The Australia Council for the Arts has released new research about how Australian audiences engage and interact with art in a digital space. The report, In Real Life: Mapping digital cultural engagement in the first decades of the 21st century, analyses the way artists and companies around the country have adopted ways to reach potential audiences beyond traditional physical performance spaces like theatres.

Australian Council

Omega Ensemble performing as part of Sydney Opera House’s digital season. Photo © Prudence Upton.

“We now have literally at our fingertips almost infinite possibilities to discover, connect, engage and create culture online. We have seen, particularly throughout the pandemic, how digital technologies have enabled more people to access the arts and cultural experiences.” said Australia Council CEO Adrian Collette.

The report lays out the rise of digital platforms since 2000, and the ways in which audiences have taken up the chances afforded to them to consume performances and art exhibitions from their homes. The engagement saw an understandable uptick during the COVID-19 pandemic, with companies finding themselves having to adapt to digital content to maintain connections with audiences. The report highlights The Sydney Opera House’s digital season, Melbourne Digital Concert Hall (which in its first year raised over $1.25 million for artists through ticket sales) and the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair as examples of organisations who effectively adapted to deliver content digitally.

The report, which was a joint effort with the National Arts Council Singapore, intended to guide and inform future strategies and research for both, has highlighted five key factors in regards to engagement with digital performance platforms.

Firstly, that Australians are increasingly engaging with arts online, and that this rise is leading to a blurred line between ‘artist’ and ‘audience’ as a result of this engagement. 

Secondly, that audience expectations are changing and now include some kind of ability to “insert oneself into the story, an artwork, or an art experience”, as well as access to some line of communication with the performers and other audience members (such as comments on a livestream). 

Thirdly, that for many people, live performance is no longer simply about ‘in-person’ attendance. Rather the feeling of experiencing the performance or piece simultaneously with people in the same space has become more important.

Fourthly, that audiences also now expect to have significant access to arts and culture for a minimal cost. The report explains that digital technology has made it much more difficult for copyright holders to exert control over works, but has also allowed for more options to share and engage creatively with content (remixes, parodies etc.). New business models for how copyright holders can control their work will be needed as digital platforms become increasingly prevalent.

Finally, that whilst this technology allows for a much wider access to content, and for people to access a wider variety of creative activities, this does not mean that everybody has equal access. More must be done to establish even distribution and equal connectivity across all socioeconomic groups, ages and locales. Additionally, some groups may find barriers to access online content for numerous reasons. The Australia Council has “further work” underway to work towards equitable access to digital content.

“We also know these changes – that were already occurring and have been accelerated by the pandemic – have deep ramifications for the creative sector. There is a need to discuss and respond to key challenges – from creating sustainable business models to ensuring all Australians, particularly those with disability, older Australians and those in regional and remote communities, are able to access and benefit from creative participation,” Collette said.

This report is not the only effort from the Australia Council to engage with online content. The COVID-19 Audience Outlook Monitor Webinars held recently also sought to analyse the ways that audiences have engaged with and accessed art and performances during the COVID-19 pandemic, including making use of online and digital services.

In Real Life comes ahead of the Australia Council’s Art Going Digital forum being held on 12 July, as well as the release of the Digital Cultural Strategy on 9 July.

In Real Life: Mapping digital cultural engagement in the first decades of the 21st century can be accessed in full online on the Australia Council website.