Disappointed with the aggressive nature of today’s arts marketing, Ben Walmsley explores the potential benefits of a more direct form of interaction with audiences.

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Samuel Zeller

In a recent article in AP, Dirk vom Lehn discussed how museum research is increasingly exploring how visitors experience and make sense of exhibits through their interactions with other people. This kind of research is vital if we are to better understand the value and impact of the arts.

This hands-on approach was a little scary and exposing at times but it did enable us to witness value and impact as it was happening

But it is much easier to conduct ethnographic research in museums and galleries, where visitors generally navigate the space at their own pace and interact with paintings, sculptures and exhibits in more singular ways than in the performing arts, where audiences generally experience a produced artistic event en masse in a darkened theatre. However, some researchers are finally starting to investigate the more interpersonal and relational aspects of performing arts encounters.

Cultural value

A couple of years ago I was part of a research project that tested out some imaginative and collaborative ways of capturing the value of the arts. In the course of the project, we had many fascinating conversations about the relationship between research and cultural value. For example, we debated to what extent our empirical work with audiences would enable us to ‘evidence’ value. Or were we rather trying to ‘capture’ value or even ‘measure’ it?

These questions are no doubt all too familiar to many people working in the arts, especially to those who have to evaluate their activity to justify their funding.

Fortunately, the broader project that had funded our research, AHRC’s Cultural Value Project, gave us a useful steer in its overarching aim to “articulate a set of evaluative approaches and methodologies suitable to assessing the different ways in which cultural value is manifested”.

The fund particularly targeted projects that aimed to understand the ‘phenomenology’ of cultural experiences and encounters. This focus on how cultural value is manifested, and the preference for a phenomenological or experiential approach, encouraged us to adopt an anthropological methodology, where we simply hung out with our audience participants and attended various events at a local arts festival.

This hands-on approach was a little scary and exposing at times but it did enable us to witness value and impact as it was happening and to probe our observations afterwards through natural conversations.

The main benefit of ‘hanging out’ was that it broke down barriers between researchers and participants so that in effect we all became ‘co-researchers’, struggling collectively to make sense of the cultural activities we were all engaged in. The method is therefore an inherent leveller, which encourages free-flowing dialogue while at the same time providing common artistic experiences that lend themselves to deeper analysis and develop relationships of genuine artistic exchange.

Anthropological approach

We wondered therefore what the implications of this might be for artists and arts organisations. We knew that a minority of organisations like BALTIC and Contact were engaging in this kind of activity already, with rewarding long-term results.

Could front-of-house staff, for example, behave more like ethnographers and observe value in-the-making? Could marketing or engagement teams behave more like anthropologists and immerse themselves in the audience experience to actually enhance value?

This more anthropological approach to audience research is starting to become more common and it is helping to develop a more nuanced understanding of what we might mean by ambiguous concepts such as audience engagement.

As an audience researcher, I am constantly disappointed about the ways in which core audiences are treated by arts organisations. They are often aggressively marketed, cynically courted and increasingly propositioned for money. But rarely are they treated as equal partners in the processes of meaning-making and engaged with in any authentic or meaningful way.

Digital dialogue

In Hye-Kyung Lee’s useful analysis of the history of arts marketing she argues that the arts sector is currently in a phase of digital communications where audiences act as ‘prosumers’. She justifiably suggests that the implications of digital communications are likely to force arts organisations to undergo a complicated process of transformation.

As I argued in a recent article exploring the online engagement of dance audiences, while digital marketing is certainly no panacea, it has proven its potential to revolutionise processes of audience engagement, not least by extending, democratising and slowing down the dialogue between artists, audiences and producers of artistic experiences. Hanging out occurs online too.

Partnership marketing

This all makes me wonder whether we have gone through and come out the other side of the digital marketing phase and entered a new era where many of the market-orientated processes of marketing have finally been replaced by people-centred activities of engagement – where prosumption has transformed into partnership. If so, then welcome to the era of enrichment.

Ben Walmsley is Associate Professor in Audience Engagement at the School of Performance and Cultural Industries, University of Leeds.
www.pvac.leeds.ac.uk

Comment from Deborah Bull

Direct interaction with audiences in order to evaluate the effect of activities is never straightforward, but it is an area of great interest for arts organisations that are increasingly required to provide evidence of impact. High quality data also allows organisations and the artists they present to form relationships with their publics that can influence and inform future productions.

Traditionally, evaluation of arts activities, as in many other sectors, has had a strong focus on metrics – and there is always value in collecting the data. However, Ben Walmsley’s anthropological approach, where the lines between researcher and participant are blurred enough to create a true co-research model, could provide arts organisations with a new stratum of qualitative insight.

Digital technologies provide the means to achieve this personal connection on a large scale and can help arts organisations engage in more sustained and meaningful conversations with audiences. As Ben Walmsley concludes, commercial marketing techniques have fallen short in meeting the audience experience challenge, and I share his optimism that a new approach can allow for new and more relevant forms of engagement and interaction both online and in person.

Deborah Bull is Assistant Principal of King’s College London.
kcl.ac.uk/culture
Tw @culturalkings

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