Rich Hadley believes that cultural organisations must lose their "remote, elitist, rarified, out of touch and unyielding" image.
"Dove sono?" asks Mozart’s Contessa imploringly in the sublime Le Nozze di Figaro. So many cultural organisations are agonising over that very question in their quest for ‘missing audiences’: the young people, the working-class communities and the many upwardly mobile, white collar workers for whom the arts and culture seem at best irrelevant, or at worst anathema.
Driven by a sense of social mission, as well as a strong instinct to long-term survival, the arts world is now uniting around the idea that it has to be more outward-looking, more engaging and therefore more effective in recruiting audiences, preferably those that pay. To appreciate the tectonic policy shift across Europe, look no further than the EU which has now placed audience development for the first time at the centre of its new Creative Europe funding programme.
Yet, after decades of investment and research into audience development, particularly in northern Europe, the cultural sector’s publics remain overwhelmingly dominated by a minority of the population: people who are older, more educated and more affluent. Important cultural organisations – arts producers, galleries and musuems − the world over continue predominantly to attract a social elite to their events and programmes. Their loyal supporters tend to be a core of committed, regular attenders and participants who are largely unrepresentative of the make-up of society as a whole. This can’t be a healthy situation.
Some cultural organisations, particularly large ones and those which are housed in impressive buildings, remain remote, elitist, rarified, out of touch and unyielding. They are protective of their socially influential position, of their power structures enshrined in their governance, of their exclusivity in terms of language and semiotics, behavioural norms and rituals, and their traditions. It remains a matter of contention that many of these organisations also disproportionately consume available public subventions into culture.
Arts institutions are under pressure throughout Europe to demonstrate accountability and best value in delivering their work to the widest spectrum of the population – and rightly so. There is strong political pressure for the arts in particular to shed its elitist image and show that it can reach out to and inspire all sections of the community – not just the well-off and well-educated, the traditional audiences.
Engaging new audiences – which means changing the way you do things − is expensive, deeply challenging to entrenched practice, and therefore uncomfortable
In examining why so many ordinary people turn their backs on high culture, a recent EU endorsed report called ‘On better access to and wider participation in culture, 2013’, asserts that the problem is not with the audiences, but with the institutions themselves, those places where high arts and culture are traditionally ‘celebrated and conserved’.
The authors, a body of expert opinion drawn from throughout Europe, suggest that there has to be nothing short of "a deep revision of practices" if the missing audiences are genuinely to be embraced. Those practices range from "re-interpreting and repositioning programming of culture", including the places in which it happens, to "revising the overall approach and mandate of the institutions… [and their] decision-making" structures. In other words, the big traditional institutions have to change both for their own sakes, and for the common benefit of European taxpayers. Doing more of the same is not a sustainable option.
In a series of recent encounters involving cultural professionals organised by Audiences Europe Network (AEN), the process of public engagement and organisational transformation has been under the microscope. Delegates in diverse European cities have been grappling with the dynamics of audience development in terms of the way that audiences respond to interventions. And on the other side of the coin, the way that institutions react internally to the challenges that audience development throws out. On its royal progress around the elegant cities of Copenhagen, Oslo, Rotterdam, Ghent, Birmingham, Barcelona and Bergen, a sharper focus is emerging within the AEN movement.
What becomes apparent in these intense sessions is that the institutional change process unfolds in three clear evolutionary stages:
1. Cultural marketing:
- Understanding the drivers and obstacles among the core target audience segments for cultural consumption.
- Developing appropriate value propositions (in terms of product/services, service, costs, communication) that will appeal to and genuinely provide satisfaction to target audience segments.
- Establishing an attractive brand positioning and supply chain strategy that strengthens target audience loyalty and commitment.
2. Outreach and access:
- Developing cultural programmes that exist outside normal delivery routines by working with non-traditional or missing audiences.
- Investing in educational activities that help people understand and appreciate unfamiliar or difficult cultural product.
- Working over time to develop relationships with target communities which foster a sense of ownership and commitment.
3. ‘In-reach’ and transformation:
- A radical realignment of the organisation takes place which puts audience/public engagement at its heart such that the fulfillment of its audiences/publics is placed on an equal footing with its creative or curatorial mission.
- The audience is not seen as a passive consumer but as an active partner in a process of a mutually fulfilling cultural exchange.
- Inclusion of the public in the delivery and decision-making processes of the organisation is embedded and overtly expressed in programming, governance and representation policies and practice.
Yes, it is easy for the experts and politicians to exhort cultural producers to change! But the reality at ground level is that the organisations (and the people within them) are rooted in their routines and customary behaviours, the quotidian realities of operational delivery and the imperative to generate cash from best available customer prospects. Engaging new audiences – which means changing the way you do things − is expensive, deeply challenging to entrenched practice, and therefore uncomfortable. Psychology tells us that people within organisations, not just cultural institutions, are often resistant to change. We prefer our comfort zones.
The organisational transformation under discussion is not simply about making a few practical adjustments, but is about facing up to profound ideological and aesthetic questions. Are we dumbing down our art? Should not our creative work come first, always impervious to the passing whims of customer demand? Who are we for – artists or audiences?
These are legitimate questions. The mechanics of change in favour of audience engagement belie more fundamental narratives of strategic – and political − intent. Is cultural participation a basic human right? Are funded institutions mainly benefiting the few, those with high incomes and education levels while ignoring those in more deprived circumstances? Should equity and efficiency in the use of public resources for cultural participation be ‘guaranteed’ (as the EU report referred to above argues)? Not everyone agrees with those propositions.
To me it seems self-evident that cultural producers have to find a way to dance in step, to act with genuine passion and commitment, to believe that audience engagement is at their heart, and not an optional extra, not a bolted-on accessory designed to appease the funders or politicians. From board level to box office, a new consensus of role, responsibility and mission has to be forged.
In the same way that football over the last two decades has largely shed its violently primitive, macho image in favour of a more glamorous, heterogeneous appeal, I look forward to a time when culture is similarly redefined in the popular imagination. When it is no longer the preserve of an educated elite and regarded with indifference by the majority of the population, an expendable luxury. I envisage a status quo where arts, heritage and culture are universally embraced and appreciated as a natural part of European life by the vast majority of its citizens.
Now the real discussion has to begin about a transformation of the cultural landscape. And meanwhile, there has to be a concerted practical programme of research and reflection that helps our often embattled cultural sector to move into the vital, dynamic future that it surely deserves.
Mozart’s genius is for everyone.