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Towards interactive futures: a case study of the Tate

My friend Bill Thompson says that we now live in a world shaped and defined by digital technology, in which access to the network is pervasive, and which influences policies and practices that directly affect us all. We recognise this as the knowledge economy. Thompson thinks that this means Marx was right. “The economic base has shifted to a new form of capitalism, where the free flow of capital and information over public digital networks opens up new forms of employment, exploitation and ownership. As Marx’s theory of history tells us, as well as the economic, the social, political, religious and cultural superstructure will shift too. We can no longer assume that whilst technology might advance, cultural provision will remain more or less as it has been. Marx tells us that the cultural superstructure will shift too”.

Within the cultural superstructure, we are experiencing an epochal, technology-induced change in practices – in artistic expression and production as well as in audience participation and expectations. What has changed is the culture surrounding arts. Arts audiences prior to the 20th century were much more active, critical, engaged, and vocal. The 20th century witnessed a sacralisation of the arts: audiences were effectively muted and expected to act with restraint and decorum, and interpretation was left to experts and critics. The result is an ever-widening interest gap between passive forms of ‘high culture’ and more active types of culture that are either inherently participatory or are connected to opportunities that invite participation before and after the arts event.

Speaking at the Communicating the Museum conference this year, Cultural Director of Centre Pompidou, Bernard Stiegler, said that we are seeing “a renaissance of the amateur”. The general public, with their interest in participating, are seeking a return to a culture that involves them and they help to shape. Inevitably, this impacts the very nature of the cultural organisations we have built up over the 20th century, and demands a significant change in our business and operational models.

Outside the cultural sector, companies are changing their business models. They are embracing the input of the amateur. Guardian Newspapers Ltd. was a company whose business was to sell advertising to people and companies, who in turn wanted to sell their stuff to The Guardian’s readers; and then sell papers filled with news, content and ads to the public. Guardian Newspapers Ltd. has become Guardian News and Media: a digital media company, with a massive interactive website that really involves its users; that’s made available via any digital device; that is free at the point of sale to customers; and that also produces a newspaper. The Guardian newspaper’s daily circulation figures currently average 360,000. Online, they have 15m unique users – worldwide, with just under half of those from the US. In a short space of time, they really have gone from Guardian Newspapers Ltd. to Guardian Unlimited.

Other companies are also exhibiting this trend for encouraging more interactivity with their consumers. The term ‘crowdsourcing’ was coined last year to describe jobs that were traditionally done by one person but which are now being outsourced to the public through the form of an open call. Dell’s Idea Storm website currently shows nearly 8000 new user-generated ideas for product development, with over half a million votes and over 45,000 comments. A basic analysis of Idea Storm will enable Dell to establish which ideas they should develop to guarantee successful sales and customer satisfaction. The idea of opening up an organisation to others’ ideas, particularly their consumers, is evidently working for these businesses.

It’s more of a challenge, however, to see how such interactivity could work for the arts sector – our business models still mainly support a framework that is patrician, hierarchical and closed. But there are those organisations in the arts sector that are beginning to change their business models to enable more user participation.

Tate, through its new department Tate Media, has been developing its online and in-venue project, Tate TracksTate. Contemporary and popular musicians have been invited to create exclusive music inspired by certain art works (the artists were suggested by and then voted for by Tate’s MySpace friends). For one month the tracks will be exclusively available next to the work in the Tate Modern gallery and thereafter released for download. The MySpace element of the project has led to a high value collaboration: during August, MySpace gave Tate Tracks a free homepage banner advertisement – media space that would have otherwise cost about £150,000. Because of the participative and interactive nature of the Tate Tracks project, MySpace believes that the Tate brand aligns well with theirs, and that the project is something MySpace users will be interested in.

Working with Flickr (the online photo sharing website) over the last tree months, Tate has further developed its current How We Are exhibition, adding an online How We Are Now element to it, made up entirely of general public participants’ photography. Currently, Tate’s Flickr site has received photos from more than 5,000 photographers, nearly one hundred of whom went on to hold internal discussions amongst themselves about photography.

Tate’s attitude towards cultural provision has certainly changed. It seems Tate senses that cultural provision in the 21st century has become a misnomer. Culture is no longer something that can be ‘provided’ by arts organisations or policy-makers or funders. It is now something more accurately defined by what we generate together with society and characterised by the many different interests and multiple backgrounds of the people in that society. This demands interactivity. Collectively the Tate’s four venues attract 5.5m visitors each year with Tate online adding significantly to this figure and providing an additional ‘venue’.

The evidence of Tate’s interactivity is provided by people who expect participative cultural opportunities and who are voting with their mice. Tate’s website visitor numbers, have massively increased over the last few years. 2005 saw 8m unique visitors and 2006 saw 11m unique visitors. In 2007, figures are increasing every month. May 2007 saw 1.5m unique visitors. Projected total unique visitor figures for 2007 are 18m. The average site visit time is 19 minutes, proving that people are enjoying a depth of experience with the content on the site. Tate have seen significent investment in its website, from sponsors such as BT and others, but has spent almost nothing developing its marketing during this time (in their own words, “we’ve done nothing clever!”). They have used free and readily available tools, such as MySpace, Flickr and iTunes for other online projects. Perhaps the increase in traffic could be put down to more available broadband and 3G mobile phones, or the Internet’s availability via more devices like online games consoles and TV. Actually, the increase is because people are linking to Tate’s content from their own. Interestingly, 80% of traffic to their website does not come through their homepage. (People are not arriving by typing “tate.org.uk” into their internet browsers, or “Tate” into a Google search.) Traffic arrives from other links – from other online Tate projects, or from other websites, or from others’ links to the Tate website in their own blogs, MySpace pages, Flickr photos, etc.

Is Tate’s business model fit for the emerging demands of the public caused by changes in the superstructure? Will Gompertz, Director of Tate Media, thinks so. Referring to the wider digital environment, he recently said, “We’ve all lost control of our content”. This is an explicit acknowledgment of the problems and possibilities that the digital world presents to all who seek to exploit its potential, and shows that Tate strategically accept becoming more open, allowing input from their audiences to enable 21st century success.

Thanks to Will Gompertz at Tate Media for his help with this feature.
This Essential IT article originally appeared in Arts Professional and in Hanah Rudman’s blog 11th October 2007.