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Technology and the Arts Field: Uses and Issues

This is a knockout report… one of the best things we’ve read…It is an incredible resource and gives us a road map to act. We are blown away by it.

—Bonnie Brooks
Former Presenting Series Director, Dance Center of Columbia College

—Laura Samson
Former Executive Director, Alphawood Foundation

Regarding strategic planning process for the Chicago Dance Community


The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation (Mellon) commissioned a study of technology usage in the arts field to learn about its practices, accomplishments and needs. Mellon had conducted a survey of almost 600 memberships of five discipline-based arts service organizations: the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, Dance/USA, the League of American Orchestras, OPERA America, and Theater Communications Group. Callahan Consulting’s new analysis and research determined the representativeness of the original survey sample, obtained updates from respondents by conducting case studies, and compared the original quantitative survey data to respondents’ qualitative perceptions.

A Time of Rapid Change

Technologically speaking, times changed radically in the years when this study was completed, and, to a degree, arts organizations have changed with those times—as became highly evident when comparing earlier to newer research. The new qualitative data, which came from interviews with the service organization heads and detailed case studies of select respondents, created an in-depth picture of the technology needs and strengths of organizations, gave insight into the survey responses, and revealed the sometimes radical changes that took place in organizations’ tech use since the survey.

Limited Capacity and Other Barriers

Almost three-quarters (71%) had operating revenues of under $3 million (43% were below $1 million). The majority (58%) had 10 or fewer employees and a larger majority (71%) had no designated IT staff. Across both survey and case studies, organizations were greatly impacted by their human resources—the amount of staff as well as their knowledge and training. Most lacked in-house IT staff, relying instead on a mix of contractors and non-IT employees which, survey responses revealed, was inadequate for their needs. A full 80% considered their technology use to be either only “serviceable” or “antiquated.” When respondents were asked if they had experienced barriers to effective adoption and use, three barriers emerged: lack of money (83%), lack of time (69%), and insufficient knowledge to make technological decisions (33%).

  • Tech vendors received high praise and sharp criticism, as their role was seen as pivotal to a tech project’s success or failure.
  • Staff leaders who were committed to new technology made it easier for organizations to realize goals, while resistant leaders could be major barriers to progress. Those staff who solved tech problems or took on projects were lauded as heroes. Even if employees lacked tech expertise, a positive, problem-solving mentality was sometimes enough to make tech projects succeed.
  • Decisions about technology appeared to be made in an ad hoc manner as equipment broke and systems became outdated. Only about half of survey respondents had a budget line item to update their technology more often than every five years, and most did not keep it up-to-date. While an implied shortfall within the survey was the lack of bona fide tech plans, the interviews strongly suggest that tech planning is, in fact, being conducted within individual departments.
  • Both surveys and case studies stressed organizations’ need for increased tech knowledge and the ways in which a lack of information about technology can deter usage and progress. Respondents wanted to make effective technological decisions but lacked the time and expertise to conduct the necessary research. The fact that over half of survey organizations had no budget for tech training shows the difficulty of keeping up with technological advancements.
  • The topic of integrated software systems for data management was one of the biggest issues in the surveys and case studies. Respondents reported great success stories and deep disappointments. Generally, organizations invested in new programs for two major reasons: to better track donations and ticketing, and to decrease the burden of work for employees who were forced to use separate systems to enter donor data and track income. However, the extent to which these software purchases met their needs depended heavily on both the systems chosen and the amount of technological training possessed by those who installed and operated them. Integrated software for accounting and box office was an aspiration of many survey respondents; service organization heads also emphasized this necessity. Survey respondents faced constant struggles to upgrade their tech systems, including software, hardware and security. Acquiring funds to accomplish these goals was a major barrier on both the survey and in the case studies.

Increase in Social Media

More than for any other issue, there was a striking change in attitude towards website and social media use between the time of the survey and recent interviews. Social media was barely mentioned on the survey, and website upgrades were treated by respondents as just one more non-specific tech need. However, case studies and service heads made it clear that using social networking to engage audiences was an increasingly high priority. Organizations had ambitious and dynamic goals for their online presence, even if they were not yet able to realize them.

Recommendations and Mellon’s Response

Several recommendations are made. Funding is crucial to organizations’ success, but if given, steps should be taken to ensure that tech plans will be implemented and systems will be used well. Strategies that increase tech knowledge and encourage sharing of information will benefit the field, particularly small and mid-sized organizations; a shared website that would offer knowledge and information about software products used for data integration is worthy of consideration, if it takes into account the concerns expressed by respondents in the report. Regular research should be conducted on the arts field’s technology issues, so stakeholders who are dedicated to serving the field can stay informed and craft meaningful responses. Since 2008, Mellon has addressed some of the challenges identified in the study, through direct grants to arts organizations, as well as to the Non- Profit Technology Enterprise Network (NTEN) to develop the course “The Art of Technology” for nonprofit arts organizations.

To Review the Study: