There are winners in crisis too
Marcin Reiter: This love was born in pain....
Adrian Hołota: You mean the love of cultural institutions for digital media?
You read my mind.
Opera performances, theatre productions or symphonic concerts were present on YouTube from the beginning. However, they were not very popular and cultural people did not treat them as separate products, but rather as a promotion of their activities. Little attention was paid to their production and, as a result, their quality was not high. It was assumed, after all, that aesthetics and acoustics were not taken into consideration when building opera houses or theatres, but that a work of art should now be taken out of its context and presented to an audience carelessly sprawled on a sofa.
The Vienna Philharmonic have been playing a New Year's concert for millions of television viewers around the world for years, and are unlikely to delude themselves that they are all sitting upright in front of their televisions in evening gowns and tailcoats.
Well, there is a good chance that they are still wearing their New Year's Eve outfits. On a serious note, however, this is the result of the massification of television. High culture has had to learn to interact with television as it did earlier with radio. I would like to remind you that the Television Theatre appeared on air as early as 1953, with the launch of Polish Television. Interestingly, the first performances were broadcast live from the television studio.
No, it was not necessary, but it definitely accelerated the process of change. Pinned down, cultural institutions and organisations, whether they wanted to or not, whether they were ready for it or not, had to move immediately from offline to online. Initial complaining was suddenly replaced by great amazement at the results achieved. The director of the Kutno House of Culture reported that during the lockdown, three thousand people took advantage of the art classes conducted online. Previously, they were attended by... twelve participants. For the sake of completeness, it is worth adding that Kutno has a population of 45,000.
They have certainly been given an extraordinary opportunity to transcend their localness and reach a wide audience, sometimes even a global one. Let's take a look at the operavision.eu platform, through which Polish opera houses have been able to present their performances to European audiences. The Cracow Film Festival was just a pandemic hit in terms of attendance. More than 40,000 people from all over the world attended the paid, online screenings - twice as many as when the screenings were held in cinemas. The winners were those cultural centres that understood that the internet has its own rules. That it is not enough to turn on a camera and broadcast a performance or a class. That it is important to interact, to use different tools, to be multi-channel.
The cultural managers were aware of this?
We should appreciate their openness and willingness to use the experience we have gained over the years in the commercial services market. A great example is our cooperation with the Municipal Public Library in Kalisz. On the one hand, extremely committed librarians, on the other our team of strategy, UX and UI specialists, graphic designers, copywriters and programmers. Together we created a digital product step by step, using exactly the same methods we use when working on applications or software for the commercial market.
A market-based approach to culture? I can already see the indignation of many readers.
Our challenge was to familiarise young people with the turbulent life story of the traveller Stefan Szolc-Rogoziński, a native of Kalisz. Is it better to make an animated film or publish a series of interviews with librarians? Or perhaps combine them into one? Before deciding to build an adventure game using multiple forms of communication, including an AI-based chatbot, we conducted a series of strategy workshops. Together with library staff and local history enthusiasts, we developed scenarios and their variants, graphic aesthetics, and dialogue language. We also involved potential audiences to test the attractiveness of the solutions used. As a result, we have developed a product that really engages young people. It is also highly educational and aesthetically pleasing. When we created it, it seemed that it would be a temporary solution, for the time of the pandemic. Meanwhile, young people and educators liked it so much that they use it all the time.
Will this model work in any area of culture?
I would like to give a perverse answer: in every area of culture there are people who are in love with their idea and who, without validating it, blindly pursue it. This model does not work anywhere! This is how applications are born that nobody uses. This is throwing money down the drain, often public money. To avoid this, you have to work in teams, build prototypes, test, improve. Working on values is an essential part of the process. It is also important to remember that a digital product needs to be constantly developed, improved, adapted to the needs of customers, which, after all, change over time. If we don't do this, the app will be discardable after two to three years.
Or is it easiest to copy solutions that have been successfully adopted by others?
Never do that! Clients often come to us with the idea of building a second Airbnb, Uber or LinkedIn. They believe that one model can be transplanted to any market segment. Leaving aside their specifics, they walk straight into failure here. A strategic analysis is always necessary at the very beginning. I also recommend this approach to cultural managers. Each institution operates in different conditions, each has different goals, each reaches a different audience. And each can build something unique!
Especially as the popandemic cultural market seems more competitive.
Yes, and in two ways. On the one hand, cultural institutions have begun to compete in earnest with a digital offer that is increasingly developed, improved, richer. Standing out in this market therefore requires even more work, skills and creativity. On the other hand - with the lifting of sanitary restrictions - theatres, museums or opera houses have returned to working offline. Now they have to find a way to develop a model for the coexistence of both types of activity. They have to answer the question of how to build their complementarity. And they have to face new technological challenges, because the world, after all, does not stand still. Young audiences are becoming increasingly bold in their use of metavers, for example. Is Polish culture ready for this? Theatres, philharmonic halls or galleries need sensible plans for adapting to new technologies. Whoever does this task well, approaches it strategically, will become a leader. A crisis produces not only losers, but also winners. In the cultural market reborn after the pandemic, it will not be long before we see the former and the latter.
Founder of the digital production house Gentlemen Programmers and the consulting company Sparing Digital, which specialises in creating profitable digital products. For years, he has helped cultural institutions digitise processes and build modern tools. He has created an original booking and ticketing system as well as an audience service system used by cultural institutions. He has worked, among others, for the Polish Theatre Institute, Stefan Żeromski Theatre in Kielce, the Municipal Public Library in Kalisz, Open'er Festival and the Kraków Live Festival. Winner of dozens of marketing awards, including Innovation, KTR, Kreatury and Mixx Awards.
The interview was published in 'La Vie' magazine.