This time last year I was in the thick of my research for a BSc on digital analysis in the Museum sector, specifically the National Portrait Gallery London. Then in March 2020 social media stats jumped like the numbers on those US shopping channels. Pre-Covid only 30% of over 45 year over olds in the UK regularly streamed their cultural content (unsurprisingly 70% of people under 25 years of age got their cultural consumption through a screen) according to Understanding the Impact of Digital on Live Performance, Arts Council of England 2016. Suddenly this changed in lockdown to 100% of all ages consuming culture digitally.
The arts sector in Ireland moved rapidly to engage audiences online, and there are some stand-out organisations for me who really rose to the challenge. The Abbey Theatre with its Dear Ireland project was one of the first off the blocks, with actors performing from their living rooms, their kitchens and their bathrooms, shot on phones and projected to audiences worldwide through Youtube. It was riveting to be one of over 22,000 consumers in the first days of the online performances – to feel the raw energy of Irish theatre makers embracing a new world of engaging with audiences.
While there was no previous national financial model for ticketing digital events, the Abbey’s leap of faith to go live with no knowledge of income was ground-breaking. Think of the Netflix financial model, market penetration, where you go in with low pricing but high production values, and engage with enormous numbers of new audiences. This was (and will continue to be) the game-changer for Irish Theatre. Prior to Covid, producers could kick the numbers whatever direction that a full house of 350 seats or 700 seats would lead them. Now we enter a world with a combined physical audience in the same seats augmented with a digital consumption model where audiences will watch globally 24/7 in unlimited numbers, opening Irish artists to the world stage…
Another trailblazer who has changed the concept of the multi-disciplinary arts centre since last year is Mark O’Brien and the team at Axis, Ballymun, Dublin 9. While venues globally closed their doors, the Axis Chats emerged, opening a ‘behind the scenes’ online chat with artist makers including Lenny Abrahamson, Garry Hynes, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor and Bosco. The centre became a virtual arts broadcaster, harnessing the skills of the production team to keep audiences engaged, and importantly artists being paid.
In the visual arts, the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) hosted Ireland’s largest open call annual exhibition online for the first time in 190 years. It was a superb way to see each work up close, and was augmented by a virtual reality walk through the gallery rooms. I always buy from this exhibition, to support Irish artists in the knowledge that a higher % of the sale price here goes to the artists, than through other sales channels. The experience this year was extremely positive, and though I was not able to secure one of the gold-dust physical spots to see the show when it re-opened post-level 5 restrictions, I really hope this part of the annual show remains. I wonder how many new audiences accessed the show? Were the high level of sales from the same buyer profile as previous years, or did it open a new global platform for Irish artists?
Many smaller galleries also embraced virtual viewing rooms for the first time, including the Olivier Cornet Gallery. I had the pleasure of Co-curating the current exhibition, On Paper with Olivier and it looks like this exhibition will remain entirely online. There is no doubt that this virtual exhibition experience opens accessibility for people who may not be able to physically get to the gallery for a multitude of reasons.
Post-Covid we long for physical performances. I dream of standing closely with strangers in a field while live music washes over us. Who doesn’t miss that? However, being back in a field at a festival will not supplant the great digital experiences audiences have embraced over the past 10 months. When the doors open again people will have a renewed energy for the work they consumed through their screens and their hearts in 2020.
2020 was a world in which the arts hurt so badly. Anecdotally I estimate that between 80 and 95% of Ireland’s arts workers have been on some form of emergency payment for the bulk of a year. In hushed voices they share the fact that many earned more money on emergency pandemic payments than they do when they work full time, reflecting how badly the sector is paid. Yet they long to be back at the work they love, and for which Ireland is a better place.
Many artists and audiences yearn for a live audience experience again. Many continue to hone their digital engagement skills, where artists became skilled film-makers to keep the performance going through the various levels of pandemic restrictions. The artists and producers that spent 2020 learning new ways to engage with online audiences will have built a toolkit for an emerging blended experience of combined physical and digital engagement with a much larger global audience. With a new financial ticketing model. They are waiting. They are ready to be the first off the blocks when the doors open. It can’t come fast enough…