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An ArtsProfessional feature in partnership with Spektrix

Jane Earl busts some arts-related myths, starting with ‘everyone wants to take part in arts activities’.

Photo of outdoor art
‘Weighting’ by Extraordinary Bodies (a partnership between Diverse City and Cirque Bijou)

Rachel Lambert 2015

Since leaving multi-arts venue Rich Mix a few months ago, I’ve been reflecting on what I learned over my six years there and how some of the things we take for granted in the arts are not always as they seem. Coming into the industry from a local government background I brought a fair few pre-conceived notions with me that time, experience and data have now put to rest.

Once we remember that audiences are people, we can be less defensive about audience information and more prepared to collaborate with our visiting companies

Myth 1: Everyone wants to take part in arts activities

Even if you are based in a catchment area of over 500,000 people, you still have a lot of work to do to reach potential audiences and woo them to come and view your programme. If I had a pound for every person who said they had no idea we existed, Rich Mix wouldn’t still need to be raising funds.

Myth 2: Everyone accepts the intrinsic place and value of the arts in their lives

Arts organisations need to stop playing this mythical trump card when it comes to requests for public funding. Bodies such as local councils have a plethora of other demands for funding, so we need to go about asking governments and other funders in a different way.

Helping citizens explain in their own words why their local arts venues matter is a much more powerful approach. When Rich Mix was under threat as a result of some politically motivated action from our local council we ran an online petition on change.org and I was overwhelmed at the response. In the space of four weeks over 17,000 people registered their support for the organisation, and more than half of them added comments as to why it mattered to them. It tipped the balance in our favour.

Myth 3: Artists shouldn’t have to deal with numbers

It may seem counter-intuitive but data is the arts sector’s best friend. Analysis of audience and sales data changed Rich Mix for the better, both commercially and creatively. Knowing how much each event brought in, and what it cost, allowed us to rethink how we worked with performers.

It was quickly apparent that the old model of guaranteed fees wasn’t working and it certainly wasn’t working for the artists who performed with us, as we simply couldn’t honour many of the contracts we had entered into. But a new partnership structure based on an 80% split of box office takings going to the performers, supplemented by providing free rehearsal space and other ways of supporting artists through marketing and assistance with grant-funding applications, provided a more sustainable platform for our work.

But we couldn’t have designed that system without good and reliable management information, and until everyone understood that cost control and income generation were everyone’s responsibility.

Myth 4: Those audiences belong to us

This is really a trap that leads to a lack of generosity in sharing information and developing collaborations for performances and for data-sharing (when the appropriate legal agreements are in place).

Once we remember that audiences are people, we can be less defensive about audience information and more prepared to collaborate with our visiting companies, our neighbours and those with whom we have international or regional partnerships. You need good quality data and clear parameters about how it can be shared, but most of all you need an organisational culture that is genuinely committed to partnerships and all that entails.

Myth 5: If it’s free to enter, it must be poor quality

Sometimes we measure the quality of a performance in direct proportion to the amount it costs to see it. But if your audience base is concentrated in an area of low incomes, or historic or cultural disengagement from arts participation, the cost of access can be a major barrier to exploring what’s on offer.

Rich Mix learned that having a regular pattern of free events is an excellent way to build a more diverse audience. In our case, linking things like free music and arts festivals to events such as the World Cup meant that folk would visit for football but also get to see new arts as a consequence.

The programme used to be marketed as Rich Mix Free but the name was changed to Rich Mix Open. This was to avoid people assuming that as we didn’t charge for admission the experience was of a worse quality than our other performances. So it still fitted into the overall artistic vision.

Be objective

It can be easy to fall into traps like these when we are so invested in what our organisations are doing. So make sure you check in with what you’re doing occasionally and try to look at your organisation from an objective point of view. That way you’ll avoid being guided by mythological assumptions and will be better equipped to serve your organisation and customers.

Jane Earl is the Non-Executive Chair of Spektrix and former Chief Executive of Rich Mix.

This article is part of a series, sponsored and contributed by Spektrix, aiming to provoke new thinking in how we use ticketing and CRM systems to maximise revenue and grow audiences.

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Photo of Jane Earl