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DT:TV Case Studies

The firstsite Story (AmbITion case study 2009)

The unexpected entrance to firstsite's current temporary offices
The unexpected entrance to firstsite's current temporary offices

firstsite has been a visual arts organisation in Colchester for 15 years, run by director Katherine Wood. They have operated for most of their life out of a Georgian residential home called the Minories, in the centre of Colchester. It’s a well known, well loved, modest building.

What they are doing now however is something big – really big. From offices along the street from the Minories, which they have now vacated, they are running their programme of offsite works in locations around Essex until a new building is ready – a new building that will be a beacon of architectural and cultural excellence. And it’s big. £26 million big.

Designed by Rafael Viñoly as a new social space for everyone to visit, the new building will house firstsite’s vibrant programme of changing exhibitions, workshops, lectures and community events. Admission will be free.

Currently under construction in Colchester the new building will contain:

* Flexible presentation spaces for exhibitions of contemporary visual arts
* A daytime café / evening restaurant with a terrace overlooking a new public park
* A gift shop selling local art work and craft items, books, toys, cards and publications
* An artists’ spaces for project work and artists in residence
* Purpose-built Learning Studios for workshops, school groups, students and community group activities
* A high-specification 200 seat auditorium with screening facility and full conference IT resources
* Meeting areas and a variety of meeting rooms for business and community hire.

The IT infrastructure of the building has been specified by their AmbITion consultant, Taylor Nuttall of follyconsult.

So, a huge project for a relatively small organisation. In addition they are having to work “distributedly” out of offices and maintain a presence in the area until the new building is ready, whilst simultaneously managing everything that a huge construction project brings, and to plan for it being a success when open.

But firstsite’s uniqueness as an arts organisation doesn’t stop there. Two further features mark it out as different: the first is that one member of their staff is from an academic and retail background (a senior manager in Sainsbury’s, specifically – unusual in the arts sector) and another member of staff used to manage Wembley Arena. Pretty unusual appointments for the arts sector. And the second feature is that firstsite are actively setting out to be largely self sufficient in their funding. For an arts organisation – even the big London venues – this is very unusual; ground-breaking in fact.

The old Minories building in which firstsite used to be based
The old Minories building in which firstsite used to be based

Operations Manager Jim Walsh has been heavily involved in the new building project, but many of the systems needed behind the big new build will be familiar to other arts organisations. He realises that there is a tension, potentially, between investing in virtual, digital development, and putting together a lot of bricks and mortar:

“Our director Kat will be the first one to say how curious it is in some ways, how much time we are spending on a capital project, a physical building when the whole world is going into a different kind of reality, a virtual reality. Her mind has always been on the technological innovation and accessibility that firstsite can bring to its audiences and practising artists and to get those merging together. At the moment we are pretty clued up in terms of our ambition and aspiration, but there is a long way to go. For example, we constantly feel embarrassed about our website at the moment, because we know it isn’t where we want to go. It is just a flat HTML thing. It’s very functional, it lets people know what we are doing, but there’s no Web 2.0 stuff on there. There is no depth, richness or aesthetic design to it. We know that is where we are ploughing our energies into at the moment in order to get all these things.

“We have worked closely with Taylor Nuttall of follyconsult, who has helped us develop our AmbITion programme and the potential that we can deliver out of that. He is also doing our whole ICT costs for the building. That has been quite an interesting learning curve because in order to ask a question from someone, you have to know quite a lot yourself, so going through that process to become an intelligent client has been an interesting journey.

“The AmbITion project came along 2 years ago as an opportunity to help us develop this. It was always something that we thought ‘if we get behind AmbITion it will help with what we really want to do’, in terms of our aspirations for our online firstsite as it were. That has been the process for the last 18months, trying to understand the virtual world more and seeing what it could offer in terms of appeal, functions and interactive mobility for example. There has been this process that has involved the whole organisation in gathering knowledge and experience and getting consultants in to help us and guide us through. We recruited an IT analyst last November in order to help start delivering some of these things. The first thing that they delivered was helping us with the basics, e.g. video casts – an interview with an artist that is now on that artist’s webpage.

“We are now updating our website sometimes daily, always weekly. He built an intranet too, so we now have internal capacity and remote access to the documents we need when we are out and about and not office-based. There is quite a lot of enthusiasm that we are picking up at the moment with this project and with what technology can deliver for us. For example, we wanted to engage with an artist for one of our programmes who works in Alaska. She has been over here and understands what she wants and what we want, and then we have to enter a dialogue from across the ocean. It’s been really useful to have that technology of Skype, where we can just phone her up and see her on video if we need to, and it’s all free. That did happen outside AmbITion of course, but it was very clear that this is something we want and this is somewhere we want to be”.

