Exploring (potential) audiences as the core activity for arts organisations

What does a festival of ancient music and a festival of digital arts have in common? What unites a contemporary art gallery, a museum of local history and a university library? What are the common threads connecting a theatre with a community centre or a dance company with a local cinema?

All these sectors put audiences at the heart of their activities. It’s hard to imagine a public library without borrowers or a performing arts festival without spectators. Arts and cultural organisations from variety of cultural sectors experiment to meet the needs of existing and to attract potential new audiences.

As part of the study on Audience Development, we interviewed 30 cultural organisations to analyse their AD strategies and practices in the last two months. We wanted to understand how they transfer their visions into objectives, and how they are working – and sometimes struggling – to place audience at the centre of their artistic and cultural vision.

Running these interviews across Europe has been extremely interesting and, although we are now at the very beginning of the process of analysis, interviews gave us food for thought, enriching our perspective on how effective audience development looks like.

At a first glance stories we’ve heard, appear very different from one another: AD practices are as many as organisations are. Political, social and economic contexts play a huge role in diversifying the way cultural organisations interpret their role and responsibility towards audiences and communities.

We already knew that one size does not fit all, but we were surprised by the variety in premises, strategies, organisational structures and actions stemming from these case studies.

Of course, national cultural policy backgrounds mark a first clear difference in the playground where arts organisations enact: there are European countries where audience development is a priority for public funded culture, in some other places this priority is also concretely enacted though cultural policies and investments, while somewhere it is barely an argument.

Organisations we interviewed are different: different environment, dimensions, ambitions, kind of activities, countries, motivations and stories: from ancient institutions that are rethinking themselves, to organisations born as audience centred, from artistic paths naturally drawing to participatory practices, to marketing and communication changes motivated by a new management.

Nevertheless, most interviewed have something in common: a listening attitude, a trial and error approach, data relevance and shared objectives (or at least, a clear and shared awareness of the need of such things).

We are now working hard to investigate and make sense of such a variety. Between September and December 2016 we have planned a number of meetings to share and discuss the results of the study, and enrich our interpretations through an open discussions with cultural operators and researchers across Europe.

The first meeting will take place on September 30th in Mantua, Italy, where preliminary results of the “Study on audience development – How to place audiences at the centre of cultural organisations” will be presented at Artlab.

Stay tuned!

By Alessandra Gariboldi/Fondazione Fitzcarraldo

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