Keeping Things Fresh

This piece was originally written for and published on Native, the journal of the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts. It is part of the Making Digital Work: Business Models guide, available to download here

We increasingly need to justify what we do, which in turn is leading to a sector-wide identity crisis. We none of us know quite what’s about to happen, and there’s a jittery nervousness percolating though the sector as a result.

This is how Dan Eastmond, MD of The Firestation Centre for Arts & Culture, frames his ongoing drive to innovate and disrupt. The Firestation is a contemporary arts venue in
the heart of Windsor. On the surface, it appears much like any other suburban arts centre, offering audiences a healthy programme of music, comedy, theatre, dance and film. Dig a little deeper though, and there are myriad activities afoot that tell a different story.

Dan is confronting what he perceives to be the gradual erosion of the traditional arts organisations by developing a cluster of initiatives. These are leading The Firestation into exciting new territory. Coupling emerging technologies with fresh thinking, he has led his team and collaborators on a journey of thinking about and — crucially — trialling ideas that might just revolutionise the arts organisation.

At the heart of these is the Firestation’s Digital R&D project. Neo-Ticketing is an exploration of how dynamic pricing can impact ticket sales. Using the organisation as a live laboratory, the Firestation is trialling technology that adjusts the price of a ticket depending on its popularity. If you book early, you get a good price. Leave it until the last minute and either you’ll get an amazing price if the show isn’t selling particularly well, or you’ll have to pay over the odds if there are just a few tickets left. It’s a lot like booking a flight with one of the budget airlines. Which in fact is what inspired the project.

As Eastmond says: “Whilst the arts and entertainment sector aspires to be at the forefront of cultural progress, its business models and methods of working are often a long way behind the fresh and buoyant practices enjoyed by newer industries. These need to be researched and radicalised as much as new, enabling technologies if they are not to anchor essential progress.”

It’s a great tip. But how do you go about implementing a more outward-looking approach to business modelling? Eastmond talks about his organisation as an incubator, a space where he can test approaches to programming, audience engagement, funding, ticketing and so on. He muses that the best way for organisations to think about themselves in an increasingly uncertain environment might be as R&D portals, rather than conclusion-oriented vessels.

Ultimately, organisations that are fit for purpose in the 21st Century can continually question their value and reposition accordingly. They are fluid, they can think about their relevance. They work out how to connect people. And they do this by letting go of control. They become pathfinders by opening the doors and rolling with
things. They have a healthy relationship with risk: they constantly carry out measured, well-planned experiments. They make enquiries, they forge new ground to explore. They’re more than happy to try something out and then to say it didn’t work, let it go, move on.

Eastmond and his team have a regular meeting in the diary where they address what the Firestation might look like without its building. Given that they’re a venue- based arts organisation, that’s an unusual way for them to use their time. Of course, what they’re actually doing is forcing themselves to think about alternative worlds, which in turn enables them to make connections both with ideas and people who they might not otherwise encounter. They’re not fetishising technology per se, but because they’re looking outwards, they tend to stumble across potential solutions to their problems that exploit omnipresent digital tools.

Eastmond points out that out in the real world we reached a tipping point a while ago. Everything is changing. For too long in the arts we’ve either been ignoring technology, or filling it with yesterday’s ideas in an attempt to make the old model work. We’re replicating systems that don’t mean anything anymore because we haven’t worked out what to do next. We’ll only find ways of articulating our value organisationally and sectorally if we discard classical frameworks and rebuild them in order to give ourselves the opportunity to be genuinely innovative.