Audience data

As well as videocasts; their new intranet that enables them to access office files from anywhere, and their discovery of Skype, firstsite are having to think about how to manage their audience data; not something that they have done in the past on the scale they will have to do in the future. “We are having discussions internally about creating a database for our audience, so we know we can drive that and push that into an all-singing all-dancing database. If we do get that CRM (Customer Relationship Management) functionality out of that then brilliant, but there aren’t that many exemplars of a system that does audience data, ticketing, room booking and merchandising. For an arts organisation, there isn’t something that does everything. The Tate, and Sage have these things where they have got bits of kit where they have rope bridges in between that help them build that picture of customer relations management. There’s a lot of desire there but currently there’s not much to say, except that we are trying to wipe the slate clean and get a start that will actually mean that we can transfer the data that we do have into a new database. The last system we used we realised was worse then Excel; you couldn’t get information out of it once you had put it in it. That lesson has taught us well. We now need to find technology and know what we want it to do”.

Jim admits that the current situation, prior to the new building opening, is less than ideal. “Our database, to be truthful, is raggedy, because the onus has been on marketing and distribution. We probably have around 10% of the details of the people who have come in and that is if you count every visitor who comes in as a new visitor; but you might get people coming in twice a year, so that is 45,000, so you can’t really get the statistics as clear as you might want. We didn’t capture it in a clear way”.

In many ways the new building is a Year 0 for the organisation, and they are gearing up all their systems to prepare for it.

“One thing that we are investigating is a room booking piece of software – Artifax – that we want to potentially use in the building, managing our events and bookings. It will be a building management system”.

Jim is aware though that the organisation needs to step up a level in terms of its database of audience contacts.
“We are currently using mail merge in Excel to do marketing for e-news letters. The database is something that is crucial to us. At present, we are doing a postcode analysis of the local area to see where our potential audience is, demographically speaking. We are looking at the national indicators that have just come out from the Arts Council and then trying to build up a picture of where our audience is, who they might be, so that we can work out the best medium of how to connect with these people.

“Social networking is going to be absolutely vital, for example if you are going to split the audience into the national indicators e.g. for a CO1 postcode, we could be really general and say, that’s all print. They are all local and might not use the internet and they might be poor, or they might be a slightly older generation. Whereas, we know that the university side of town, will be younger and will be tapped into social networks, so it is definitely going to be emails and internet. However, there are all these other elements like let’s get Twitter going, let’s get Facebook. Let’s ramp up our knowledge on these things and start up blogs and get up YouTube, MySpace, whatever it is. At the moment, we are investigating what is out there at the moment, because we want to make sure that we are doing it properly and not hitching up to one set of wagons that dies a death when something new comes along.

The unexpected entrance to firstsite's current temporary offices
The unexpected entrance to firstsite's current temporary offices

We are now starting to analyse it and apply methodology using the national indicators. Our Commercial Director Wayne Warner’s experience at Wembley Arena has helped with this in terms of markets and potential. We are also keeping our eyes and ears open – on the internet and through our friends and colleagues.

We have Colchester county council as a lead sponsor and they have a lot of information that they can provide us with. There is mouseprice.com where it actually tells you an average demographic in different areas that have links to national statistics and ACORN (the demographic classification system A Classification of Residential Neighbourhoods).

“So there are many things you can use. We had an experience of a junior officer from the council come in to use some of our data to help with their work, but we realised the way that they were going to use it was technologically redundant and wasn’t going to do what either of us needed it to do, so we cracked what they did in half a day and we thought we could build upon this. So we build upon the knowledge Wayne has and the knowledge we can resource from best practices. We have a good team with 20 years of experience in a variety of settings, so we are not fazed!

The new building

“Over the next four years we are going to grow our staff by 85% – from 15 to 28, and to open the building we are going to have a huge influx of temporary staff in a short period of time over that honeymoon opening. Between now and then we have a very clear mobilisation plan of how to get us from where we are now, which is primarily office based, into that building.

“There are 3 main strands to firstsite in terms of finance.
1) Our core funding is from Essex county council and Colchester borough council, but primarily the Arts Council provides a bedrock for our organisation to pay our bills.

2) Then there is restricted funding, where we look at what projects we want to run and see if there are any businesses, organisations, or trusts out there that want to be part of that.

3) Commercially, we have a commercial director, whose aim it is to make us financially stable. So he looks after the restricted funding, but he is also going to be looking after the back bone of raw earned income, through retail, catering, and so on.

