dig­i­tal and social envi­ron­ments for the arts. It calls for adop­tion of a more open, imag­i­na­tive, lat­er­al, col­lab­o­ra­tive and respon­sive approach­es to cre­at­ing cul­tur­al val­ue, premised on build­ing rela­tion­ships and rap­port with the dif­fer­ent kinds and band­widths of audi­ences and with the enablers and the mak­ers of art. Links updat­ed 17/05/2018

“It’s not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the most responsive to change.” Charles Darwin

In my provocation ‘Where is the place for art?’ [1] that was presented at engage’s 2011 annual conference I asked: “Are arts building the ‘place for art’ or could they in future be viewed as memorials to the heady, finance-at-the-ready pre 2007 era? Are buildings (as run by institutions) self-serving? How will their viability (sustainability) be affected by rising energy and transport costs and the engagement preferences of an ageing population with less disposable income? Are they – as Arts Council England asserts in Achieving great art for everyone [2] – “well-placed to lead the creativity and innovation that will be a driver of economic recovery’?” Or – quoting Julie Crawshaw - "[is] art practice something that sits, walks, jumps up and down, amongst, on top of and in between [the institutions]?” [3] Albeit topical in the midst of the economic distress in the UK that was then constraining all public and arts expenditure, my provocation’s lines of questioning were neither new nor previously unexamined.

Whilst my aim in 2011 was predominantly to raise questions about the status quo in order to generate a groundswell of discussion that was otherwise not taking place, in this paper I combine opinion formed from total immersion in the business of running an arts organisation [4] with analysis of a wide range of evidence drawn from peer-to-peer learning, digital and business innovation, the academic cultural value initiative and through referencing numerous arts reports and conferences.

Arts ecology

In 2005 in a background paper entitled: ‘Visual Arts: a more holistic approach’, the Arts Council launched its first ever review of the presentation of contemporary visual arts [5]. The paper noted upfront that: “The artist is engaged in the ‘fringe interference’ which works across many disciplines and practices to the extent that the contemporary visual arts have diversified into a vibrant global ecology overlapping with heritage, the wider visual culture and public space across the creative industries, [this presenting] challenges for the current institutional structure.” The assertion was that promoting the idea of a visual culture [through fostering a multi-faceted arts ecology] would: “dispel the image of the museum as conservative and metropolitan and bridge the still-perceived gulf between heritage and the creative industries”.

The requirement for a holistic approach was similarly confirmed in a report published two years later by progressive think tank Mission Models Money [6]. Its author John Knell concluded that: “The funding community needs to begin to act in ways that foster the health of the whole arts and cultural ecology, not the maintenance or survival of particular bits of the system. Organisational stability and sustainability are only desirable outcomes if the portfolio of sustainable arts organisations is creating the type of arts and cultural ecology that are in tune with the times and public aspiration.” [7] Note that Mission Models Money had previous warned that: “Many of our arts and cultural organisations are not in a position to respond fast enough to the rapidly changing external environment, especially the shifts in the way the wider public are creating, producing and consuming cultural experiences and the threats and opportunities of new technology.”[8]

The concern for how to secure the overall health of the arts ecology has again become pressing. This is in part due to publication in 2014 of the Rebalancing our cultural capital and Place reports by GPS [9] that highlighted stark imbalances in the geographical distribution of public funding in England. Alongside, a-n/AIR’s Paying artists campaign [10] has exposed the economic disadvantage faced by artists when showing work in publicly-funded galleries.

In that same year, Director of National Museum of Wales David Anderson’s provocation directly challenged the BBC’s insularity and London-centricity: “The culture of any nation or region is an ecosystem, made up of a number of mutually-dependent parts. As well as arts and cultural institutions, these also include the print and broadcast media, public and private funders, the education sector, the tourism industry and - last but not least - creative industries and individual professionals.” [11]

Instigating in the House of Lords in January 2015 the first-ever (to my knowledge) parliamentary debate specifically focused on the role and value of artists, Lord Clancarty – the artist and commentator Nick Trench – asserted that: “It is the individual creative vision which has determined the artistic and cultural landscape of this country. Without the fine artist, there would be no Tate Modern; without the playwright, there would be no contemporary theatre; without composers and musicians, there would be no concert halls.” [12]

