Reimaging Partnerships in the Arts

Thoughts from Canada Council’s Arts in a Digital World Summit

We are living in a critical time. Entire systems and sectors are imploding because the assumptions they were built on no longer exist. ~ Simon Brault, Director and CEO of Canada Council

Back in March, we were honoured to be invited as a contributor to Canada Council’s Arts in a Digital World summit in Montreal. I met many people with whom I had only communicated by email or phone, and many more whom I was happy to meet.

It was inspiring to hear BeMused Network’s founding values echoed by the keynote speakers, and to engage in two intense days of the kind of conversations we’ve been having for the last few years. I came away full of optimism for the future of the arts Canada.

Canada Council is priming arts leaders to address a complex but exciting opportunity that touches on evolving social, technical, economic and political factors. Most importantly, they have planted the seed of an idea; addressing it will require a collaborative spirit and an open mind.

It is through such dialogue that innovative solutions, which neither could come up with on their own, would emerge.

Coming away from the summit, I am more aware than ever of the blind spots we often have about technology. In particular, the assumption that technology simply exists to serve us has the danger of trapping us into a digital paradigm that would work counter to the artistic spirit.

Bridging the Paradigm between Consumers and Creators

Take for example the often-lauded successes of live-streaming technologies in the performing arts. A very expensive service that is affordable only by the most well-funded institutions. The success is often measured by views and subscribers, which might have value to the bottom line, but misses the mark when measuring the artistic value.

Just like all recording technologies that have come before us, live-streaming is simply another way to capture and distribute an artistic experience. It does not capture the thrill of being physically present (you can’t feel the vibe in a room on a screen), nor can the recording capture the unspoken interactions between audiences and performers.

To be clear, if the objective is to distribute a recording of a live event, this technology is perfectly suited for the job. However, to assume this is the right tool to develop new audiences or to create engaging experiences reflects a lack of imagination, or perhaps casts our role more as consumers rather than creators of digital experiences and technologies.

Simon Brault addressing attendees on the first day of the summit. Read the transcript here.

We are all experienced as consumers of technologies, but few of us are experienced as managers of technologies, and even fewer still as creators. Each of these roles offer very different perspectives, which can only be gained through opportunities for hands-on engagement.

Likewise, for technologists to develop solutions for the arts and culture sector, they have to directly engage with stakeholders in the sector. They have to empathize with their perspective on technology, and listen to what challenges and opportunities they perceive through their unique lens.

It is through such dialogue that innovative solutions, which neither could come up with on their own, would emerge.


To illustrate my point further, below are three ideas that came out of conversations with participants and contributors who dropped by our salon.

Each idea is rooted in a partnership between three stakeholders: an arts organization, a technology company, and an artistic community. The process would be iterative. The objective is to secure a more sustainable and viable future for the stakeholders involved.


1. Creating Virtual Artistic Experiences

Technology exists not just as a way to capture and distribute artistic experiences; it can also transform artistic practices. An encounter with MasterPieceVR sparked an interesting conversation about how theatre might be experienced in a virtual reality environment.

Performers and audiences could be in very different locations, bridging the geographic divide that often impairs access. Designing the experience of the “stage” and the “venue” from the performer as well as the audience’s perspective opens up many artistic possibilities, as there is full control over the environment in which the work is performed and experienced. These are just some of the more obvious points.

Pilot project idea: Commission works by Canadian playwrights specifically for VR, with training and professional development for the artists and producers involved. Develop partnerships with local communities and venues to deepen engagement between artists and audiences across a large geographic region.

2. Public Media 2.0 for the Arts

Newspapers and mainstream media will likely never go back to reporting on local and independent performing arts. It is really up to the arts sector to create something for the public and create their own alternatives.

Getting acquainted with the folks at Vubble inspired ideas of what it would take to create a public media portal with all the editorial rigour that we are losing to click-bait, and channeling that to reinvigorate public interest and awareness of what’s happening in Canada’s arts sector.

Pilot project idea: Rethink what arts and culture editorial means in today’s digital world, and curating (as well as creating) content that is relevant to a subset of arts organizations (let’s say, opera) to help them engage their existing audiences. The process will improve the content creation capacity of all involved, and collectively reach the patrons who are most likely the ones that misses good arts editorials the most.

3. A Network for Arts Publications

I have focused a lot on the needs of artists and arts organizations in building BeMused Network. However, a lively conversation with an editor from a major performing arts magazine in Canada opened my eyes to very similar challenges in their world.

Arts publications are small and under-funded organizations that are reliant on distribution systems that have high fees without getting much value in return. Switching technologies is costly, and none of the solutions are ideal. Most importantly, they cannot leverage the data to improve their understanding of their readers, to deliver better content and more timely offers.

Pilot project idea: A literary network for Canadian arts and culture publications that addresses all these issues. In collaboration with key publications, a minimal viable product would be developed with the express purpose of reducing the cost of distribution, while streamlining the collection of aggregate readership data, as well as improving the reader’s experience.


If I have inspired questions and inquiries, feelings of doubt or excitement, that is exactly what I hope to achieve. The ideas above are simply conversation starters, not perfect solutions.

That’s the beauty of partnerships: no one has all the answers, but working together in an earnest and open manner, we have a chance at creating the future that we deserve.

What do you think? Do you have a pilot project idea? How can we foster the next generation of partnerships between artists and technologists?

I look forward to your comments and thoughts.

Thanks to John Teraud for reading an earlier draft. Thanks also to Canada Council and the Canadian Film Centre’s ideaboost program for hosting us at the summit.

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