The upstarts need you!

by Simon Cronshaw with Peter Tullin, REMIX Co-Founders

As a working class kid growing up in northern England, the expectations and rituals required by cultural institutions felt completely alien. With no creative education at school, and little exposure through family and friends, the assumed knowledge needed to visit a museum, gallery or performance remained out of reach.

In their 2020 book Culture is Bad for You, authors Orian Brook, Dave O’Brien and Mark Taylor deliver a compelling analysis of how exclusion from UK culture begins at an early age and persists thereafter in both audiences and workforce across gender, ethnicity and class. They argue that creative participation is a relatively niche pursuit operating in its own bubble of supply and demand. The authors apply this conclusion to both market-driven and publicly-funded culture, and highlight the entwined nature of the two.

But what if our traditional labels around funding, artforms and business models no longer properly capture the evolving relationship between the public and its sources of creative expression and participation? What if an increasing number now look beyond that which we label ‘the arts’ or even ‘creative industries’ to supply their demand for creative encounters, knowledge and community?

Several consumer trends point towards an accelerating mainstream demand for exactly the sorts of interactions that would traditionally be found in the cultural sector. Witness the rising demand for unique, immersive or more meaningful experiences; a thirst for knowledge, including the growth of edutainment; the popularity of platforms for sharing creative expression; and the desire for debate and common spaces, to name a few.

When cultural institutions do not supply this demand, creative entrepreneurs are stepping in. Some work in partnership with established gatekeepers (including institutions and funders); but others bypass them entirely and are appealing direct to the public.

Supply ≠ demand

The palpable consumer demand for unique experiences is a clear example, even despite (or perhaps even accelerated by) Covid-19. In the 2018 Euromonitor Survey of Millennials and Gen Z, the experience economy was predicted to be a $8.2 trillion industry by 2028. 77% of those surveyed said some of their best memories were from an event or live experience they attended or participated in; 69% said that attending live events and experiences make them more connected to other people. Furthermore, according to Eventbrite research, three in four American millennials would rather spend money on a desirable experience or event than buy a desirable object.

Excluding theme parks, the immersive entertainment industry alone is valued at $9.7 billion according to the 2020 Immersive Design Summit. Within the immersive segment, Storytech 2019 estimated that location-based experiences such as VR and mixed reality now comprises a market that is expected to grow to a $12 billion value by 2023. Melbourne-based Zero Latency developed free-roaming VR experiences with no wires, walls or motion sickness and have opened 45 locations in 22 countries in less than five years with over a million players so far. In 2019, a total of 755 new immersive experiences and shows were catalogued by leading industry publication No Proscenium. In 2019, for the first time in history, major themed attractions exceeded a collective half billion visits or nearly 7% of the world’s population. In the United States alone, 2,350 Escape Rooms were catalogued in 2019.

Cultural gatekeepers may argue they have always co-existed with commercial attractions, but recently the lines are blurring as the latter seek to provide more accessible stepping stones to artistic content and edutainment in response to a rising consumer demand. Powered by 140 projectors, Atelier des Lumières provides 2,000 square metres of immersive audio-visual experience of Gustav Klimt’s paintings, featuring mural projections of the images set to music by Wagner, Strauss and Beethoven. It attracted more than 1.2 million visitors in just eight months in 2018 – comparable to leading French museums – and is expanding to spaces in Bordeaux and South Korea with further plans for the US and Mexico. Meanwhile, teamLab’s immersive playground of digital art has proven even more successful. Their Tokyo site ‘Borderless’ opened in 2018 and an incredible 2.3 million visitors from 160 countries descended upon the site in the first year, overtaking the Van Gogh Museum as the most visited single-artist museum. They have also opened up a second location in Shanghai, demonstrating how creative entrepreneurs have few reservations about moving into new markets to compete with the existing incumbents for the limited leisure time of audiences.

Unrestricted by government funding or geographic territory, expansion is being fuelled by private capital, particularly in the United States. Meow Wolf, originally a volunteer art collective in Santa Fe, raised $158 million in 2019 to build new sites in Denver, Washington, Las Vegas and Phoenix. Their impact investors include George R.R. Martin, author of ‘Game of Thrones’ and local resident of Sante Fe, a small city of 70,000 where Meow Wolf opened ‘The House of Eternal Return’ in a disused bowling alley converted into a 20,000 square foot immersive art experience. Despite Sante Fe’s small population and lack of a major airport, 400,000 people visited in the first year – more than twice as many as the local Georgia O’Keefe museum. The New Mexico Economic Development Department project Meow Wolf will create 440 jobs and $358 million in economic impact over the next decade. Meow Wolf certified as a B Corporation to reflect their commitment as a business to social impact and a desire to build a more sustainable and inclusive form of capitalism. Their success has enabled them to provide $635,000 to non-profit arts organisations in 2019 and they now employ, support or collaborate with more than 500 interdisciplinary creatives and artists.

Similarly, Two Bit Circus, a product of the maker movement, raised over $21 million to build a ‘micro-amusement park’ in a giant warehouse in the LA arts district as a 21st century take on carnival. Developed in the words of CNBC by “a band of mad scientists, roboticists, visual artists and storytellers”, profits from their activities and expansion are funnelled into their foundation focussed on STEAM projects to inspire the next generation.

Other players in this space such as the Museum of Ice Cream have a more overtly commercial model but have also raised $40 million to fuel expansion. They also demonstrate how creative entrepreneurs leverage social media to grow rapidly with a fraction of the usual marketing spend. The highly visual nature of these experiences are tailor-made for Instagram – in just a few years the Museum of Ice Cream (430,000+ followers), Meow Wolf (320,000+ followers) and teamLab (430,000+ followers) have overtaken cultural giants such as the Sydney Opera House, Science Museum and American Museum of Natural History on this platform of 113 million potential audience members.

These examples are just the tip of the iceberg. Early adopters flocked to productions by immersive pioneers such as Punchdrunk and Secret Cinema (who both continue to innovate, including expansion to China). Now, big tech – with the resources to reshape industries seemingly overnight – has noticed the opportunity, meaning new competitors and possible collaborators abound. For example, Secret Cinema collaborated with the newly-formed Experiences team at Netflix on an immersive production of Stranger Things in London and are producing a drive-in format for LA. This follows on from a similar partnership between Secret Cinema and Disney for their Star Wars production of Empire Strikes Back.

Also responding to this demand for one-of-a-kind experiences, Airbnb reported a seven-fold year-on-year increase in seats booked on Airbnb Experiences in 2018, handling 1.5 million bookings per year. It launched in 2016 with roughly 500 experiences and today offers over 30,000 experiences in more than 1,000 cities worldwide. Comparing their first years of operation, Experiences grew 25 times faster than rentals. Airbnb announced new passion categories including Airbnb Concerts, Social Dining, and Adventures, and is expanding its Social Impact Experiences by working with more than 1,000 non-profits since 2018. 65,000 people have connected with a non-profit on an experience so far, with some of the most popular hosts earning more than $200,000.

Brand extensions are creating opportunities for organisations to respond to this demand. Time Out recognised how its established talents as a curator could be extended into facilitating access to the best of our cities. In 2014, Time Out Market opened in a disused space in Lisbon bringing into the physical realm their mission to “bring together the best of the city under one roof: its best restaurants, bars and cultural experiences, based on the editorial curation Time Out has always been known for.” Initially a temporary experiment, 3.9 million visitors were coming to the market by 2018 to explore 32 restaurants and kiosks, eight bars and cafes, five shops, cooking workshops and attend events in the Time Out Studio, a 900-capacity venue. It is now the number one visitor attraction in Portugal. Having proven the model, Time Out Markets expanded to New York, Boston and Miami in 2019 with other locations including Chicago, Dubai, Montreal, Prague and London set to follow.

