Ivan Wadeson sees patience and planning as necessary prerequisites to campaigning for public support.
It feels a fresh and dynamic approach to making the case for public investment in culture, aiming to supplant our high-profile cultural leaders and prominent artists with a body of supporters that spans head teachers, constituency MPs, business leaders and the voting (key word) public. What Next? London meetings have already gained traction with senior figures from the main political parties whilst remaining non-partisan and non-combative. It is long-term in its thinking but action-oriented in the here-and-now. Much happens behind closed doors but it wishes to be open and accessible. It has a non-hierarchical looseness but also a steely-eyed focus. It aspires to be truly cross-domain. Rather than ‘big tent’ maybe it’s best described as a series of small but linked and potentially agile encampments? And it is viral in a pre-digital sense: seeking to build support through personal contact and transmission of enthusiasm and key messages (albeit some of these still awaiting ‘Politburo’ approval). On the stage of the Palace Theatre this week Ruth Mackenzie made the plea to “make friends not demands” in relation to MPs – but it holds good to all the movement seeks to achieve.
My morning at the What Next? ‘national conversation’ in London this week, began on level 5 of the Southbank Centre with the usual huddle of artists, administrators, producers and promoters. Amongst the thirty or so seated individuals, the breadth of organisations and roles represented was probably wider than other such gatherings but so far, so familiar.
Joining us around the table were two students and their Head Teacher from an East End secondary school and Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty (the session was conducted under Chatham House Rules but both Shami and the organisers agreed to her being identified by name for this article). Their presence and contribution instantly changed and widened the discussion. The two girls, one from Year 8 and one from Year 9, spoke softly but powerfully about what the arts means to them, about their own creative lives, about personal fulfilment and about having “my moment”. Their quiet eloquence and clarity was a potent example of how ‘non-professionals’, those outside the sector, can speak so brilliantly on our behalf.
Then Shami Chakrabarti spoke of her ten years as Director of Liberty, the National Council For Civil Liberties. It was meant to be a provocation; I took it as more of a path being illuminated for us. She explained that to get to the point of launching a campaign (a highly focused, time-limited initiative) earlier phases, earlier groundwork is required. Public education to build general awareness of human rights but also public engagement to build a ‘family’ of supporters: dinners, awards, meetings, briefings with individuals and groups ranging from schools and trade unions through to the House of Lords. Then once a campaign is crafted – lobbying against the proposed 42 day detention legislation under the Brown government for instance – this groundwork pays dividends with a range of supporters and institutions amassed to carry and amplify that tightly focused message.
I took many things from the day but this was one of the most crucial in relation to the public. As a long-term proponent of the centrality of audiences to strategy, it is heartening to see What Next? convert this into one of its main tenets: our audiences, participants and visitors will be more effective advocates for our work than the professionals. But to quote Shami Chakrabarti, some groundwork needs to be put in.
78% of the adult population attend the arts once a year (English figures, Taking Part 2011). Many would not recognise their engagement as an arts experience. We need to broaden the public understanding of what the arts and culture is, painting and reinforcing it as a rich panorama of creative experiences with connections and resonances far beyond grand institutions or niche interest artforms. That’s our public education mission, to draw together craft and circus, Pinter and panto, artefact and Aphex Twin, in ways that are meaningful to the general public, not the aficiando.
Furthermore an annual visit does not constitute an arts champion in waiting. Whilst 7% of the adult population are highly engaged with the arts (English figures, Arts Audiences Insight 2011), and provide organisations with the bulk of their visitor figures and income, the vast majority of the population are occasional attenders with a more casual even incidental relationship to our offer. In the same way, a potential donor or business sponsor is not hit with a request to give at the first or second meeting, these infrequent visitors need long-term cultivation too. And remembering the average return visit to theatre is 2.2 years, this needs to happen over a longer cycle than a season brochure or a calendar year.
Cultivation needs careful planning and clear messaging but it could be achieved in simple ways. For instance including consistent bite-size information about an organisation’s civic role and range of impacts alongside other regular communications or by signing up people to receive specific information to this effect (what would an Annual Report For Audiences look like?). It should also be about finding out more about your audiences and visitors and their interests, being inquisitive about their concerns and what they hold important. Grouping your audience by their motivations and attitudes will ensure you can provide relevant information that meets their interests whilst deepening your relationship with them.
If the public were convinced of the merits of culture, or even clear what constitutes arts and culture, What Next? could focus on other groups, other actions. But it can’t, yet. For this part of the movement, we need patience and planning. We need to deepen understanding of our friends – active and inactive, casual and committed – and they need to understand and appreciate us better.
What Next? conversations in the North West and the national conference in London have been personally invigorating and I look forward to being an active part of the movement, both in my day job and outside it. With The Audience Agency, later this year we will be sharing fresh intelligence and new tools with the cultural sector to support even better engagement. But What Next? needs to go beyond being an internal conversation within the sector. After some prevarication about the level of commitment, I have just put myself forward as a parent-governor at my local secondary school, a specialist science college. It’s a four-year term which feels a meaningful time to make a difference and to make friends, to be listening and making connections and to ask those in education and the local business community what next for culture and creativity? A small step I know but if everyone working in the sector was able to do similar, well that’s a movement.
Ivan Wadeson, Executive Director, The Audience Agency