The Guardian’s Lyn Gardner has added her voice to those questioning arts policies that place the emphasis on arts institutions and buildings to the detriment of the small-scale and individual creators: “There does seem something odd about Arts Council England’s long-standing tradition of hurling ever more money at buildings and organisations …. There are plenty of small, nimble organisations with absolutely no desire to empire-build … who get by on very little funding... The independent sector of producers and theatre-makers are not only lean, they often have a level of creativity that extends across all aspects of their work and into their business models.” [13]

In the face of government and public-sector cut backs since 2010, all publicly-funded arts institutions have been exhorted to become more ‘resilient’. The assumption seems to be that this can be predominantly achieved through better financial modelling: diversifying income strands within a revitalised but nevertheless risk-averse charity model [14]. In recent months, urgent messages of ‘free entry’ to exhibitions have appeared on gallery websites. For it is the gallery-goers - who unlike the performing arts provide no ‘box office’ - who must be encouraged to part with their cash for tea and snacks, the purchasing of gifts and the occasional art multiple. These visitors, along with new philanthropists whenever they can be found, are being targeted to make greater contributions into a venue’s diversified income mix, and to support their resilience.

Meanwhile, in some cases, savings in gallery overhead and programme costs have been made by the introduction of volunteers in place of paid front-of-house staff [15], of zero-hours contracts instead of ethical employment practices [16], poor remuneration terms for gallery education practitioners and – in many cases - no or low pay for exhibiting artists [17]. In terms of supporting the future health of the whole arts and cultural ecology this is unforgivably short-sighted, to say the least.

Creative renewal

Mark Robinson’s Making adaptive resilience real [18] however, also advises a more holistic approach. A tool for learning and development aimed at publicly-funded arts organisations, his guide sets out the four phases towards creative renewal and replenishment through embracing active questioning, improvement, reflection and competent risk-taking, with all of these informed by an acute awareness of the external environment and wider contexts.

The ‘growth’ phase is characterised by innovation and rapid development. Capability is fostered in the ‘consolidation’ phase which in turn may also lead to insularity and thus vulnerability when unforeseen circumstances occur. The third phase of ‘release’ – opening up again – is usually the necessary result of an internal or externally-generated disturbance or disruption that creates the impetus for change. Whilst the upheaval of the release phase and subsequent ‘reorganisation’ phase may take you out of your comfort zone, Mark Robinson confirms that this period is: “also creative and full of possibility. Reorganisation often then moves back into growth or consolidation, with the paradigms created during the creative destruction and renewal phases shaping the next cycle.

Significantly though, Mark Robinson reminds that: “Without [properly acknowledging] – what artists are doing, how they are innovating and evolving – little change will occur elsewhere. Without either romanticising or patronising individual artists, it is important that policies to increase organisational resilience do not marginalise the creativity at the heart of the arts ecology.”

Those artists reading my essay may recognise – albeit with different terminology – that the stages for adaptive resilience described above mirror how they as creative practitioners intuitively and necessarily behave towards their practice, this not dependent on or governed by funding policy or government spending review cycles but set within a lifetime’s enquiry into the making and meanings of art. As with some of the arts managers consulted within Mark Robinson’s enquiry, that purposeful “introduction of disruption to avoid becoming complacent in a prolonged consolidation phase” is hardwired into an artist’s practice.

This feature inherent within an artist’s practice resonates also with another definition of resilience that identifies three factors: “The magnitude of shock that the system can absorb and remain within a given state; the degree to which the system is capable of self-organisation, and the degree to which the system can build capacity for learning and adaptation.” [19] Albeit not directed specifically at arts and culture, there is merit here in referencing advice on resilience planning from the US-based Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center: “A community that is working to strengthen itself is, without realising it, preparing for a disaster”, going on to advise: “You don’t get ready for a disaster the day before.....We must keep sharpening our tools”.[20]

This raises in my mind at least the need to consider the resilience of artists – the creators of the art itself – within strategies for ensuring a viable and productive arts ecology for the future. However, Robinson in his role of as co-author of another publication also confirms that: “Public policy should be concerned equally with artists’ ability to achieve sustainable livelihoods and take risks, as it is with funding their work per se.” [21]

Behaviour, disruption and brand

Thus whilst traditional building-based arts organisations are less easily protected from disasters like floods or a bank (or even several of them) failing, keeping “sharp tools” not only involves tracking and predicting adjustments in government policy for the arts and social welfare but also requires acute awareness of the changing behaviours and preferences of what many arts organisations still tend to describe somewhat generically as ‘arts audiences’.