This colossal trend around experiences is one of several striking examples of the present mismatch between creative supply and demand. Not one single cultural institution can be found on the majority of consumer websites that aggregate experience gifts, save for ‘dinner and theatre’ or a day-pass to attractions. From private views to curator tours to lectures to dinner with artists to educational workshops to behind-the-scenes access… the list of opportunities is almost endless (and most of these are already being run at institutions), yet the cultural sector is nowhere to be seen when the public asks what is available. It suggests a dangerous assumption that everyone naturally thinks of the cultural sector, or even a particular institution, when asking this question – before going through the effort of an arduous search.

Shackled by convention

However, this challenge runs much deeper than just optimising marketing and distribution channels. With only a handful of notable exceptions, cultural institutions today are shackled by an overload of convention. Too often, they do not innovate around the problems that historic assumptions produce because they never question these fundamental notions in the first place. The audience experience at a museum remains largely unchanged since Elias Ashmole founded the first public museum in 1683. Ditto for most galleries, libraries, performances and other cultural gatekeepers, save for somewhat superficial layers of technology. Yet how much have our needs and expectations as audiences changed in those hundreds of years? It could be that some museums are choosing to position themselves at the forefront of a counter-trend to the norms of a rapid, high-tech society: an analogue space that remains a constant for audiences that are experience destabilising change in so many other parts of their lives. It isn’t a problem if this is a deliberate choice and strategy, but in far too many cases institutions find themselves there by accident and are consequently unable to properly leverage this role in relation to the trends they are countering.

One of the most challenging realisations to square is the continued relevance of the core objectives and ambitions that these early cultural pioneers aimed to deliver for audiences. Compare bleeding-edge consumer trend insights against the fundamental objectives of cultural institutions and there is incredible congruence. Museums, galleries and public libraries as centres of excellence; a university on every street corner; free and universal access to knowledge; performances to transport and challenge audiences by seeing the world through different eyes; artworks, objects and experiences that “illuminate our inner lives and enrich our emotional world” in the words of Arts Council England.

As I progressed into early adulthood, I grew increasingly aware of this raw promise of art and culture but couldn’t comprehend why it was always hidden away behind marble cathedrals and dry captions. The lucky ones find it by accident and fight their way into its secret realm; it is never proactively offered to them. I accidentally ended up working in the arts industry, and through this had the privilege to talk with curators and directors whose enthusiasm for their collections and work was infectious and addictive. Yet, over and over, I witnessed this fundamental disconnect between the enthusiasm and knowledge of staff and the impenetrable, alien experience for the population at large.

It is perhaps worth clarifying that I am not advocating dumbed-down, lowest common denominator cultural experiences. That is the charge frequently levelled at those asking for a deeper consideration of audience needs. Or not-yet-audience needs, to be more precise. This seriously underestimates the complexity and intelligence of the general public, and over-simplistic populism only usually occurs at institutions with little self-confidence. A strong organisation knows when to listen and when to challenge its audiences, when to lead and when to be led. Putting audiences first doesn’t simply mean doing everything they demand. Rather, it means understanding them to the depth that you know exactly where to go when they trust you to take them somewhere. A proper relationship with an audience is a dynamic, two-way commitment that provides plenty of opportunity to challenge and provoke.

This absence of accessible bridges or stepping stones between those that can provide and those who are looking is a key factor to the culture sector operating in a bubble. Audiences are required to have a certain level of understanding; they must look for opportunities in certain places; they need to play by the expected norms and rules, even if no-one has ever stopped to explain what these are. The impact of this should be deeply concerning for those who care about achieving the core objectives referred to above: it severely limits the breadth and diversity of audiences, involving as it does a huge degree of self-selection and even courage for an audience member to engage on these terms.

In this context, it is perhaps inevitable that creative entrepreneurs identify an opportunity to better supply the demand they observe. Creative entrepreneurs work effortlessly with both creative assets and – crucially – consumer trends. They identify opportunities to respond to the trends using those assets, and deploy entrepreneurial strategies to make ideas happen. The creative enterprise in turn delivers a sustainable, self-perpetuating revenue source, and new or deeper relationships with audiences for their creative content and experiences.

