New research confirms that outdoor arts events draw wide support among local audiences from diverse economic and social backgrounds.

Photo of people sitting at outdoors arts event
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Heart of America Shakespeare by AJ Leon, CC By 2.0

It is a “consistent and demonstrable fact” that outdoor arts (OA) attract a more diverse, representative and wide ranging audience than other artform sectors, according to a new report based on the largest ever quantitative outdoor arts research project. The research found that low barriers to access, via low ticket prices, the ability to leave at any time during a performance, and an accessible and unassuming way of presenting activities, result in a diverse and locally representative audience base that “rates OA events highly”.

The research is based on 9,500 individual interviews conducted by 25 participating organisations, with questions relating to both specific outdoor events and the outdoor arts sector as a whole. It builds on similar research last year, but this year has incorporated a geo-demographic profiling system developed by the Audience Agency, which has shown that outdoor artforms attract audiences of mixed ages from a diverse economic and social background.

The latest statistics continue to show that 69% of the audiences are local, coming from within 20 miles of the event, and that outdoor arts activities are crucial in transforming the public’s perception of spaces. 70% of the people interviewed agreed strongly that the event they attended was good for the local area’s image.

The report acknowledges that the factors behind this success are specific to outdoor arts, and not necessarily immediately applicable to the wider theatre ecology. “OA does not somehow ‘magically’ produce a diverse audience,” the report notes. “It draws this audience because of the professional and carefully thought through way that events are managed.” Similarly, it recognises that further research into cultural, economic, wellbeing and social impacts is necessary, because although the research has provided a clear sense of who engages with outdoor activities, it is “limited in being able to articulate what has changed”.

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Independent research by the Audience Agency (All About Manchester/All About Audiences) undertaken for Dance Manchester on previous Urban Moves International Dance Festival events concur with the view that outdoor arts reaches a more diverse audience. Urban Moves International Dance Festival solely presents professional dance performances outdoors and in unusual spaces and has been running since 2005. Presenting contemporary dance performance outdoors has brought this work to audiences considered to be 'hard pressed' and increased engagement with 'ethnically diverse' audiences. Research from an earlier festival states, ''This unusually high representation of the hard pressed category probably resulted from the fact that the events were held in city centre locations with many people passing by who would not normally have attended arts or dance events and so is a vindication of Urban Moves strategy to perform in unusual and non-traditional places. Having said that, the responses to the survey questions ..show an overwhelmingly positive audience response to the performances suggesting the Hard pressed respondants are by no means casual passers by. The research goes on to say that 'this consistency in audience make up lends further evidence that the festival is really breaking down barriers with hard to reach groups'. Contemporary dance is frequently dismissed as an elitist minority art form but given the opportunity non traditional arts audiences do positively engage with it. It is a shame therefore that recent funding decisions have reduced the capacity of organisations such as ours to maintain and build on this widened access to the art form, despite diversity of audiences being sited as a key funding aim.