Amongst a myriad of intelligence that foregrounds future disruptions and challenges to the status quo is the Technology Strategy Board’s Creative Industries Strategy[22]. This states: “…the major trends of continued digitisation throughout the sector, fragmentation of audiences, changing user behaviours, convergence and ‘disintermediation’ – or cutting out the middleman – have all contributed to the emergence of a digital landscape of increased complexity. These trends are disrupting established value chains while at the same time providing considerable potential for growth.”

In terms of the UK’s publicly-funded arts and their expectation of audience loyalty (and thus organisational resilience) a comment by Sam Bowman about how he perceives his position in the world and the platforms he uses to navigate it may represent a perspective worthy of more detailed consideration. The (young) research director of the free-market Adam Smith Institute, he recognises a new cosmopolitanism, brought on by the internet. "People our age are much more cosmopolitan. A 23- or 24-year-old Londoner is more likely to be concerned about Mumbai than Newcastle – we're much less interested in national boundaries: the internet lets you speak to people who you share interests with, wherever they live. Geographical unity is fine, but I think most people prefer the unity and friendship that comes from shared interests. We get to do that now." [23]

In terms of the behaviour of children and young people, digital trends analysis reveals that Generation C [24]- those born after 1990 - are characterised as: “Connected, communicating, computerised, community-orientated and always clicking”. 95% of this generation have computers, 50% are instant messaging, immersed in social media. They all have mobile phones and constantly send text messages.

By 2020, this generation will comprise 40% of the population in the US, Europe and other economically-stable countries. Having owned digital devices all their lives, they are intimately familiar with them and use them as much as six hours a day. Their familiarity with technology, reliance on mobile communications and desire to remain in close contact with networks - family, friends, peers, communities of interest - has already transformed and mingled the previously separated worlds of work and leisure. They are looking within the digital transactions for high quality ‘user experience’ (or UX). Note that whilst this term has come to encapsulate all aspects of a person’s interaction with digital products and services, it is also extended to the ‘brand’ and ethos of a company or an arts organisation, hence its inclusion in this essay.

The first requirement for an exemplary user experience is to meet the exact needs of the customer, without fuss or bother. Next comes simplicity and elegance that produce something (a product, service or other engagement or exchange) that UX experts Jakob Nielsen and Don Norman [25] describe as a “joy to own, a joy to use”. They note however that: “True user experience goes far beyond giving customers what they say they want.” Clearly, the creation of an attractive user experience is closely tuned to the feel or ‘brand’ of a platform or place. Thus for the arts, it’s not just what’s on show or being performed and whether one’s peers are ‘hanging out’ there, but what a colleague in the performing arts described as the “ambience of a place” – the seating and lighting, the food and type of beverages on sale”. It also extends to an arts organisation’s environmental and ethical stance. As examples, Tate’s acceptance of BP sponsorship [26] has raised arts hackles, as has FACT’s decision to move from paid to volunteer gallery invigilation [27].

My own recent experiences suggest some traditional galleries may have a way to go in the spectrum of good user experience. These have ranged from a venue pretty much empty other than me and the gallery attendant and no seating to ensure I could give proper attention to durational artists’ video works (Northern venue) to battling the throng of people standing in front of the pictures I’m trying to quietly contemplate (London venue). Conversely, I’m one of over six million people who’ve already experienced via YouTube a very short video of London-based trio Troika’s Squaring the Circle [28] as filmed whilst physically on show at the Kohn Gallery in Los Angeles. Clearly the latter’s not the same as the former two, but which has provided me with a better quality user experience and food for further personal development is surely not clear-cut?

Socially-engaged enterprise

Having defined earlier in this text the requirement to continuously innovate as a key ingredient in achieving resilience, those in the publicly-funded arts who seek this sustainability in the future’s more cosmopolitan, less hierarchical arts ecology may care to look for insight and role models to the business world which has had to learn how to adapt or die in the face of truly seismic changes over the last decade in particular in customer expectation and behaviour. My engagement with the digital industry in particular has concluded that new entrepreneurs are often concerned with creating social rather than capitalist enterprises and that the users of what they offer or produce are not regarded as customers but as collaborators in the journey from idea to product.

The ‘Lean Start-Up’ philosophy [29] developed by Eric Reiss has its roots in designing a culture and framework to create viable new businesses that may typically but not exclusively be technology-based. It enables them through time and cost-effective (lean) methodologies to develop, test, refine, roll-out and then adapt or re-iterate their products or services to achieve their ambitions. The philosophy can equally be applied to existing mature businesses looking to re-orientate their offer and to not-for-profit or social enterprises who need to efficiently use their resources to achieve the mission to deliver better and timely services and to engage audiences effectively – whilst becoming resilient to external change. Significantly, rather than having something fully-fledged marketed to them on public launch, the intended users or customers of a lean start-up created product are engaged in the development from the outset. Testers within the prototyping stage, these users are essential contributors in an experiment to produce something viable.

Under the premise that you need to ‘work smarter not harder’, Reiss says that the question businesses or organisations need to be asking is not ‘Can this product be built?’ but ‘Should this product be built?’ In other words - do people actually recognise they have the problem you’ve decided it’s your job to solve? Because if they don’t, however much you market something or provide it very cheaply – or in the case of publicly-funded galleries for free – there is no guarantee of a sustainable audience for it. In direct contrast and due in part to high levels of competition for funding, organisations within the arts tend to keep their ideas and plans as closely-guarded secrets until their new project is launched and only then is their ‘arts audience’ invited to come and get it.

Parallel participation

As Kate Oakley reports, there is clear evidence that the UK cultural industries are becoming more exclusive [30]. This is not just in terms of class, but also in gender and ethnicity. There is a concern about a similar lack of diversity amongst those participating in the arts as audiences. The Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded programme Understanding everyday participation – articulating cultural values [31] is exploring what kinds of cultural activities have value in people’s lives. The research so far is finding evidence of highly-engaged communities, participating in craft, music making, online gaming, social media, playing sports, walking and watching films. These narratives of participation rarely involve formal arts institutions, instead identifying community assets such as social clubs, parks, voluntary groups, the family, the home, as well as networks of friends and associates developed through work, religion and recreation [32].

In Raising our quality of life [33] Abigail Gilmore concludes that: “Policy should not only be about… creating access to arts establishments and institutions, but also in providing resources for everyday participation within communities. This means safeguarding places where communities meet and connect - libraries, parks, community centres, markets, and other public spaces – and supporting communities to have access to the means of cultural production as well as consumption. These forms of cultural production will respond to local agendas, interests and values.” These reports are forming part of a groundswell of compelling evidence about where ‘new audiences’ may come from, what they are interested in and engaged by, providing clues about how to make the arts meaningful to the lives of more people from all walks of life, and thus to contribute to resilience in the arts.

Although conducted almost ten years ago, a-n’s ‘Future forecast’ inquiry [34] came to some similar conclusions: “Changes across our society reflect the ever more complex interplay between our individual and collective behaviours whether as consumers, neighbours, professionals, households, citizens and as communities of interest. The increasing sophistication of our networks supported by fast-evolving communication tools provide greater power than ever for communities to question and feedback on what is being done in their name, regardless of their geographical location”.

Continuous shifts

To survive and thrive in future, arts organisations – just like commercial and social enterprise businesses - will need to redesign themselves to adapt better to the continuous shifts in resources, technology and social values. Those in arts organisations who are already promoting adoption of a more open and fluid structure can use as their evidence The 21st Century Business report [35] that identifies that the six significant shifts to be addressed both socially and economically are from disconnected to networked; from closed to open; from fixed to fluid, from volume to value, from risk to opportunity and from consumers to citizens.

