Tech Talk: Arts Organizations Turn to Digital and Social Tools for Support

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January 10, 2013 ‐ By Kimberly Maul
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Arts organizations across the US have seen the benefits of incorporating technology and digital tools into their marketing, fundraising, and audience engagement — and those organizations focusing on black arts and culture are among them.

According to a new study from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 81 percent of arts organizations that have received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts said that the internet and digital technologies are very important to promoting the arts. Additionally, 78 percent said they are important for audience engagement and 65 percent highlighted the importance for fundraising.

“I think that I do agree. Reluctantly agree,” said Valerie Gay, executive director of Philadelphia-based Art Sanctuary, of the Pew data. “I do agree that digital technology has positively impacted and been beneficial to the arts.  But it depends on the area.” The Art Sanctuary uses the power of black arts to transform lives and unite communities, drawing inspiration from urban centers and inner city communities. It hosts prison music programs and after-school writing and currently is working on a partnership with the Opera Company of Philadelphia called “HipH’opera.”

In the Pew study, arts organizations said that they use their own websites, blogs, social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, online video- and photo-sharing, and online purchases of tickets and merchandise as part of their outreach to the community. Digital tools allow organizations to post or stream performances, as well as present online exhibits and host educational events such as webinars.

Lupe Fiasco joins an Art Sanctuary rap session. Via Facebook.

Lupe Fiasco joins an Art Sanctuary rap session. Via Facebook.

The Art Sanctuary demonstrates all of that, using its website, Facebook, Twitter, and online videos to connect with its audience. For its annual Celebration of Black Writing over the summer, the organization live-streamed its events with help from a local cable access station.

But challenges remain. As with many nonprofit organizations with smaller staffs, the time and resources needed for incorporating such digital technologies are often lacking.

“We’re trying to make sure we make the right decisions about which technology or which medium to use,” Gay said. “As long as it’s free, we can try it and I’m all for it, but if we’re having difficult time allocating funds for technology that may not be tried and true yet. We’ll do the best we can to be on the cutting edge, but at the same time, we have to be practical too.”

The African American Arts Alliance of Chicago, which agreed that one of its biggest challenges is funding, is currently re-designing its website. It is also on Facebook and is working on creating a Twitter account.

“Our revenue comes solely from membership dues, events, and grants,” the organization said in an email to Madame Noire. “It sometimes is financially difficult to get a knowledgeable individual to create a brand new attractive site that will increase our audience base as well as someone to maintain the site. Not to mention the purchase and maintenance of the devices to allow us to stay relevant in the digital world.”

Pew found that 49 percent of organizations surveyed have sought funding specifically for technology and digital advancements within their organization.

One such advancement is mobile, which is increasing as a tool for arts organizations. The African American Arts Alliance of Chicago said it has plans to introduce mobile applications to keep the community informed of events.

“Mobile connectivity is beginning to drive some activity in arts organizations,” the Pew report stated. “Some 24 percent of these respondents say they use apps to provide content to the public; 17 percent say they use apps to facilitate work in their own organization; 15 percent use apps to sell tickets or services; 5 percent use apps to train and educate employees.”

As consumers continue to turn to social media, mobile devices and other tools to connect with friends, brands, and nonprofit organizations, these digital tools will play an important role in not only the marketing, fundraising, online sales, and community building of all arts organizations, but also their survival.

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