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Digital Transitions and the Impact of New Technology on the Arts

Prepared by David Poole

November 19, 201219 November 2012

Digital technologies and the cultural sector

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This discussion paper, intended for use by arts funding bodies, provides a useful overview of “current knowledge on the theme of digital transition and the impact of new technology on the arts”. The discussion paper is based on a literature review, consultations with knowledgeable people in the field, as well as a survey of how Canadian public arts funders are responding to digital technologies. The report defines digital technologies as “technologies that allow information and processes to be created and stored in digital form, with the possibility of distribution over electronic networks”.

The paper indicates that “the electronic, networked and interactive nature of the digital world has a significant impact on the arts”. In particular, the continued development of social media has had many impacts, including:

  • Enhancing people’s ability to share user-generated content.
  • Providing a structure through which people can organize themselves and collaborate.
  • Connecting people to artworks and arts organizations, by “matching art to people who are looking for it, providing a platform to create art and carry on dialogue and debates around communities of interest and giving organizations tools to listen to the public and build arts awareness”.

Regarding online engagement with the arts, the report cites British surveys that have indicated that “people who are most engaged in the arts already are most likely to explore art online”. In other words, “the Internet is unlikely to ‘convert’ those who are currently uninterested in the arts”.

The report finds that different art forms have differing relationships to digital technology. Some art forms only exist because of technology (e.g., “digital art practices and film, video”). Other art forms, while not owing their very existence to digital technology, are strongly influenced by technological developments in creation, production and dissemination.

The paper provides a synthesis of the relationship of different art forms to digital technologies and argues that “new digital technologies have had their deepest impact on production and dissemination practices in disciplines and practices outside the performing arts”, such as writing and publishing, music, media arts, and visual arts. In these art forms, “the digital transition allows artists to replace physical objects with electronic files and to displace distribution over time and between places with instantaneous distribution over networks.”

The paper indicates that digital transitions have policy implications, especially regarding copyright legislation. There are also implications for the revenue streams of artists and arts organizations, as British surveys have shown that “most members of the public say that they would refuse to pay for arts online and [have suggested] that persuading people to pay for arts online will require guarantees of exclusive content and consistent quality”.

The report poses some key questions for arts funders:

  • “Do they recognize and are they responsive to the ways in which artists work in the digital environment?
  • Do they recognize art practices that develop or change because of possibilities presented by digital technologies?
  • How do they recognize the professionalism of artists if the roles of traditional indicators of professionalism (acceptance by gatekeepers, use of professional tools) are diminished?
  • Are they tracking and accommodating the changing roles of infrastructure organizations (artist-run centres, publishers, recording studios, etc.) in light of digital technologies?”

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