Developing audiences cannot be delegated to the marketing department and run in a silo, says Julie Aldridge.

US arts philanthropy expert Diane Ragsdale believes that “…as a result of new technologies, generational shifts and economic divides… increased competition for people’s leisure time… and many other forces, we are seeing a profound shift in the ways that people create, consume, commune and communicate”. She argues that communities have changed, that art and artists have changed, but she questions whether we, as institutions that exist to broker a dialogue between communities and artists, have changed in response. Dick Penny, Director of Watershed Media Centre, agrees. He argues that arts organisations should be a bridge between art and audiences and that we therefore need to shift away from marketing ‘to’ the audience to developing a shared dialogue with artist and audience.
Loud and clear
This message came across loud and clear at an Arts Marketing Association (AMA) forum earlier this year, when 12 senior arts professionals from across artforms met to debate how the sector can grow and thrive in a period of rapid change – economically, socially, and technologically. Forum participant Sarah Chambers, Deputy Director of Marketing at the National Theatre, said, “In a profession where communication is key, marketers are tasked with understanding the creative vision of their leaders and organisations, yet also must adopt an appropriate tone of voice when they speak to consumers – with a growing importance placed on segmenting communications according to needs and influence”. The group discussed the role of marketers (and indeed of arts organisations) as the broker between the art and the audience and the crucial need for both artistic development and audience development to be driven by insight.

How easy is it to nod sagely at a writer or director when you are struggling with the concept being presented? Or, as Chambers observes, “…to rely on the stock standard list of adjectives when talking to an information-hungry audience? Or find yourself with an untenable programme of events, which you know would achieve better figures if at different times, dates, or days of the week?” The challenge is to think like the creative, entrepreneurial teams at organisations such as Cornerhouse and Wales Millennium Centre, where they are revisiting the way in which both audiences and art are developed. Sarah Perks is Programme and Engagement Director at Cornerhouse, Manchester’s international centre for contemporary visual arts and cinema. Her role has been created as part of a process of exploring what it means to be an ‘open’ organisation that involves the public throughout the organisation’s work. This has led to combining programming, marketing and education in one department (see p7) managed by Perks (who was previously Education Director). The result is a range of new approaches to the creation and consumption of art and media by and for their audiences. This change in the way they work has led to a vision for Cornerhouse as a ‘curator of content’ or a ‘search engine for audiences’, becoming a space to create, engage and provide high quality, meaningful experiences for audiences.
There was a collective view at the end of the forum that cross-disciplinary working is vital for genuine audience development. Fiona Allan, Director of Arts and Audience Development at Wales Millennium Centre, described the matrix structure that they have created, whereby employees report both to a functional department head, and a programming team leader. Marketers attend programming meetings and wherever possible attend performances prior to, or as soon as, they are programmed. In this way programmers and marketers work collaboratively throughout the planning process: from initial selection of artistic work, through agreeing pricing structures and sales targets, to marketing campaign strategy. What started as a cost-saving exercise has had the added benefit of closing the gap between programming and marketing and enhancing the development of both.
I’m not arguing here for every arts organisation to restructure itself or to copy the models adopted by Wales Millennium Centre or Cornerhouse. What is clear though is the need to rethink the relationship our organisations have with the public: for each artist or arts organisation to question where it sits on spectrum from completely closed to the public, to completely open and porous. There is no one right answer, but as Ragsdale firmly points out, “Those who are losing audiences, but are unable to adapt, or that refuse to adapt, may one day find themselves caught off guard by the radical reinvention of what it means to be an arts organisation”.

Julie Aldridge is Executive Director at the AMA
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