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An ArtsProfessional feature in partnership with AMAculturehive

It is exciting to explore and own the biases that we impart to audiences, argues Bea Udeh.

People sitting on a bench in the middle of an art gallery
Visitors at a launch event at Midland Arts Centre

Greg Milner

Every person who becomes an AMA member has an expectation that we are going to shine a light on how to make something happen – unlock the treasure box. Over the past 25 years, the AMA has done this by opening new, across-the-street-and-around-the-corner ways of connecting with audiences through training, resources, mentoring and face-to-face provocations at events.

We all want to be fair in how we treat individuals or demographic groups, but biases can get in the way

The AMA has created many pathways through programmes and activities to encourage or highlight synergies between professionals in arts organisations and their audiences. An important part of this is breaking down a ‘them and us’ approach that lingers from a time when university courses were free and media theatre stories and careers were male-dominated.

Them, the audience, an elusive portion of which often seems other-worldly and requires new ways of contacting or making sense of. And us, an entity living in glass buildings, custodians of culture and heritage, and ready to protect this with privilege and without prejudice.

Encouraging empathy

It is the prejudice we impart to audiences which is becoming increasingly exciting to unpick and ‘own’. The Audience Diversity Academy (ADA) is an AMAculturehive programme that involves participants signing up to their prejudice to partake in mentoring, action learning sets and scrappy approaches that provoke and support significant action and change.

This is how we begin to shape programmes, seasons, policy, planning and the workforce. What are your values and how does this align with the values and experiences of your audiences? What is your story and how do they connect with your audiences’ stories? As empathy begins to be let loose, art splices to turn tenuous connections into stronger bonds.

Direct data

Rachel Grossman, an ADA mentor, recently told me how an ADA fellow tackled a challenge where older people visiting Meadow Arts, a contemporary visual arts gallery in the West Midlands, rarely took that small step to engage with their exhibitions. The gallery conducted some initial research and then invited these older people to a creative focus group.

This took the form of a ‘Big Draw’, which brought up some direct insights and feedback – useful data gathered in an informal way. It included the group sharing their perceptions of what contemporary art is, the size of text to describe their exhibits, physical mobility and how mental health can impact on the confidence of older people.

This data was used to shape their planning and policies (including their mission statement), develop their future programming and re-visit and build relationships with older audiences. So here, we can see that you have to own it and then work and re-work it.

Inevitable bias

We all want to be fair in how we treat individuals or demographic groups, but biases can get in the way, which in everyday situations means there is a lower priority for fairness to happen.

There is a ‘last in, first out’ approach to being mindfully aware. This works at all levels and across all sectors to constantly evaluate what our own values are at that moment, which must indeed stem from the work we want to do with the audiences we have (or wish to have).

As an example, a father was telling me about recent arguments he’d had with his ex-partner about text messages from his children’s school relating to parent evenings, INSET days and school concerts. They were not reaching him as his ex-wife always ‘forgot’ to pass on the information, so I suggested he should ask the school to add him to the text messaging list. This apparently was not possible as they had a one mobile number per child policy.

I am continually struck by how society keeps parents in gender roles even though governments (David Cameron and paternity leave) and organisations are increasingly being openly supportive of males taking paternity leave. So how could this school reflect on its biases when it comes to treating both parents equitably? What could they take into consideration to include the father in a new model of parenting based on today’s technologies and defining new social behaviour? Extending this, how could they take a less binary approach and what lessons can we apply to the cultural sector?

The importance of empathy

Maison Foo directors Beth Sheldon and Kathryn Lowe explained how their rehearsal schedule for their latest production had changed since they’d had their own children. In the past, they worked to a three-week rehearsal schedule, but for their latest show they worked over a two-month schedule with shorter working days and a truncated working week.

To facilitate this, they needed to share this plan in their funding application to Arts Council England. So, what do we notice here? You need to have people in the system who understand the needs of those you would like to benefit. Empathy is involved. This comes from constantly re-visiting internal processes and procedures. This comes from being willing to trial new people, learning from errors, learning with these people how best to re-frame those trials because no matter how expensive it is, there is never really a loss, or an expensive loss. Nothing is lost, a new opportunity always presents itself.

New symposium

I wrote earlier of prejudices being exciting to unpick. This is because the challenges that come with sugar-coating our prejudices are what keeps our audiences at bay. Early next year the AMA will be delivering an opportunity for arts organisations to gather and explore empathic links and develop tools for action with their peers and their audiences.

At the Inclusivity and Audiences Symposium (IAS) professionals working in the sector will be able to dig in and dust off ideas about what makes an audience demographic, the ingredients for a rich soup that can be tried and ‘tasted’ (tested) for campaigns, programming, relationships, ambassador building and general use of the space.

The symposium intends to empower us to action by setting the tone and inviting us to be empathetic, mindful of our pressures, to recognise the unifying effect that occurs at the intersections of the cultural sector and our audiences and to provide the tools to make that sliver a great juicy overlap.

Bea Udeh is Programme Producer at the Arts Marketing Association.
e: Bea@a-m-a.co.uk
Tw @BeaUdeh  @amadigital

This article, sponsored and contributed by AMACultureHive, is part of a series sharing resources and learning from the online library for the sector.

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Photo of Bea Udeh