Those three combined will make us financially sustainable and enable us to deliver what we want to deliver. We have a clear business plan that sets this out for 3 years and we have a budget to support that, so we know exactly what we want to do and what we want to reach. Technology, building, staff… and when we get accommodation for these in place, we can hit the ground running!

Jim Walsh standing proudly opposite the main entrance to firstsite's new building project
Jim Walsh standing proudly opposite the main entrance to firstsite's new building project

“We will not be owners but will be the tenants of the new building that the council are constructing, but we are also one of the funders because we are putting over a million pounds in to it. Colchester Borough Council, Essex county council, the Arts Council, East of England Development Agency and the University of Essex are all funders too. They form the partnership and Colchester Council are the lead on this and the eventual owner of the building”.

Although not digital, the building is a technological, state-of-the-art development in itself. It follows the ‘build it and they will come’ analogy of a successful web presence. It is obviously a very costly way to get more audience members, but there is little doubt that they will get a lot more. How did the organisation initially feel about going into a partnership where at the end of the day they would only be tenants?

“The ownership that our Board want is in the product and in what it delivers, not necessarily in the physical assets. So the things that we count on our balance sheets are very minimal, because they are transient items in some respects, which get us to the point where we can deliver things. We operated as tenants out of the Minories for nearly 15 years. The audience figures developed to such a degree that we couldn’t actually pack them in. At the Minories, we had up to 90,000 per year in the last full year of opening, and we are anticipating somewhere in the region of 150,000 for the new building per annum. We reached breaking point when we had to decide if we needed something more sustainable and a lot more powerful that is actually going to make Colchester feel as though regeneration can happen, because it was always one of its remits for this building, that it is a catalyst in an underdeveloped and deprived area. By plonking this contemporary visual arts building in the area, that is going to be a quick shot to the arm really for regeneration”


“The AmbITion project has been really helpful in the recruiting of our IT analyst. We also outsource a bit of the IT side of things too – for design work and graphics, around print, but also around web design. We have quite a good relationship with them. Kath also keeps an eye on what other people are doing and where other opportunities lie, in terms of working with other consultants and other people. There is always something percolating to the surface! That becomes one of our new opportunities or new routes, so we don’t ever lash ourselves to one partnership.

“It’s true though that the people in this organisation are all generally very IT literate. But the only recruitment we have done with that specifically in mind is the IT analyst. The rest of us, well, there are almost two schools, those that are recently graduated MA students where this is their first job, and the rest of us.

We are all being encouraged to set up things like Twitter and experiment with them. Kath will come out with ideas that are challenging and innovative, which are to do with the contemporary as a whole, not just visual art. It can go across anything, design, IT, retail, visual arts and culture in a broad way. Kath really leads on that innovation and imagination and creativity, and that necessitates other people keeping up in their interests, and finding out what is out there, and keeping that bar raised just in front of you. Kath has her finger very much on the pulse, so you want to be there with her.

“Wayne’s experience at Wembley has been right on the main stage of the ticketing industry, of room booking, of crowd management; and ICT has been right at the forefront of all of that. My background is academic and retail, which enables me to understand the processes. Not necessarily the bits of kit that you get with it, but I understand what kind of tool I need, and then I need to do the research to find out specifically which tool I need and then off we go.

The curving structure of firstsite's new building, under construction
The curving structure of firstsite's new building, under construction

“We all have these different backgrounds, but we are on that wave. We are so lucky to be on a project where that building gets delivered and we get to open it, that you can’t have a team of people who aren’t committed to understanding what century they live in and the potential that you can deliver from that building through its physical innovative design and the technology in it. If you’ve married up the wrong team in that building, you might as well open a doughnut restaurant or something!”

Jim recognises that the range of backgrounds of his colleagues is unusual in an arts organisation, but he sees great value in it.

“When I started, everybody appreciated and liked art, and you might think that’s a standard requirement for people in an arts organisation, but it actually isn’t always necessary. I was not employed for my art history, I was employed for my retail experience, and Wayne was employed for his commercial ability. Kath knows that there is no elitist quality that you need to have to be in the art world; you don’t need to be an art person to be good at your job.

A target of 45% self sufficiency

“Kath is a very modest person, but she would always say we are creating a new model. We have a building, we have a new aspiration for a website. But the core of our new model is where 45% of our funding is going to be generated by ourselves. No one does that in the arts world. No one has the commercial acumen to deliver retail, catering, conferencing, hires and events, to the point where they can actually say 45% of my revenue comes through my own hands, rather then being given to me via core funders.

