Getting digital smartly

What is a virtual space? And how different is a digital audience from a live audience?At a Sydney Arts Management Advisory Group (SAMAG) seminar, Virtual Audiences: trends in digital engagement with the arts, on 24 February 2014, the panel and participants discussed what a virtual or digital audience really was—and how best to reach them.

Getting digital smartly


Digital technology is enabling arts organisations to reach beyond the theatre, gallery or concert hall in presenting their work to audiences as well as shifting the way audiences experience works in these spaces. The ‘virtual’ space, once the far frontier of production and participation, has become an essential platform for audience engagement and experience.

In discussion were the Nest’s CEO, Stuart Buchanan, as well as Michael Parry (Powerhouse Museum), Alex Fraser-Cameron (Australian Chamber Orchestra), Gabby Shaw (Museum of Contemporary Art) and Mish Sparks (Mod Productions). All shared their ideas and experiences of the way digital technology and virtual participation is being used and understood as part of the mission and mandate of arts organisations.

All three institutions have been highly innovative in their digital engagement with audiences—the two museums with how they connect with visitors, and the Australian Chamber Orchestra with its 3D virtual orchestra. (Designed with Mod Productions and built using state-of-the-art technology, ACO VIRTUAL features projections of 13 musicians surrounding you on all sides, with the sound of each player coming from the direction of their projection. It's like standing in the middle of the orchestra during a concert.)

Thought provoking issues were raised, including:

  • What is a digital experience?

The ACO and Mod’s aim was to blur the boundaries between performance and digital media.

But in defining a truly digital experience, panelists noted the difference between enabling technology and a creative digital experience. It’s about using the technology as a creative medium rather than just as mediation and promotion.

  • How do we make social media work for us?

Many institutions find that their branded apps have only been opened once by an audience member. The apps need to offer something truly special or useful or convenient.

  • Where does digital development sit? Is it with marketing or does it have the artistic/curatorial staff involved too?

It was agreed that creative staff must have a strong role in the development of digital platforms and content.

The ACO flagged The Reef as a prime example of its unique blend of artistry and technology—and foreshadowed its next project,The Mountain, which will be destined for cinema release.

Clearly digital engagement has a huge role to play with education—the ‘virtual excursion’ offers a convenient adjunct to the live experience, using workshops via video-conferencing and exciting new technologies such as ACO VIRTUAL.

We have to be smarter about how we reuse content—it is an opportunity that digital provides. And it’s not necessarily just about reaching remote and regional audiences; it’s also about providing a different experience.

  • Does digital engagement keep pace with technology?

The rejoinder offered to this question was, does it matter? Often the underlying principles of what you are trying to do are the same, no matter what platform or process you are using. It’s about staying true to the message. Whether you use new or existing platforms, the most important thing is to know how the platform works to its optimum.

  • Should organisations be charging for digital content?

The panel felt that the digital experience has to be far more integrated in terms of convenience—and income. It was pointed out that the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York was at maximum capacity, so its next revenue stream has to be digital. Institutions should be trading on their brand name.

It is important that mobile apps and the website are aligned. People don’t necessarily visit all of an institution’s online platforms; therefore, they all need to be integrated. We need to provide a coherency of experience. One way to facilitate this is by making ‘on ramps’ to guide people into the digital experience you want them to have. Different technologies can provide different personalised experiences.

MONA’s founder/director, David Walsh, has developed Art Processors—a mobile interpretive solution that replaces wall labels and traditional signage. It is now used by the State Library of NSW and Melbourne Zoo, and has been a successful commercial spin-off for the museum.

The panel thought there could be strength in building apps together, rather than reinventing the wheel every time new platforms were needed.

Interesting and useful websites mentioned in the seminar include:


Stuart Buchanan, CEO,the nest @stuartbuchanan
Michael Parry, Director Public Engagement, Powerhouse Museum @vaguelym
Gabby Shaw, Digital Media Manager, Museum of Contemporary Art, Australia
Alex Cameron-Fraser, Strategic Development Manager, Australian Chamber Orchestra
Mish Sparks,Director-Producer, Mod Productions @modprods