Citing in a video presentation [36] the pivotal impact platforms such as YouTube and SoundCloud have had in identifying and releasing talent through enabling user-generated content and sharing, US Venture Capitalist Fred Wilson advises that technology is merely a tool in the entrepreneurial quest to respond better and more quickly to changes in people’s behaviours and their new needs within a globalised society. He predicts – amongst other things - that the future for enterprises lies with ‘unbundling’ the kind of packages traditional institutions have previously supplied, in favour of new niche products and services. For example, just as the newspaper industry has lost out over the last ten years to the meteoric rise of peer to peer networks including Twitter, the higher education institutions who have tended to follow the now failing Tesco business model may find themselves competing hard for students against the more user-friendly virtual peer-to-peer learning platforms [37].


For those seeking to achieve resilience in the publicly-funded arts the biggest challenge to overcome is the prevailing management thinking – as perpetuated by some arts funders - that puts its faith predominantly in making and sticking to well-researched plans. But I believe as Thomas Homer Dixon states, that the solution lies in achieving a ‘prospective mind’ - “one that aggressively engages with uncertainty and risk, one which recognises how little we understand and how we control even less. The prospective mind … looks for ways to prevent or forestall horrible outcomes, not just through managing things - an approach that is often ineffective and sometimes counterproductive - but also by imagining and implementing more radical and far-reaching solutions. Most fundamentally, the prospective mind seeks to make our societies - and each one of us - more resilient to external shock and more supple in response to rapid change.” [38]

For however successful the publicly-funded arts institutions may have been in the past, their future resilience is not a matter of what any one of them may achieve in isolation to ensure its own survival, but what a vibrant arts network that is made up of the micro and the macro, the virtual and the physical, the progressive and the more conservative can achieve through mindful socially-respectful behaviour, coupled with generosity and a commitment to genuine collaboration and co-development.

Speaking at an RSA event [39] NESTA CEO Geoff Mulgan said: “We are witnessing the emergence of an economy founded more on relationships than on commodities, on doing rather than having; on maintenance rather than production." Although he goes on to talk about money, the word ‘culture’ could instead be substituted: “If you want to make money, you can chose between two fundamentally different strategies. One is to create genuinely new value by bringing resources together in ways that serve people’s wants and needs. The other is to seize value through predation, taking resources, money or time from others, whether they like it or not. Your choice, in short, is whether to be a bee or a locust [40]”.

I for one believe that that mission-driven arts sector that enjoys the luxury of public funding must seize any and every opportunity to adopt a more open, imaginative, lateral, collaborative and responsive approach to creating cultural value: a strategy that considers not solely the organisation’s interests and ambitions but is concerned with building relationships and rapport with the different kinds and bandwidths of audiences and with the enablers and the makers of art, placing them all on a level plane in which each holds equal importance and shares in the future of the arts and the well-being of society.

© Susan Jones 2015

First published in engage Journal 35, 2015

[1] Where is the place for art? and ‘Pitching up’ (edited, The Guardian)

[2] Achieving great art for everyone, Arts Council England, 2011

[3] From an unpublished paper by Julie Crawshaw, 2011

[4] I was the Director of a-n The Artists Information Company 1999-2014

[5] This year-long review, led by highly-experienced Arts Council England Visual Arts Department and supported by an eminent advisory group diverse in its knowledge and visual arts literacy commissioned five distinct, in-depth research reports and produced the Turning Point strategy ( in June 2006.

[6] Active 2011-2014 Mission Models Money concerned itself with “Harnessing arts and culture's expressive energy and growing the cultural and creative vitality of our communities were key to addressing the big, serious and growing problems of unsustainable economic growth, resource scarcity and climate change. Their community of practice shared a passion for realising art and culture's role in helping to find new economic and social paradigms that recognise the limits of our finite planet and enable all life to flourish.” I contributed to MMM through the Re:volution peer-to-peer group, taking part in and contributing to seminars, discussions and conferences with UK and international evidence and insight, designed to forecast models and approaches to non-profit arts and cultural developments that are appropriate for the 21st century.

