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Noticing that families were under-represented in their audiences, art galleries in the North of England decided to take a collaborative approach to commissioning and communications. Elaine Lees tells the story.

Photo of boy in room lit by row of coloured lights on sticks
The Tree, The Caterpillar and The Butterfly by Aether & Hemera

Donna-Lisa Healy

With Generation Tour we wanted more families with children under 11 to enjoy contemporary visual art. Our venues – Durham Art Gallery, Gymnasium Gallery in Berwick-upon-Tweed, Towneley Hall in Burnley and Central Art Gallery in Ashton-under-Lyne – had all identified families as an under-represented audience group. By working together, and with funding from Arts Council England’s Strategic Touring Fund, we set out to change things.

We described the artistic concept in a way that spoke to families and not the usual visual art audience

We wanted the art, the venue and the communications to appeal to families specifically, to take their needs and wants into account and alter opinions and behaviours.

Focus groups

Local children’s centres partnered us and we matched each with a venue. We ran focus groups with the families at these children’s centres to ask them for their views and opinions on our venues and art exhibitions. They told us they wanted a hands-on experience. They felt that art galleries rarely offered this, which meant they didn’t feel welcome, and that the words ‘art’ and ‘artist’ were off-putting. For them, family-friendly facilities were important, such as toilets and buggy access, and in terms of communications they wanted something instantly recognisable as ‘for families’.

We invited staff and parent representatives from the children’s centres in Burnley and Ashton on to our artist commissioning panel, to make sure that the art would appeal to younger families. We then shared our focus group learning with artists, so they could develop their ideas with this in mind, giving them a better understanding of our audience.

Interactive exhibitions

Four exhibitions by four artists were created over a two-year period. The first were ‘Generation Air’ by Spacecadets and ‘Generation Noise’ by Owl Project, which toured the four venues over 12 months, with two live exhibitions running concurrently.

Learning from the first round of commissions, this was followed up with ‘The Tree, The Caterpillar and The Butterfly’ by Aether and Hemera and ‘Musical Chairs’ by Hellicar and Lewis. They again toured the four venues over 12 months.

The exhibitions were all interactive and included giant inflatable organisms, wooden machines that made strange noises when wheels and discs were turned and buttons pressed, a garden with butterflies, birdhouses and a watering can that responded to human and digital interaction, and wooden chairs that played sounds when sat on and changed sounds when you connected with other seated people.

A family-friendly approach

Our approach to communications and audience development needed to work across all four venues and the four exhibitions, but still speak to a local audience who had little or no experience of our venue or visual art. Therefore we did the following:

  • We developed a ‘Generation’ brand that was friendly, fun, exciting and definitely for families.
  • We included specific family-friendly information in our leaflets and on the website, showing that the venue as well as the art was for them.
  • We described the artistic concept in a way that spoke to families, and not the usual visual art audience, in all communications, including on the venue interpretation panels.
  • We selected media to specifically target families, including adverts in Primary Times magazine, posters and leaflets distributed and displayed in family-friendly places, PR to family media and online listings, websites and Twitter pages.
  • We ran animation events to reach families in and out of the venues with an extra workshop, event or activity, using local artists and following the theme of the Generation exhibition.
  • We organised trips with the children’s centres to experience the exhibitions and venues. We organised the coaches, went along with the families, gave them lunch and encouraged them to explore the rest of the venue, and they gave us valuable feedback every time.
  • We undertook staff training at each venue to prepare front-of-house staff for the new family audience, including role-play and a quiz on their venue’s family-friendly facilities.

Encouraging results

The results were very encouraging. Just over 123,000 people visited the exhibitions, an increase in total visitor numbers for three out of four of the venues.

Nearly 1,500 visitors completed an evaluation postcard, with 83% of visitors to the exhibitions indicating they were visiting as a family (67% with children under 11). 43% of visitors were new to the venue and 14% had never visited an art exhibition before. On average, they rated the exhibitions 8.7 out of 10, with 43% scoring them 10 out of 10.

Despite the exhibitions all being very different, between 79% and 94% of visitors agreed they were aimed at families, fun, hands-on and interactive. 79% of visitors said the exhibition had improved their opinion of the venue.

Staff were also asked to provide feedback on how well they felt the exhibitions had performed. While they all commented on technical challenges with touring work and the need to improve the robustness of interactive elements in the future, they enjoyed having more families in their venues and this changed their opinions too. Comments included: “We have learned that families need and want more from an art gallery than just paintings on a wall.” And: “The highlights were definitely the visitors’ reactions.”

Future plans include a second phase that will be built on what we have learned from this first phase and will be more ambitious artistically. We will run fewer exhibitions at one time to enable greater focus; continue to develop local community partnerships to access harder-to-reach audiences; harness the power of digital and social media more, including creating content to share; and complement an overarching brand with locally tailored audience development plans.

We will also develop a series of events and workshops alongside the main commissions to allow for greater depth of understanding and appreciation among the families, and continue to convince them that art galleries can be places of “so much joy and laughter”, as one staff member wrote on a feedback questionnaire.

Elaine Lees is Audience Development and Marketing Coordinator of Generation Tour.

Visit the Generation Tour website to see a summary infographic and download the full evaluation.

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Photo of Elaine Lees