Re-emerging after COVID

So in the aftermath of COVID-19, where are the main opportunities emerging? Digital technologies are one obvious source: the reimagination of creation, curation and distribution models; the long-promised opportunities around virtual and mixed realities with the potential to bring alive the work of our greatest storytellers or transport us convincingly to any point and place in history or bring any and every work into our living room.

Technology also extends to hybrid models, where digital seeps into the physical world. For example, using accurate 3D reproductions of artworks and objects to vividly recreate exactly what the artist saw, or to place objects in new contexts, without any need for dimly-lit rooms and security fencing. Or using projections and holograms to reimagine a performance or work, or create an entirely new artform as in the case of teamLab.

Generally speaking, the greatest opportunities for digital culture and hybrid models occur when we stop trying to slavishly recreate the physical experience in digital form and start imagining what a digital or hybrid cultural experience could actually mean if designed free from established norms and assumptions.

In the purely physical environment, meanwhile, we could start imagining new business models and cultural experiences focussed on small groups or even individuals rather than large crowds. Museum Hack has made this work in the museum sector, creating a multi-million dollar business in the process. Its founder Nick Gray has a manufacturing background, and epitomises someone completely unencumbered with the traditional expectations of the museum sector, but with a deep passion for communicating the objects in their collections.

Moreover, Covid-19 has unleashed forces to rapidly accelerate changes that were already happening. City centres could be hollowed out by further adoption of ecommerce that has led to a wave of bankruptcies and downsizing for bricks and mortar retailers. A catalogue of familiar retailers including Macy’s, Debenhams, House of Fraser, John Lewis, Staples, Barneys and JCPenney have been hit. Coupled with lower demand for offices due to the rise of home-working plus the growing consumer demand for experiences over products, radical new responses from creative entrepreneurs are required. In the US, creative entrepreneurs such as Otherworld and Electric Playhouse have built immersive experiences in the empty retail spaces – an early taste of the new models to come.

Making room

How these ‘upstarts’ are supported and integrated – vis-à-vis and by existing cultural gatekeepers and funders – will dictate how well nations compete in the global creative economy over the next decade.

Many cultural funding bodies, complete with strict labels and entrenched gatekeepers, are unsure whether and how to respond to these emerging challengers. But, to maintain relevance, they will need to adapt to these changing trends in supply and demand. This includes an appreciation that creative interactions for a sizeable portion of the population now take place primarily through creative and social enterprises.

This challenge equally applies to educators and careers advisors, who need to better understand and support the new realities of these industries when nurturing the next generation of creative entrepreneurs and cultural leaders.

Over 12 years ago we published Intelligent Naivety, a handbook for creative entrepreneurs that predicted a new age of creatives that could blend culture, profit and social impact. Many have flourished in that time but almost without exception, it is in spite of – rather than with support from – the established gatekeepers. Creative enterprises are still caught in the gap between economic development and arts priorities: able to deliver both, but not sufficiently traditional or familiar for either sector to embrace.

Blending purpose with financial sustainability, and unable to fit into neat artform-specific boxes, very few creative enterprises are able to access state support or recognition beyond piecemeal and project-orientated leftovers. Yet, as strategic investments that can help reinvigorate the creative economy, drive new growth and provide rewarding jobs following the devastation of Covid-19, support for these enterprises should be front and centre stage.

Combine exclusion from culture from a young age with the triumph of convention in institutions, funders and educators; contrast this against unfulfilled demand for creative expression, knowledge and experiences among the wider public.

Through this lens, the role of the impact investor becomes clear, vital and urgent in supporting the creative enterprises to respond to demand in unapologetically inventive ways. In the absence of traditional sources of finance, only impact investors are presently supporting these courageous upstarts. Facilitating culture for everyone: courtesy of creative entrepreneurs and their revolutionary sources of finance and support.

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This is an extended version of an essay which first appeared in ‘Creativity, Culture and Capital: Impact investing in the global creative economy‘ by Nesta’s Arts & Culture Finance, Fundación Compromiso, and Upstart Co-Lab