The National Center for Charitable Statistics at the Urban Institute says there were 39,719 arts, culture and humanities nonprofits in the U.S. in 2009, the most recent year for which numbers are available. You can bet that virtually all of them would like to get your attention.
To accomplish that, many -- and probably most -- have gone online via websites, blogs and social media such as Facebook, Flickr, Twitter and YouTube.
On Friday the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project released the results of an interesting survey that seeks to understand how those institutions are using digital technologies to reach the public. More than 1,200 arts organizations participated. Most of them have been in existence for more than 20 years, so they were founded before the digital revolution took off. Only two describe themselves as for-profit entities.
So far, it seems that digital technologies are primarily being applied to nuts-and-bolts issues of institutional survival, maintenance and growth. By far the largest use is promotional, with fundraising functions close behind.
According to the numbers, less useful is the digital capacity for education, artistic creation and collections management -- all activities that are central to an arts organization's mission. Two reasons might explain the divide.
First, nonprofits occupy an important place in American civic life but rarely get commensurate public assistance. Across the country they accounted for $28.7 billion in revenues in 2009, the National Center for Charitable Statistics estimates, but it is still common to hear arts, culture, and humanities organizations casually described as a frill. Digital promotion is made essential.
Second, we should remember to look first to artists, not institutions, for the most meaningful innovations in digital content. Places like the Getty and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art present informative blogs produced by staff (the Iris and Unframed, respectively), while Minneapolis' Walker Art Center has turned its entire website into a visual arts portal leading far beyond its own museum. Still, simply getting an art museum's entire collection online in a thorough and easily usable format is a huge if not dramatically creative task, yet it fits the organizational mission like a glove.
The Pew survey respondents also were asked to describe the greatest institutional challenge in maximizing the potential of digital technologies. Most had the same answer, which one succinctly described as, "Staff time, plain and simple. ... Without resources to add staff, digital projects have been integrated with existing workflows."
The unidentified respondent continued with the declaration that, "We're all doing our best to do more with less." That's optimistic boilerplate language for, "Unfortunately we're doing less with less," which seems to be the norm as the digital revolution rolls on.
The full report on "Arts Organizations and Digital Technologies" is available at the Pew Internet website.