Rachel Somers Miles

The Importance of Digital Art Distribution

"The research enacted by LIMA, generously supported by the conversations it held with artists and its distribution organisation sisters, has brought forward a number of interesting approaches to distribution practices that LIMA has been internally exploring. In addition to the impact that the ideas generated have had for LIMA’s own internal self-exploration, we hope they are useful as a space of imagining for other distributors."

Over 2019 and 2020 LIMA, the platform for media arts research and preservation and the main distributor of media art in the Netherlands, conducted research[1] focused on the distribution of digital art. In addition to the main tasks of exploring the current landscape of digital art distribution and the opportunities and challenges afforded by changing contexts and technologies, the work also set out to increase awareness around the important work that distributors of artists’ moving image artworks and other digital art forms do. While the distribution of artists’ moving image works (whether through a distribution organisation, agency, gallery or done by the artist themself) is integral to the presence, publicity and financial ecosystem of its artists, in the context of most not-for-profit distributors, the work of distribution is often not recognised, undervalued and seldom specifically financed by arts funds.

Distributors play a significant role in supporting the work of artists, and especially for those just emerging. As film historian Helen Westerik writes, of course artists themselves could take care of the distribution and rights, galleries for selling the work, lawyers for legal matters, and curators can search on their own for artworks, 

'yet, to have organisations that do all of this above and beyond is priceless. There are no other institutions in which the knowledge, the technical, legal, promotional, organisational expertise is coupled with a deep understanding of the material. This leads to a practice in which not just the distribution, but also the conservation of media art works is of the greatest importance. All the knowledge invested so far, will assure that we can still access these artists’ work in the future. We need caretakers of the past, with a keen eye for the future'.

Because of this important role that distributors play, LIMA sought to bring the work that distributors do into a more pressing and public part of the conversation around digital art production and presentation, especially as it pertains to garnering more understanding of, and funding support for, this integral work. In order to raise the profile of distribution through this research, LIMA engaged in knowledge-exchange activities such as collaboration-building conversations and working sessions, interviews, public presentations, and a (soon-to-be-released) research report and publication.[3]

In addition to raising awareness around distribution being an overarching aim of the project, a main goal was to explore the state of digital art distribution beyond the borders of the Netherlands, investigating, analysing and assessing different models: their basic (technological) modes of distribution but also the financial business models attached that are being used for video art, software-based installations, net art and live performance, now and those that might arrive in the future. This, for example, took the shape of exploring VOD platforms, thinking about ‘the festival’ or ‘production’ for installations as a model or avenue to distribution in itself, or what new opportunities and needs have arisen for artists’ moving image presentations online. Throughout the research, the main set of questions guiding our investigation, and that we returned to repeatedly to reflect on were: what are the best practices and most exciting models we can look towards for inspiration, and what can we learn from those that have been less successful? Additionally, and in particular, the research thought through different kinds of digital artworks, asking what are the different aims or opportunities of distribution for these works, for what kinds of presentation contexts, what kinds of issues/challenges are faced and what kinds of efforts or strategies arise to tackle them?

The results of the research are manifesting in a variety of different ways, from the development of new workflows and working methods for consideration being explored internally by LIMA regarding our own distribution practices and the ways that we might consider working with artists differently, and mapping out the possibilities for distributing software-based installations; to an extensive research report focused on the distribution of more complex works including software-based installations and net art, highlighting potential strategies for distributors as well as the different distribution technologies employed in different art ecosystems; and also a publication that offers different interventions that (re)visit the possibilities and challenges of (the online distribution of) digital art. While the research itself spans a wide range of considerations across different forms of digital art, a main focus of attention was exploring the current landscape of video art distribution and the important role that distributors of these works play. It is in this vein that we found ourselves in conversation and collaboration with On & For.

It was early February of 2019 when the On & For team joined the DINAMO[4] meeting, a gathering of distributors of artists’ moving image works that takes place at IFFR in Rotterdam every year. Here it was clear that both On & For and LIMA were embarking on exploring distribution more deeply and began to consider ways in which we could collaborate. While the scope of On & For has been to create spaces of discursive exchange and LIMA’s has been to enact more involved research, it was clear that both were invested in knowledge-sharing activities and were in fact seeking to ask similar questions of a range of different kinds of distributors of artists’ moving image works. Together we developed a questionnaire, for On & For to use for their upcoming Distribution Models event in April 2019,[5] and for LIMA to use in gathering insight and in starting conversations for the research. This extensive questionnaire gathered information on a variety of key topics including how the distributor is structured and how distribution activities are financed, the kinds of time and financial investments they make in distribution and the income received, the number of works they have in their collection and the volume of work they distribute yearly, how they manage negotiations with different kinds of presentation venues, models for promoting works, opinions on film festival submission platforms and VOD platforms, amongst others.[6] In addition to collaborating on the questionnaire, we were also invited to On & For’s Distribution Models event to publicly launch LIMA’s research project. 

Using the questionnaire that On & For and LIMA collaboratively developed, we engaged with ten different distributors located in Europe and North America, and followed these up with a number of in-depth interviews to take a closer look at their practices and experiences. We also conducted a series of interviews with artists (at various stages in their career) to see what their different needs are and where their expectations of a distributor lie. While there is not enough space here to go into any great depth regarding a reflection on the responses, perhaps what is more interesting to explore is what kinds of insight the questionnaire and conversations offered LIMA in terms of thinking through and rethinking the kinds of approaches it can take to distribution in its own practices, and how these might evolve, and also as an opportunity for other distributors to consider how these ideas might work, or be adapted, for their own contexts. 

