What a few months it’s been. A whole society is having to work differently, think differently.
For all of us in cultural education, basic ‘givens’ on which our work has been founded - schools where education happens, venues where art happens – have suddenly been taken. That wasn’t on the risk register. Everyone has had to respond, and very swiftly, to a new reality in which homes are the new schools, living rooms are the new theatres, cinemas and galleries. And the only route to them is through a router.
Many of us were already engaging with our audiences online, one way or another. In my own organisation, Into Film, which works UK-wide and at scale, I bored colleagues for years with the constant refrain that we needed to be “digital first”. Right now, across the sector, we’re all “digital only”; and that may be surfacing some important questions. What are the strengths and deficits in our current digital capabilities? Which elements of what we’re doing online are people engaging with and what’s not gaining traction? Do we have the right tools to gather data? The necessary skills to analyse and understand it in order to inform future decisions?
My mantra about being digital first has invariably been accompanied by another phrase though, heard in a speech years ago: digital is the bridge, not the destination.
Since the lockdown hit there’s been a rush to send traffic over that bridge, to respond to the situation by reaching people’s homes with online content. There have never been so many opportunities to watch streamed performances, participate in online dance classes or download an activity sheet. Into Film is, among other things, producing lists of recommended films to watch via the popular streaming platforms and highlighting learning resources that accompany them.
Surveying the plethora of material, my subjective view is that some of this stuff is good and will create positive outcomes. Some isn’t though. For understandable reasons that dash to respond to the changed world has resulted in a fair amount of cutting and pasting. “What have we got that we can put out there?” But one size doesn’t fit all; what worked in another context doesn’t necessarily work in this one in which, for instance, parents seeking to support their children’s home learning don’t possess the huge level of skill and experience of professional teachers. Brilliant dancers may attract online views but don’t necessarily have the skills and experience to teach well.
I wonder whether the current situation may be surfacing symptoms of an underlying issue that’s always been there in the learning practice of cultural organisations. Even though that practice has evolved greatly over the years, I’d suggest there can still be a tendency for it to be supply-led, rather than needs-led. “We’ll decide what we want to do; then we’ll find some schools to do it with.”
I read about a new poll indicating that only 9% of people say they want life to return to how it was before. We’re all thinking about what we’re learning, what we’ll do differently, when we emerge from the other side of this. In professional life, I’m going to be thinking about how we can put the needs of schools and teachers, children and young people, even more at the heart of what we do; and about listening to and co-creating with them more. I’m going to discuss with colleagues how we become more responsive to demand. Online data collection and analysis can reveal pretty starkly is what people engage with, and what they don’t.
I’m also going to be contemplating the implications of homes having become our schools and living rooms having become our arts venues. I suspect there could be quite a profound impact on our culture, and therefore on our work, in the longer term.
There’s another fundamental thing I’ve learnt over the last few weeks. However brilliant and creative some of the online activity may be, there’s no substitute for human beings being in a shared physical space, having a shared cultural and/or creative experience. I think we’ll all crave and cherish that more than we ever have. God I miss it.
Paul Reeve is CEO of Into Film, a film learning organisation working across all four UK nations. Previously, he was Director of Learning and Participation at the Royal Opera House and has held educational posts at the RSC and English Touring Opera. He is a member of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s Arts & Education and Teacher Development Fund Advisory Panels, and the Cultural Learning Alliance Advisory Panel. He is also a trustee of National Youth Ballet.