[7] John Knell, The Art of Living, Mission Models Money, 2007

[8] Towards a healthy ecology for arts and culture, Mission Models Money, 2007

[9] Rebalancing our cultural capital and Place ( are independently-produced reports published in 2014 by GPS (Christopher Gordon, David Powell and Peter Stark)

[10] The manifesto of the Paying artists campaign can be viewed at

[11] ‘The BBC and the arts in the regions and nations: impartiality and equality?’, David Anderson, National Museum of Wales, July 2014

[12] ‘Art won’t look after itself’, Susan Jones, Arts Professional, January 2015

[13] ‘No theatre is too big to fail’, Lyn Gardner, The Guardian, 31 January 2015

[14] For example, MMM research asserted that The classic Charity with Company Limited by Guarantee status, the legal structure most often used by arts organisations to deliver their mission was hotly contested by some, and described as ‘the master servant model’ by others. “Like a 'bad marriage' it is liveable with, but people feel it is risk averse, innately conservative and requires such skill, consideration and bureaucracy to make it work - partly because of the reliance on time poor volunteers - that they increasingly wonder if there are more effective, more flexible, adaptive models out there” see

[15] An example at FACT is covered here

[16] An example at Tate Liverpool is covered here

[17] Over 71% of artists exhibiting in a publicly-funded gallery received no fee for their work and 59% did not even receive out-of-pocket expenses

[18] Making adaptive resilience real, Mark Robinson, Arts Council England, 2010

[19] C Folke, S Carpenter, T Elmqvist, L Gunderson, C Holling, et al, ‘Resilience and sustainable development: building adaptive capacity in a world of transformations’, AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment: Vol. 31, No. 5, 2002 cited in

[20] From the Planning for Community Resilience handbook that sets out procedures to create resilient communities - places that avoid, absorb and recover quickly from natural disasters. It shows communities how to lower their risks from physical and social hazards by assessing their vulnerabilities and creating a plan to address them, noting that resilience depends on planning that considers all populations in the community.

[21] The Art of Living Dangerously, Mark Robinson, Shelagh Wright, Natalie Querol,  Sarah Coulson, MMM and New Economics Foundation, 2014

[22] Creative Industries Strategy 2013-2016, Technology Strategy Board, 2013

[23] ‘Generation self: what do young people really care about?’, The Guardian, March 2013

[24] The Strategy and Rise of Generation C, 2012

[25] For extended reading and further study around UX see

[26] As addressed within the ArtsAdmin, Home Live Art and Live Art Development Agency event January 2015 ‘Take the money and run?’ “As artists and arts organisations are increasingly asked to seek support for their work from corporate sponsorship and individual philanthropy, questions about cultural values, the ethics of fundraising, and who we are prepared to take money from are becoming more and more urgent. In recent months there has been a groundswell of debate and growing dissent about the conflicts and contradictions between commerce and culture.”

[27] See 11

[28] See

[29] Lean start up principles are outlined here

[30] ‘Note to James Blunt’, Kate Oakley, The Conversation republished a-n, 2015, “The representation of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) workers in the media industries was just 5.4% in 2012, down from 7.4% six years earlier – and in both cases a shocking under-representation given the concentration of these industries in London and the south-east, where the ethnic minority population is over 40%. Women are also under-represented: around 36% of the media workforce were women in 2012, and they are concentrated in lower-status and lower-paid areas…. They are also more likely to be freelance and younger than their male counterparts, suggesting that the strain of staying in precarious work becomes unbearable as women age or take on caring responsibilities.”

[31] See

[32] Whilst Oakley and colleagues in the Everyday Participation research network are not examining audience habits at galleries or within gallery education, such insights about how people engage in what kinds of culture and why are nevertheless pertinent as institutions seek clues about how to widen their audiences to meet funders’ expectations of greater social and cultural diversity.


[34] Future forecast: outcomes and issues, a-n, 2006

[35] The 21st Century Business, The Futures Company ,2015


[37] I have not researched this in detail but evidence such as suggests that HE institutions will struggle to complete with free courses (MOOCS) whereas a niche online course such as Live Theatre’s for writers has been reported to have achieved some financial success.

[38] As quoted in Inside the Edge, Roanne Dodds, within Thriving in Times of Uncertainty and Change: The People Theme, Money Mission Models 2010


[40] The Locust and the Bee: Predators and Creators in Capitalism’s Future, Geoff Mulgan, Princeton University Press, 2013