In particular, LIMA has been thinking through differentiating its distribution services. Currently, for the most part, and like many other artists’ moving image distributors, LIMA has a general approach to the distribution of all of the artists it serves regardless of career level (approximately 540 of them). In very simplified terms, it focuses on the active distribution of new works (taken in within the past two years, of which it acquires about 30 new titles yearly that are submitted for review after their completion), and then the passive distribution of older works by liaising with curators and programmers who contact LIMA directly. LIMA also hosts screenings and events that include works from the distribution collection. With this in mind, LIMA has been thinking through the differentiation of its distribution services in terms of different models for different ‘kinds’ of artists, specifically asking about the needs of different artists, and artists at different levels in their careers (i.e., emerging, mid-career and higher-profile), what can we offer them, and how does this relate to distribution? 

For example, while we haven’t yet established a formal plan, we have been thinking through ‘talent development’ as a kind of service for more emerging artists and as a framework through which to support their growing careers and find a pipeline through to distribution. This, for example, includes creative mentoring on the development of works, proposing potential funding opportunities and supporting artists in grant writing, connecting them to curators and programmers, and setting up mixers with emerging and established artists as a further kind of mentorship opportunity. This work in itself doesn’t generate income for LIMA and does require upfront costs that would need to be supplemented a different way, but the idea being that through talent development LIMA supports the creation of works that then can be distributed. Of course, this kind of idea also comes with a set of questions that we don’t yet have the answers to, such as who will have access to this kind of talent development support/stream and what are the criteria, how will it be funded, and how does LIMA ensure a variety of different kinds of work is supported through development. While thinking through the answers to such questions is very much still in the works, the desire for LIMA to be part of the creation process at least in terms of feedback and reflection, and part of the promotion conversation at an earlier phase, is important to many artists, according to a number of those reached through our research conversations. Engaging at an earlier moment also allows LIMA to more intimately know the work, develop a strategy and position it at an earlier stage, offering a great advantage in not only its successful distribution but also the developing career of the artist.

LIMA has also been exploring the needs of mid-career artists and what we can offer them, a group who often begins to float away from certain systems of distribution as they establish a name for themselves, and frequently begin working with a gallery. We don’t currently focus specifically on their needs, so we are imagining what kinds of services we could offer to support them as they evolve. For example, with a growing reputation comes growing demand. A number of artists we spoke with indicated that they are in great need of technical services, particularly artists whose moving image works also take the shape of installations. While we see this kind of support as being particularly useful for mid-career artists, LIMA wouldn’t specifically limit these services to them. LIMA has a great wealth of technical knowledge (both contemporary and historical) and could, for example, offer advice on equipment, support artists in liaising with presentation venues, and field technical enquiries. This could also include putting more emphasis on active distribution, such as connecting with galleries, art fairs and festivals to focus on developing specific thematic programmes that would create engaging new avenues into the older works of mid-career artists. And for those artists who have a gallery, LIMA and the gallery could focus on real cooperation, in particular deciding on a model for sharing screenings and exhibitions and identifying responsibility, collaboratively strategising on promotion and identifying opportunities to amplify promotion around exhibition or screening events, and share screening and exhibition schedules with each other for cross-promotion and potential buying opportunities. While some distributors do have a kind of relationship with the galleries of the artists they work with, the working arrangement between the three parties is often rather informal, where galleries will pass on screening requests to distributors, and distributors will pass on exhibition requests to galleries, as opposed to a focused, collaboratively strategic approach. Currently LIMA is in the process of devising a collaborative strategy with a specific gallery as a potential base model to move forward with other artist-gallery-distributor collaborations. Of course there is no one-size-fits-all approach and all artists and galleries have different needs, but a kind of base model for potential ways of collaborating is a great starting point for conversation to encourage working together, and one that could be beneficial for all three parties involved. 

Another strategy LIMA has been exploring, specifically in terms of generating more income to support its distribution activities (which are solely funded by the fees taken in from distribution itself), is to intentionally try and take on more higher-profile artists. For example, at LIMA a small number of artists make up more than 50% of the overall distribution income earned. The majority of distributors we spoke with have a configuration where a small number of artists (around ten or less) a year (often out of hundreds of artists distributed that year) make up to 50% or more of the overall distribution income generated. In a model where LIMA would seek to bring on board more high-profile artists, the aim would be exclusive distribution of that artist (a requirement LIMA doesn’t currently employ, and one that of course is understandably challenging to implement). The income generated out of such an approach could support the payment of LIMA’s distribution activities across its catalogue, and if really successful, could supplement, for example, the funds needed to put in place other distribution activities that require investment, like talent development. The goal would be to bring on a new high-profile artist every four years. Part of the promotion of higher profile artists is already embedded in name recognition; however, the demand on those artists’ work and their presence in other kinds of activities (artist talks, symposia, etc.) is usually higher, thus requiring more dedication, strategising and time, and as such requires additional resources to support this work that would ultimately be covered by the income generated from the distribution of that work. 

The research enacted by LIMA, generously supported by the conversations it held with artists and its distribution organisation sisters, has brought forward a number of interesting approaches to distribution practices that LIMA has been internally exploring. In addition to the impact that the ideas generated have had for LIMA’s own internal self-exploration, we hope they are useful as a space of imagining for other distributors. While the above offers a small glimpse into one avenue and exercise of the research conducted, we hope the wider report and publication to be released soon offer distributors, artists, programming and curating people and spaces, as well as funders, insight into the important work of, and potential in, the distribution of digital art. Through this research and the important collaborative conversations that practitioners in the field will continue to have, LIMA endeavours to continue to inspire a distribution landscape that develops and fosters impactful and supportive relationships with artists, offer pointed and specific services that match their needs, and support the fair remuneration of their work in a way that also supports the financial sustainability (and hopefully growth) of the distribution services that these organisations can offer.

Rachel Somers Miles works for LIMA in Amsterdam as a project manager and researcher.