Bethany Rex asks how do we start a dialogue with those firmly not in the room?

I did my best to keep up with the conversation at the What Next? conference via Twitter and the live broadcast. I was paying particular attention to the third of three initiatives launched on the day – harnessing the voices of audiences, visitors and members. There is an  inspirational and moving video on the website featuring audience responses to a variety of arts events, educational programmes and participatory projects. These are the people who stand to gain from a vibrant and well-supported arts sector. These are the people we should be listening to. These are the people with the potential to become advocates for the arts. These are not the people who attended WN2013.

From my seat at home, I got the impression that the majority of attenders at WN2013 already know what the arts can do. I imagine that they speak the same language as their colleagues and spend a significant amount of time preaching to the converted. With 650 people in the room, this would have been a good opportunity to debate the thorny issue of how we engage further with those who haven’t had the chance to experience how effective the arts can be. How do we start a dialogue with those firmly not in the room?

At one point my Twitter feed became overloaded with excitement about a mass mailing list comprising data from all the arts organisations in attendance. As someone with a background in arts marketing I was surprised that a list of people (albeit one of 20 million) was attracting so much attention. WN2013 was billed to be not about finding answers, but reaching out to more people to promote deeper engagement with the arts by individuals and communities. A task for a mail-out this is not. In response to this, many tweeted that audiences need ‘long-term cultivation’ and ‘two-way dialogue’. In other words, we need to work harder to turn the pyramid upside down and to reconnect on a human level with those people who we want to advocate for our public organisations.

This is not a new conversation: interrogating the ways in which arts organisations ‘know’ their visitors and non-visitors goes hand in hand with the democratisation agenda. Arts organisations are adept at making the right noises when it comes to ‘promoting deeper engagement with the arts by individuals and communities’. The extent to which we know who these individuals are, and the multiple trajectories and stories of the abstract communities we want to attract, is another question altogether.

I do not profess to know the answer to this; rather I hope that the next stage of What’s Next will include initiatives to help arts organisations become more relevant, interesting, collaborative and open than they already are. This is a timely debate but unless we open up the discussion to a broader grassroots audience we run the risk of replacing ‘what’s next’ with ‘what’s before’.

Bethany Rex is an MA student at the University of East Anglia where her research interests include the nature of community participation in the UK museums sector.

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