“So the formula in fact is quite simple: have a vision – find people who are experts in that vision, even though that vision might have nothing to do with art and if they can do that job and they have been proven in other contexts, then you will get that 40% of income generated.

We are saying we want to be more creative. We are not just about the visual arts. If you look at our website, we are a social website as well. We are a hub and an integrator of communities and society as well. We want people to come in for a cup of tea, to hire out one of our rooms. We want them to come in and be amongst art. This is where we realise the power of art. It can be used for good in so many ways. We don’t just want it in its ivory tower, in a niche somewhere on the outskirts. We need it woven into the fabric of society, which is what we are trying to do here from corporate, academic and local communities, for everybody.

Staff training

“We have a very specific programme of training that is steered into specialist areas. We have one of our curators working on a contemporary arts programme. We have got very close links with the university and the institute, where our learning coordinators work hand in hand. Then there are all the other avenues you would expect in a business and arts organisation. We have 4 days for 9 members of staff for Microsoft training, Word and Excel, to get everyone at the same level to be able to use advanced spreadsheet stuff. We are constantly using formulas and advanced functions so everyone can run their own budget and analyse it.

There are going to be other courses that are going to come up in other areas. We are lucky; through Ambition we have got the IT Analyst who can train people on the Intranet, either one to one or sessions, but it is all in-house.

We are sending people off to Sage, and we are doing things in-house as well, so we can do a virtual session. Artifax, if we get that installed, is going to have a big training session that comes with that. There is going to have to be a vast amount of training.

“If we weren’t doing this, it is so tempting to say we wouldn’t have an organisation. I want everyone to have that bit of training, I want to have a system that works. I went and saw the operation director at the Tate, and he said clearly, the biggest thing you can do to influence your daily life, is get the system in place, instead of having to get the human solution later on. If you do that, the human solution would be a lot simpler. You recruit less people. You are going to have a huge turnover, in excess of 50% in the fist 6 months, which is true in any new venture, but get your systems in place. If we don’t do that, I think that we are in danger of not delivering. It is critical”.

With the high degree of training and strong leadership from a director with her finger on the pulse, one would be forgiven for thinking that firstsite is a pressurised environment. Jim has a different take. “There is a culture in the organisation that is highly ambitious, but there is also a family culture with 15 people. One of the most fundamental things I learnt form my retail experience, is that you can never just give someone a programme or a piece of software and say, go away and train yourself. You have to do it with them. I will always be leading on that, so that everyone feels supported from the word go, so that everyone can do what is being asked of them, because we are going to ask a lot of them and they need to be equipped to do that or the job won’t be done”.

The commercial taboo

firstsite is creating nothing less than a new model, even the elements of which are barely seen outside of London in an arts organisation. For the organisation to have such a high level of commercial focus is ambitious, and even breaks the unspoken taboo that arts organisations should concentrate on art, not on making money. Jim is sanguine about the potential conflict.

firstsite's new front entrance, in progress
firstsite's new front entrance, in progress

“I think that you have to be ambitious and you don’t have to fear the taint that a lot of other arts organisations feel about being commercial. You have to say, this is how we get to be sustainable, this is how we get to deliver the product we want to deliver. It will become its own product and interest. The retail that we are doing will be as much integral to our cultural activity and programme as you might call hanging a picture on a wall in installation art, because we will be involved with artists and curating that experience. You can apply the skills you have for your arts side into the commercial side, more than you think you can. It is embracing that as you would a new exhibition plan, with an artist you might have particular problems with, or a new medium of art form. Going onto the digital environment might be just as big a challenge as doing commercial. It is a change of medium. It doesn’t mean it should be undervalued, because it is how we get our finance; we have to be beyond that snobbery”.

Indeed, Jim has a perspective that arts organisations in general could benefit from less dependence on public funding and more commercial drive. He also feels strongly that people learn not by thinking but by doing, and that arts organisations should take on commercial responsibilities themselves, integrating them into their systems rather than outsourcing them…

“There is a culture of using consultants as experts for things we don’t understand, so you never learn on the way what you could have done. You need to become an intelligent client by learning with them and asking questions. Embrace that process of working with the consultants so the organisation can grow and understand the report. We want to understand what is going on and so have got in the faces of the consultants.

It then gives you confidence to know 90% of what they know about that thing you have asked them. Yes they have got a much broader knowledge in that area, but if you are building up confidence and you know the product, how to market it, and how to provide systems for it, and have staff to run it, then you can apply that kind of knowledge and confidence to any other activity. That way you can match fund your funding from the Arts Council with your self-generated funds!” Now that would be a sizeable ambition!