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Last week, The Audience Agency announced a merger with fellow sector support charity, Culture24. Here, CEO Anne Torreggiani explains why they have joined forces and how their work together will support a more future-focused sector.

Dictionary entry: Merger

Last year, Arts Council England (ACE) dropped both The Audience Agency (TAA) and Culture24 from its portfolio in a move - as we understand it - to replace our funded services with others fully under its control. 

Neither organisation was wholly reliant on ACE grants. In TAA’s case, the Audience Finder service was just one aspect of our work, and the funding represented under a quarter our of total income. 

Nevertheless, it is a big change, leaving a significant income gap. We have decided to face this challenge together - not just for the sake of efficiency but because we have a shared ambition for a sector in need of change.

Life after ACE

We asked ourselves less IF we could survive, but rather WHY we should. We had a strong belief in our work and purpose, but that wasn’t the point. The burning question was, what does the sector need?

At TAA we commissioned some independent consultation with our three main stakeholder groups: arts, museums and heritage organisations; local authorities; and cultural sector agencies and policymakers. 

The sector needs audiences, ideas, change

We heard cultural practitioners are bewildered by unpredictable audience behaviours in the short- and long-term. They are unsure what audiences want and how that’s likely to change. They feel under enormous pressure to deliver their commitments to underserved communities but anxious about moving forward in the face of immediate financial concerns. Some teams have lost specialist knowledge and report having to start from scratch without knowing what intelligence, resources and support are available.

They told us they want strong evidence to help them manage risk today and insight to help them adapt to future challenges. Although driving up income and securing funding are the pressing concerns, many also want support to become more relevant to their wider community, to address social justice and climate change and stay on top of technological change. 

They want reliable, digestible insight about actual and potential audiences. But they also need to hear more about what works, and about the new approaches and propositions that will speak to future audiences.

Local authorities and policymakers need joined-up evidence 

Local authorities are under financial pressure too but, of those we spoke to, most are ambitious for culture, seeing it as the lifeblood of their regeneration and placemaking strategies. They lack reliable, joined-up data to underpin this work, especially in terms of understanding participation and differentiating the diverse needs of different neighbourhoods and communities. 

They want to set meaningful baselines and measure progress on economic impact and - more challenging - social outcomes. They too need good, future-facing ideas, to get a handle on what works and to be able to apply it in a locally distinctive and relevant way.

The needs of support agencies and policymakers mirror these but on a larger scale. They share a need for sound, comparative evidence of the impact and value of culture and what works at scale. 

The right people for the job?

We asked if we were the right people to fulfil these needs. We have been surprised and delighted by the stream of support and encouragement from the sector in the wake of the ACE decisions. But this anecdotal support was boosted by the research, underlining the trust consultees have in us to deliver and their confidence in our knowledge and approach.

People appreciate our role as connectors, honest brokers and network facilitators. Work with research partners – like Centre for Cultural Value at University of Leeds and the Institute for Digital Culture at Leicester University – is particularly valued.

Interestingly, consultees for both The Audience Agency and Culture24 identified our collaborative style and research-based approach as key strengths. It was one of the drivers for the merger. 

Shared ambition

Independently we concluded that, if anything, the sector needs what we have to offer more than ever. We discovered remarkable synergies in our plans with a shared ambition to support cultural organisations to adapt to accelerating change by adopting more experimental and supple ways of working. 

TAA remains messianic about making that change by putting audiences and communities first, while our colleagues from Culture24 are ardent campaigners for digitally literate leadership. Together, we can provide the good data and good ideas the sector needs to keep pace with social and technological change. 

Our plans will support innovation in these areas, playing to our strengths: substantial experience and expertise in research, action learning and human-centred design to co-develop solutions to the sector’s most urgent problems.

Five pillars to support innovation

With this purpose, we have restructured our business model to offer a five-pillar programme of services, hallmarked by an evidence-led and people-centred approach which supports and encourages future-focused experimentation. 

The Culture24 team will lead on:
-     a digital pillar, consolidating their prowess in cohort learning programmes, leadership development and digital transformation. 

The other four pillars are: 
-    participation and engagement with an emphasis on research-led innovation for audience development, on co-creation and visitor experience. 
-    A new cultural and creative places offer is geared more specifically to the needs of local authorities, seeking to embed an authentic people-centred/evidence-led approach to placemaking. 
-    Our work in impact and evaluation, will help amplify ‘what works’. 
-    The final evidence for policy pillar looks to build on our work developing largescale evidence and data infrastructure projects.

Tools and capacity development

We will continue our most popular products to support all five pillars. We have developed Audience Spectrum to provide a strong understanding of different tastes and habits across the population, while the shiny new Audience Answers toolkit helps organisations and Networks to survey and analyse their own audiences. The Cultural Participation Monitor will continue to plot changes in the country’s cultural habits and attitudes, as they happen.

Peer learning and action research programmes will become a major new, cross-cutting feature. We kick off with a next edition of the ground-breaking open programme Lets Get Real, with a theme appealing directly to current anxieties: using digital to add value. 

All services will be offered on a paid-for but affordable basis, often with a sliding scale designed to support smaller organisations, in line with both a necessarily commercial approach and our mission to serve the wider sector as well as we can.

Stronger together: 1+1=3

Although both organisations have had to make redundancies, the new business model and merger mean that years of investment in tools and resources, skills and experience will continue to benefit the sector. It also means we will be able to continue to provide services for Arts Council Wales and Creative Scotland.

But the merger is about much more than cost saving. Our boards challenged us to go further to make one plus one equal three, to create an offer together that would more than double the value and impact we had on our own. 

We have partnered on a lot of projects so we already had a keen sense of shared values and how well we complement each other. But plans would never have got off the ground without the generosity and openness of Culture24s leadership team. Jane Finnis and Anra Kennedy are not just brilliant at what they do but ‘walk the talk’ in being agile and open to other ways of working. 

Between us, we have a pretty awesome network in the UK and internationally. We’re confident the merged organisation will bring additional value to all stakeholders and build on strong international connections, brokering new dialogue and spreading emerging practice exponentially. 

Together, we’re confident that when people choose to work with us, they can expect to navigate an uncertain future with confidence.

Anne Torreggiani is CEO of The Audience Agency.

This article, sponsored and contributed by The Audience Agency, is part of a series sharing insights into the audiences for arts and culture.

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Image of Anne Torregiani