Open Letter on the Development of Digital Culture in the UK (Andrew Nairne’s response posted below)
This letter, jointly drafted by a constituency of organisations, artists and practitioners who have been engaged in digital arts development in England, concerns digital culture and its importance to the wider UK arts ecology and economy. We the undersigned believe that clear national policies need to be developed to ensure that the UK can remain at the forefront of digital culture, globally, and that these must take account of the key role creative practices play in driving digital innovation.
Whilst we appreciate that digital technologies have created exciting opportunities to engage with audiences, and to disseminate and distribute arts programmes in new ways, it is critical that funders and policy-makers understand that this is not the extent of digital culture. If we are to make the most of the digital opportunity, it needs to be recognised at a national policy level that digital culture is about more than extending the reach of existing arts practices. It is about entirely new forms of production, expression, practice and critical reflection that digital technologies have made possible.
We are concerned about the place of art, creative practice, criticality and risk-taking in current and future funding policies. We are writing to you with two clear and immediate motivations:
1. We wish to engage policy-makers, and funders, such as Arts Council England, in a positive debate around future investment in digital culture. We understand from recent initiatives, such as the collaboration between Arts Council England and the BBC to build digital capacity in the arts, that a wide spectrum of stakeholders, investors and funders see development of this area as a priority. Arts Council England’s planned launch of the Digital Innovation Fund demonstrates further commitment. In this context of investment, which extends to the economy as a whole via bodies such as the Technology Strategy Board, we wish to present some thinking from the front-line of creative arts practice, ensuring that this remains at the centre of considerations; in a symbiotic not subordinate position to operations and distribution.
2. We seek to draw attention to the gap in digital provision that the transition from Arts Council England’s Regularly Funded Organisations (RFO) programme to the National Portfolio of Organisations (NPO) has brought about. The undersigned represent a broad range of organisations, and individuals, who have met with varying degrees of success in the new structure. We are however united in our shock at the loss of funding to so many organisations with long track records of fostering digitally engaged artistic practices, provision and support. These organisations, particularly those completely cut, including Access Space, ArtSway, DanceDigital, Folly, Four Corners Film, Isis Arts, Lovebytes, Lumen, Media Art Bath, Moti Roti, Mute, Onedotzero, Performing Arts Labs, Picture This, Proboscis, PVA MediaLab, The Culture Company and Vivid (as well as many others who received drastically reduced funding or were not included in the new portfolio) speak to a critical, self-reflexive approach to digital media technologies, which has been instrumental to their vitality and overall development. Whilst there will continue to be many organisations across art-forms experimenting successfully within the digital landscape, we wish to sound a note of deep concern around this disinvestment, which impacts us all.
As arts organisations and practitioners, we believe that art helps us make sense of the world we live in. We know, too, that digital technology is transforming our lives. Social networking, data visualisation, digital fabrication, geolocation and crowdsourcing, among many other phenomena, present us with new environments, languages, and capabilities, which we must engage actively and critically. If we are to become a digitally literate society, the public need a sound grasp of the contradictory nature of these forces, which create both opportunities and threats.
Digital culture is an expansive set of artistic practices and forms of enquiry that helps us to understand key social drivers. Its products – be they art works, exhibitions, performances, games, applications, publications, music or films – contribute to digital literacy across the board. We understand digital culture to be networked, hybrid, innovative, improvised, tactical, distributed, de-centralised, local, creative and skilled; and to cut across art-forms. It is not a small artistic niche of activity – rather a rapidly expanding, international, popular set of creative practices, which are swiftly becoming the cultural mainstream. The UK is at the forefront of digital culture internationally and we have much to be proud of. The global success of practitioners, such as Blast Theory, semiconductor, and Furtherfield, and the programmes of work commissioned and supported by AV Festival, FACT, and Animate, to name but a small handful, is testament to the international influence of UK practitioners.
Over a period of many years, these success stories were invested in, and fostered, by a group of small, innovative digital culture agencies who, together, created a distinct ecology – marked in very positive ways by the variety of its approaches, the diversity of its organisational models. And yet a large number of these were disinvested into in the recent funding round. As such, we are concerned about the ongoing vibrancy of the national digital culture ecology, and seek clarification from policy-makers and funders about how this vital form of contemporary creative practice is going to be invested in, going forward.
In light of current planning for future investment projects, such as the Digital Innovation Fund, and partnerships, such as those with BBC and NESTA, we have two key questions:
i) What is the Arts Council’s policy on digital culture?
Specifically, what is Arts Council England’s understanding of where artistic practice and critical culture reside in terms of investment in digital innovation?
ii) How much of the Digital Innovation Fund will be focused on artistic practice?
We ask these questions specifically of Arts Council England, as we applaud the progressive and outward looking agenda that it adopted by placing digital, innovation and risk-taking at the heart of Achieving Great Art For Everyone. We share Arts Council England’s conviction that these are essential to artistic development, connecting with audiences and ensuring the wider relevance of the arts. We are a group of organisations who pride ourselves on setting trends, breaking new ground and engaging with groups such as technologists, scientists and the creative industries. As pioneers recognised internationally in these areas, we believe there is a great opportunity for national policy makers to go further in defining ‘digital innovation’ and ‘risk taking’, by placing creative practice at the very heart of these definitions, and thus enabling the UK to continue to lead the field internationally. We hope that you will be able to assure us that the Digital Innovation Fund will be a step in this direction.
Finally, we would also appreciate further clarification from Arts Council England regarding the recent NPO funding decisions and their impact on the digital culture ecology in the UK, and its ability to remain at the international cutting-edge. We would appreciate a statement on the new portfolio, which explains who led the process of national balancing, who led in relation to digital culture, and an explanation on what the role of peer review was in the process.
As a broad constituency of people we would like to express our desire to work with national policy-makers and funders on positive outcomes from the present circumstances. We look forward to your response to this letter, and look forward to establishing dialogue about the future of digital culture in the UK.
The petition is now closed, please see Andrew Nairne’s response below:
6 July 2011
Dear Council of Digital Arts (CODA),
Thank you for your open letter of the 28th April 2011 regarding the Arts Council’s approach to supporting digital arts practice, and the process we used to make our National portfolio funding decisions.
I’d first like to respond to your questions about our policy for supporting digital culture and our understanding of where artistic practice and critical culture fit into our investment.
All of the Arts Council’s policies and investment decisions will, over the next 10-years, be guided by Achieving great art for everyone, our strategic framework for the arts.
As with many areas of our 10-year strategy, our policy around the digital agenda is still being developed. We do envision that a significant proportion of our investment in the digital agenda will be based around Goal 2 of our 10-year strategy, which highlights our desire for more people to experience and be inspired by the arts. Our description of this goal directly references our intention to invest in digital technology by saying ‘we will support those artists and arts organisations presenting and promoting the arts in new and inspiring ways, including through the use of touring and digital technologies’.
The Arts Council is also strongly committed to supporting innovative artistic practice, in all media and including digital arts, and this will continue to happen through Grants for the arts, our open application lottery fund, as well as through our National portfolio investment.
We intend to actively support artists and arts organisations who are seeking to deepen engagement with and reach new audiences through digital technology, both as an arts practice and as a means to engage with audiences in new ways.
Historically the Arts Council has provided significant support for digital arts practice through Grants for the arts, with our numerous grant awards for animation, artists moving image, sound art and new media totalling over £4.3 million in 2010-11. This represents almost 6% of our total Grants for the arts investment for the year. This support will continue, alongside our investment in our National portfolio organisations and our Digital Fund, which we will use to target investment in areas that will help us achieve our long-term goals. This investment is likely to prioritise organisations, initiatives and projects that contribute to our goal of more people experiencing and being inspired by the arts, and our goal for the arts to be sustainable, resilient and innovative. Through this combination of our various funding streams, we want to create the conditions for excellent art to be made and for as many people as possible to engage with it.
In response to your question about how much of the Digital fund will be invested in digital arts practice, details of this fund will be finalised later this year, but investment is again likely to focus on increasing reach and engagement, capacity building and strengthening business models for arts organisations. Digital arts practice may in many cases contribute to these aims but we will not be specifically ring-fencing any part of the fund to specifically support this work.
Moving to your questions about how National portfolio decisions were made, we believe we put in place a fair and thorough process for assessing applications and for making what we knew would be very difficult decisions. The Arts Council used its expertise to make sound, effective judgments to create a portfolio that offers the best possible artistic work to audiences across the country.
The decision-making process involved two distinct stages:
an assessment of each application on its own merits and its ability to deliver against the goals set out in Achieving great art for everyone. These assessments were undertaken by Relationship Managers with particular expertise for their artforms
a balancing of the entire portfolio to achieve the best result for the arts overall. Regional Councils reviewed initial proposals and area management teams and senior staff from head office met to ensure there was good a national overview
Final decisions on the overall National portfolio were taken by the Arts Council’s National Council.
Peer review was not part of the process for National portfolio assessment as this approach would be difficult to apply in the context of a very large nationwide decision process where peer group interests and affiliations would be hard to regulate and monitor. We were also confident that Arts Council staff had sufficient expertise to make these difficult funding decisions, with our staff including many Relationship Managers, who have come in to the organisation directly from the sector. Some of whom, as recently as 2010, have been artistic directors and critical commentators within the media and digital arts field.
The Arts Council has a long and continuing tradition of supporting organisations and work within our visual arts investment, including digital arts, moving image and artists’ film and video. Our National portfolio continues this tradition; in what was a challenging funding round where our grant-in-aid funding from government was reduced by almost 30% we supported a significant number of organisations who play a role in promoting digital innovation including Furtherfield, B3, Blast Theory, Redeye, Axis, Impressions Gallery, Phoenix Arts, Somerset Film and Video, Knowle West Media Centre, Threshold Studios, Nottingham Media Centre (Broadway) and Berwick Film and Media Festival.
In addition, media or cross-artform organisations are a key part of the infrastructure for the development, production and distribution of this kind of practice and these include FACT, Lighthouse, Cornerhouse, and Watershed. The latter has received a major increase in funding, with a remit to work with artists and organisations across a broader base expanding its nationally significant role.
For those organisations whose National portfolio applications were not successful, we will continue to discuss future opportunities for funding and ways in which we can have a constructive relationship with them. Alongside awarding funding through Grants for the arts, we will work with partners, including the Higher Education sector, NESTA, and commercial organisations, to identify and support further opportunities for innovation in artistic practice and in-depth critical discussion of such work and of the wider cultural context that digital innovation is helping to shape.
We want to keep an open dialogue with all sections of the arts that work closely with digital technologies. I therefore look forward to working alongside CODA and the signatories of your letter as we continue to look at how we can best support this important area of work.
Executive Director, Arts
Arts Council England