An overview of the background and inspiration for ArtsAPI, as presented by Drew Hemment at a workshop launching the research and development phase on 22 September 2014.

ArtsAPI looks at how arts organisations can better understand and evidence the connectivity and connections they generate between things, people and events. It aims to create a business modelling and analytic tool to enable arts organisations to generate insight from data.

The primary challenge and innovation in ArtsAPI is to seek to combine the deep insight that can be generated through a technique called Social Network Analysis, or SNA, with the power of online software tools and linked open data. In short, the project will attempt to create an automated way of visualising and analysing data, a tool that automates some of the processes of SNA (‘SNA-lite’), to enable arts organisations to independently create new insight.

Arts organisations create art, and inspiration. They are lightning rods for new ideas and practices; they capture them and give them space to grow, and they help to shape them into compelling works, that inspire and change the way people see the world.

Crucially, arts organisations generate more than the output of their formal programme, or can be listed in a What’s On guide. Around and about arts organisations, artistic and social scenes flourish, debates rage, livings are made. Arts organisations are nurturers of people, and of communities. They make places; bringing wonder, energy, attention to neighbourhoods. They make worlds; offering a way of doing things, an attitude, values, and vision.

Some arts organisations, such as those working on the boundaries of the sciences, or immersed in technical innovation, bridge between dissimilar people, professions, sectors, and societies. For a few, this is now central, not peripheral, to how they and others see them and what they do. These arts organisations have become new kinds of intermediaries and brokers, generating connectivity and interfaces between creatives, communities, companies and cities.

The inspiration behind ArtsAPI was the insight that many arts organisations can generate, but do not articulate or evidence, significant value through the relationships they create and sustain. A commonplace and well documented example of this is art led urban regeneration. For some arts companies, there is a proven business model here, in which they are funded by a city or a regeneration agency to bring new life to a neighbourhood. A little less common, is when an arts organisation creates a bridge, or an interface, between sectors and disciplines. Here we can think of an art gallery at a technology institute, or an art-science agency, which create a bridge between a university research department, creative communities and the public.

There is a business model in this. One in which arts organisations earn income by generating networks and relationships. This model has been adopted by some of the arts organisations participating in the ArtsAPI project. This includes FutureEverything, a National Portfolio Organisation of Arts Council England, which now operates as an innovation agency in Manchester, generating connectivity between communities, city officials and businesses. However, these cases are often based on reputation and trust built over decades in one city. These connectors and intermediaries make it possible for things to happen, they generate opportunity for other people and companies, but evidencing an impact so diffuse is near impossible.

ArtsAPI sets out to try to make this network effect visible, tangible, and to create insight into value and impact that was heretofore rarely seen, something we call ‘relational value’. This is not about reducing cultural value to depthless metrics; it is additional to, and to one side of, the intrinsic value of art works. It might just contribute something new to urgent debates around evidencing forms of cultural value that are additional to economic value.

The project will look at a spectrum of arts organisations, leading to a set of tools that other arts companies can adopt. The goal is to enable arts organisations to explore their relationships, better understand factors that shape their success, and ultimately generate new revenue streams and offer new programmes and services. We hope it will help arts organisations approach data as central to what they do and as a core component of the decision making processes.

ArtsAPI kicks off this week with a workshop at FutureEverything engaging all the core arts partners, Blast Theory, Culture24, Forma, Contact Theatre, Redeye and Warwick Arts Centre. The goal is to build consensus with these arts organisations around the goals of the project, the kinds of insights we hope to create, and which datasets we will work with. Our learnings so far have been around the legal and ethical nuance of working with the data, and around developing bottom up vocabularies for the SNA with the arts organisations. This is just the beginning of the journey, and much more lies ahead.

ArtsAPI is a collaboration between FutureEverything, University of Dundee and Swirrl, and is made possible by the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts.