The United Nations? Convention on the Rights of the Child Article 31 may state that every child has the right to participate freely in cultural life and the arts and that member governments should encourage the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural and artistic activity, but Pam Pfrommer questions how well the UK is living up to these grand statements.

I was commissioned by the Arts Council of England (ACE) last year to conduct an audit into family friendliness. I already had a vested interest as I had just discovered that I was expecting my first child and didn?t relish the prospect that my family?s cultural life over the next few years would comprise solely of watching the Tweenies and discussing the merits of tubby toast!

I undertook the audit earlier this year within the context of the current New Audiences Programme. The report, now available, highlights organisations? activities and perspectives on what were perceived as some of the main barriers and issues surrounding the development of family audiences. The key findings were:

Understanding needs:When families are consulted they are clear about their needs and wants, but there was only sporadic evidence that organisations were fully taking these on board. There was a growing awareness that developing family audiences is of value and importance, but activity was rarely strategically focused.

Income generation: Being family friendly makes good financial sense in that families are large potential income generators. A 2001 report from Arts About Manchester stated that ?A family with just one child is going to spend around 13 years in this life stage, and consequently has the potential to be constant and loyal, with a high propensity towards repeat visiting. ?The arts cannot afford to lose this potential revenue source. Research indicated that there were organisations that supported the development of family audiences from a market perspective, and have undertaken imaginative ways of attracting families that could act as models of good practice nationally.

For example, the macRobert in Stirling found that 50% of recent attenders and 34% of lapsed attenders would attend more frequently if a crèche were provided. Lottery funding and a refurbishment programme will see the introduction of a crèche facility this Autumn, along with other new facilities to meet family needs. This will build on family-friendly orientated projects such as WOW, the macRobert magazine and website, which have resulted in an increase of 25% in family attendances at the venue.

Sustainability of good practice: Projects on the whole appear to be short term when linked to project funding and are not a core activity within the organisation. The overarching issue is not just ongoing funding to sustain good practice, but the need to address the internal culture of organisations, for example, whether family work is a viable and legitimate part of a venue?s product proposition, and how successful family audience development activities are integrated into core strategies and policies.

For Midlands Arts Centre (mac) in Birmingham 50% of their work is family focused and family-friendly policies are central to its ethos. Family participants and audiences are key targets, and 65% of their attenders are aged under 35.

Resources: Problems and restrictions placed on projects due to lack of funding, time, skilled staff and workers were all highlighted. Local authorities and arts organisations were varied in their responses and commitment to developing families unless they were relevant to core objectives or a stated priority, such as social inclusion.

Product: Paucity of product is a key issue, perceived or real, and in particular, work that engages the whole family. There was a wide perception by venues and local authorities that there was not enough appropriate or suitable product accessible to adults, children and young people in one family grouping. Examples of the commissioning of new work were rare, but potentially this is a key issue to address if a variety of family needs are to be met.

Firstsite, a visual arts venue in Colchester, holds a number of highly successful family days throughout the year, as well as devising family-friendly interpretation for temporary exhibitions. Its ?Shipshape? exhibition by James Dodds will tour to UK venues this year.

Marketing:There was a notable lack of research available from venues, organisations and local authorities evidencing marketing strategies for targeting families. Many respondents tended to make assumptions about their audiences based on anecdotal evidence. Problems with traditional marketing methods were particularly evident when attempting to engage socially excluded family audiences.

Facilities and access:Many of the problems encountered by organisations consulted were in relation to the lack of appropriate facilities (venues) and families not being able to access the work due to timings, cost, transport, marketing, etc. Organisations were unsure how to assess and support themselves in the areas of programming, facilities, customer care and staff development. One research document (undertaken by Sarah Argent in Scotland in 2000) found that 88% of respondents from the Federation of Scottish Theatre said they would be interested in having guidelines on how to make their venues more family friendly.

Issues and recommendations

This is just a snapshot of the many complex issues raised in developing family audiences for the arts. Families need consulting, nurturing, developing and sustaining at various levels. The variety and level of their needs are great, while at the same time demand and expectations need to be managed within an under-funded and over-stretched sector. The audit recommendations based on these key findings include:

? access to a range of best practice models and training opportunities to inform the development of strategies

? implementation of family-friendly guidelines and criteria

? development of strategic family-friendly policies to include all members of staff within an organisation

? additional resources to plan, build and deliver family-friendly programmes

? integration of successful initiatives into core policies and activities

? clear advice and information on how to access funding and develop new partnerships

? evidence to make the business and social cases for the long-term development of family audiences

? creation of a national steering group and family-friendly kitemark or brand.

A strategic approach

The potential for this audience group is growing and the case studies highlighted in the audit provide further evidence that where there is a commitment to developing families through a strategic and consistent approach, progress is being made. But is it happening quickly enough?

Pam Pfrommer is a freelance arts marketing consultant and part-time lecturer for the MA Arts Management at Anglia Polytechnic University. t: 01274 678014; e: pamelapfrommer@netscapeonline.co.uk

A copy of the ?Family friendliness? report will be downloadable from the Arts Council of England website from next month.