Museums, galleries and artist collectives around the world are shutting their doors and moving online in response to coronavirus. But engaging with audiences online requires access, skills and investment.
My research with remote Aboriginal art centres in the Northern Territory and community museums in Victoria shows moving to digital can widen the gap between urban and regional organisations.
Local spaces are vital. They ensure our national story is about more than the metropolitan, allowing artists to create – and audiences to engage with – local art and history. These art centres and museums bring communities together.
This cannot be replicated online.
Australia’s digital divide influences the ability of museums and galleries to move online, and the ability of audiences to find them there.
Cultural organisations that cannot produce digital content risk getting left behind. If we don’t support regional and rural organisations in their move online – or relieve them from this pressure entirely – we run the risk of losing them.
More than metropolitan
Community museums are critical in collecting, preserving and enabling access to local history. Across Victoria, these community organisations hold around 10 million items.
Aboriginal art centres produce some of Australia’s best contemporary art, generating A$53 million in sales between 2008 and 2012.
Digital platforms can make these contributions to our cultural life more accessible – particularly in these times of physical distancing. But artists in remote Aboriginal art centres and volunteer retirees running community museums are the most likely to experience digital disadvantage and the most likely to be left behind.
A digital divide
Australians are more likely to be digitally excluded when Indigenous, living in remote areas, or over the age of 65.
Over 30% of Indigenous artists practising out of art centres are over 55, and are most likely to be earning from their art over 65. These remote centres have poor access to web-capable devices and have low-quality internet connections.
Read more: Australia's digital divide is not going away
The digital divide also exists for local audiences with access issues of their own.
Although most art centres and community museums have active websites and social media accounts, these are unlikely to be truly engaging or interactive.
Art centres tend to focus their digital platforms outside the community on commercial sales. Community museums focus on information about opening hours and events. They rarely have the expertise or capacity to create detailed online catalogues for audiences.
Digital inequality ensures barriers remain even for online collections. Regional and rural organisations are unlikely to have the specific skills, resourcing and devices to move fully online.
Under social distancing, cultural organisations that cannot produce digital content risk being left behind. This will disproportionately impact regional and rural organisations.
These organisations are critical for preserving the diversity of Australian stories. Aboriginal art centres and community museums provide spaces where the local is solidified. Communities are formed, documented, responded to and shared.
If these organisations cannot host the same web presence as major metropolitan institutions, even local audiences could divert their attention to the cities. Our local cultural organisations might go the way of our disappearing regional newspapers.
To survive the coming months, these organisations need targeted support to move online. Or a reprieve from the pressure to be completely digitally accessible: not all cultural consumption can happen online.
These physical community spaces will be more important than ever once social isolation rules are lifted.
Authors: Indigo Holcombe-James, Sessional academic, School of Media and Communications, RMIT University