Should more be done to increase the diversity of those engaging with the arts in the UK? And if so, what? In her final report, Frances Richens looks at the findings from ArtsProfessional’s latest Pulse survey with a focus on audiences.
Achieving diversity in audiences was a priority for most of the 509 UK-based respondents who completed ArtsProfessional’s Pulse survey in June and July 2016. 57% said increasing diversity was a top strategic priority for their organisation and a further 30% said it was important.
Those working in theatre and music were the most likely to see audience diversity as important. More than 90% said it was either a top priority or important to their organisation, while just 77% of those working in the visual arts and museums said this was the case.
Read the full survey responses in the pdf document here, including over 800 comments related to diversity in the arts.
There were some variations around Great Britain. In England, 86% of respondents said audience diversity was either a top priority or important, compared with 93% in Wales and and 94% in Scotland. In England, respondents in the West Midlands and Yorkshire were most concerned with audience diversity and those in the North East were least concerned.
Why prioritise diversity?
Respondents gave different reasons for wanting to increase diversity in their audiences. One wrote: “We want to make everyone welcome and this includes people of all ethnicities and abilities.” Another said a diverse audience would “enrich the work being created”.
Others indicated that their organisation could “create a wider audience” and “reap rewards financially” by doing this. One said: “Attracting the most diverse audiences we can is regarded as a commercial imperative and a sign of success. We don’t do it because we’re ‘bleeding heart liberals’.”
Some said they did not aim to increase the diversity of their audiences. One respondent summarised the reason why: “We constantly aim to increase audiences whatever their background, without wanting to target a specific ‘segment’ of society. Who are we to put people into boxes to be targeted?”
Another said: “What does it matter if some institutions attract a certain kind of audience rather than another? You can’t please all of the people all of the time.”
Dimensions of diversity
Many commented about how audiences for their organisation’s work were typically white and middle class. Several also said they were typically older than the population as a whole. One respondent wrote: “We are working to bring down that average age and to increase involvement by BAME/disabled people.”
Another identified the most significant barriers to engagement in the arts as “class and economic disadvantage”. One wrote: “The arts is still seen as an elite sector that caters to the middle to upper classes mainly.”
Several respondents commented on how their organisation was trying to reach certain communities that don’t fit into typically identified diversity categories, including European immigrants and “people with accessibility issues”.
Barriers to increasing diversity
Which of the following hinder your organisation’s attempts to be more diverse?
- An established audience that resists more diverse artistic product
- The demographic profile(s) of the geographic area(s) where you work
- Perceptions that your organisation is only relevant to your established audience
- Bad experiences of diverse work that didn’t attract an audience
- Senior management and trustees who do not value diversity
- Limited expertise in how to become a more diverse organisation
- Inadequate funding to become a more diverse organisation
Audience resistance to diverse work
Respondents were divided on whether established arts audiences resist more diverse artistic product: 39% agreed that their organisation’s audience was resistant to such work and 39% disagreed, with the remaining 22% unsure.
One respondent commented on the “narrow view” of audiences, saying “innovative work embracing creative diversity does not fare as well in ticket sales”.
Another respondent, who described themselves as working “in a very ‘white’ area”, wrote: “When we programme events from other cultures, people feel there is no relevance to them. (Direct quote from resident about South Asian themed event ‘What does this have to do with us?’) Thus we don’t get the audiences and revenue needed and so [are] reluctant to programme more.”
Commenting specifically about disability arts, several respondents were positive about recent audience development initiatives. One wrote: “Audiences are building and the stigma attached to work by disabled artists and disability arts is decreasing (the quality speaks for itself) but I think there is still work to be done in this area.”
Others disagreed that audiences resist diverse art. One wrote: “The audience are keen on diversity – the management ONLY care about money, or lack of it.”
Despite this comment, junior workers were twice as likely to think that their organisation’s audience resists more diverse art: 60% said this was the case, compared with just 30% of senior workers.
Responses were fairly consistent across different artforms, although museum workers tended to agree that audiences resist diverse work and those working across multiple artforms tended to disagree.
There were greater differences between the responses in different areas of Great Britain. Those based in London tended to agree that established audiences resist diverse art: 43% agreed and 39% disagreed. The opposite was true for those based elsewhere in England: 39% disagreed and 36% agreed. Those in Wales were even more likely to disagree: 57%, compared with 29% that agreed. Scotland was evenly split on the issue.
A matter of perception
51% of respondents agreed that ‘perceptions that your organisation is only relevant to your established audience’ was a barrier to increasing diversity, compared with 32% who disagreed.
One talked about: “A general presumption that diversity of ideas and talent doesn’t appeal to the ‘mainstream’ audience.”
Another illustrated a typical concern: “As a long-established organisation, we are, to a certain extent, a victim of our own success because we can’t afford to alienate our loyal audience members with no guarantee that doing something different will attract a new audience, and it’s risky to try.”
One respondent suggested that an unwillingness to take risks to attract new audiences perpetuates the lack of diversity: “Our organisation has a traditionally white middleclass audience so I think this puts off other more diverse audience demographics as the artform is seen as not for them.”
Another, involved in touring diverse artistic work, described the impact these fears have on their organisation: “We are increasingly struggling to get our touring work programmed into arts venues because they feel they cannot sell the work to their traditional audiences, which perpetuates the lack of diverse programming.”
But despite many comments about the need to avoid risk, and programmers’ “fear” that diverse work would not attract an audience, there was little evidence of organisations regretting programming diverse artistic work. 59% disagreed that ‘bad experiences of diverse work that didn’t attract an audience’ was a barrier their organisation faced, compared with just 16% who agreed.
Respondents tended to agree that inadequate funding hindered their organisation’s attempts to increase diversity: 41% said this was the case, compared with 32% that said it wasn’t.
They indicated that a lack of secure funding made their organisation less able to invest in initiatives to improve diversity and potentially made them more risk averse. One respondent said: “When you are struggling to survive, your priorities and passions focus on playing to the paying gallery! We become risk-averse and for us, this means programming rich old white acts for a rich old white audience.”
Respondents tended to disagree that the demographic profile of the geographic area where they worked was a hindrance to their organisation’s attempts to be more diverse: 48% disagreed, and 40% agreed. However, these figures mask a significant variation in answers, with the responses of those based in London skewing the results.
London-based respondents were the most likely to disagree with this statement: 67% said the demographic profiles of the geographic areas where they worked was not an issue, compared with 20% that said it was. Outside of London, the majority of those based in the South West (81%), the North East (75%) and the East of England (74%) agreed this was an issue. Those based in Scotland (75%) and Wales (64%) were also more likely to agree. Only those based in the East and West Midlands, and the North West of England, said this wasn’t a barrier their organisation faced.
One respondent said: “The demographic of the country is changing, but outside the metropolises it is very white British.”
One respondent described how it wasn’t just resistance in local communities, but competition from other nearby arts organisations that was an issue: “Trying to develop (more diverse) audiences for more diverse work in this area is like beating one’s head against a wall. Local people are resistant and our proximity to several large diverse and culturally significant centres means those who seek quality and diverse work travel elsewhere.”
The wrong approach
While the majority of respondents denied that senior management and trustees were a barrier to increasing diversity, some indicated that their organisation may lack the skills and knowledge to diversify their audiences: 32% agreed that ‘limited expertise in how to become a more diverse organisation’ was a barrier they faced, compared with 43% that disagreed.
Many respondents commented that “a more proactive approach” was needed to get new audiences through the door.
One wrote: “Arts organisations tend to create in their own bubble and assume that their work will be sought out, and don’t necessarily or actively target different communities very well, or different audiences.”
Another said: “When an artistic product is diverse it is promoted through the conventional non-diverse channels, and it can then be perceived that there isn’t any interest from these audiences.”
Others were exasperated by what they saw as a simplistic approach to marketing – one criticised the “patronising attitude to audiences that sees them as groups identified by one characteristic, e.g. young, only”.
Some put this down to a “lack of want or need to develop diverse audiences”. One was concerned that the way their organisation communicated its artistic offer could be “off putting to some groups of people”, but said that management were “keen to protect the reputation of the organisation within our professional arena”.
But some thought it was mainly a lack of skills. One respondent wrote: “There can’t be many arts organisations in this country that would NOT want to succeed in creating more diversity in the work they produce and the audience that sees it. The problem lies in understanding how to do this and how to communicate it.”
An un-diverse workforce
Some respondents raised concerns that a lack of diversity in arts audiences was partly because of a lack of diversity in the workforce and its artistic work. One said: “When only white middleclass people are making artistic decisions then this does limit what happens onstage and in turn this can put off audiences.”
Another wrote: “Not enough people currently see themselves reflected in the arts. For this reason, they feel disenfranchised and do not engage.”
Respondents suggested that barriers to engagement with the arts are numerous and complex. One wrote: “If the diverse audience feels excluded in the thousands of tiny different ways the institution makes them feel, they won’t attend.”
Some said that arts organisations need to do more to understand their audiences and the barriers to engagement. One commented: “Organisations need to spend more time researching and looking at barriers of access, and how to overcome these.”
Some identified specific barriers that prevent people from engaging with the arts. One wrote: “Transport is a problem for disabled people and our partner venues are not always wholly accessible. Transport is also a problem for people with a low income and is a barrier to taking part.”
Another said: “We have faced barriers where girls from particular ethnic backgrounds are not allowed to attend our events unescorted, despite it being a very safe environment and their strong desire to join in!”
Along the same lines, one wrote: “On more than one occasion, a member has been forced to drop out because of family pressure not to participate in theatre performances, not only onstage but in technical or backstage tasks.”
Another added: “The building itself can also appear quite intimidating.”
The wrong art
Some respondents raised concerns that arts organisations are not presenting the kind of work that will attract a diverse audience. One said: “There is not enough good product around to attract diverse audiences, and venues in particular have to take financial risks to develop audiences. This is often not possible in the financial climate.”
Another wrote: “Shows often tend to be political or too high brow to attract new audiences in. A light-hearted diverse show would be better.”
However, this sentiment was countered by another respondent, who wrote: “The common notion that the high-quality arts activity is not attracting diverse groups because they can’t relate or are not interested is insulting, and highlights another area of bias assumption.”
One suggested more work needs to be done to understand what diverse audiences want: “There are still attitudes based on assumptions that programmers, marketers and arts administrators know best what the audience should have and very little attempt to really engage more widely… Too many arts organisations remain wedded to European art traditions and do not respect the fact that many of the people in this country come from equally rich cultural backgrounds.”
The segregation of diverse art
Some respondents were concerned by what they saw as the segregation of diverse artistic work within arts organisations’ programmes and how this might limit audience development.
Others thought that the key to achieving this would be to stop labelling artistic work as ‘BME’, ‘LGBT’ or ‘disabled’. One said: “Let’s challenge our audiences and infiltrate the mainstream without people knowing what they’re coming to. Kind of like a parent hiding vegetables within a meal!”
One described how their organisation produces “only some theatre that speaks to diverse audiences, which is when we will get an influx of diverse audience members, but the rest of the time, regular theatre goers (older, white, middle classes) are in attendance. The theatre isn’t attempting to understand what will keep new audiences coming.”
Particular concerns were raised about participatory projects. One described “the unfortunate norm of tokenistic community/youth projects which mainly serve to make arts organisations look good, rather than to make real impacts to lives or the culture around diversity and access to the arts”.
Another said: “In my opinion, to deliver a programme which works with people who have had fewer arts opportunities or to make work for this audience should be the biggest provocation for the best possible work, but sadly community arts is often code for amateur, poorly executed schemes without real strategy.”
Some pointed to the pressure put on them by funders. One described how, when working on a participatory arts project for marginalised young people, they resorted to getting “elite youngsters” involved “to bolster the work produced to satisfy our sponsors”.
Improving audience diversity
What should be done to improve diversity in the cultural sector?
- Financial incentives or penalties by funders
- Targeted initiatives to boost diverse organisations and work
- Quotas relating to artistic work or workforce
- Staff training
Respondents displayed a preference for financial incentives over penalties: 63% were in favour of ‘financial incentives by funders to improve diversity’, while just 29% were in favour of ‘financial penalties by funders for poor diversity’.
One respondent said: “In the short term, efforts to improve the diversity of an artistic offer presents many risks – the most concerning being financial i.e, low ticket sales, not speaking to traditional donors. That’s why it is important that measures do not punish organisations in the short term. We have to keep afloat.”
Some respondents commented on the need for “greater, sustained funding” in general, to allow their organisation to invest more funds in projects and initiatives that would increase diversity in its artistic work and audiences.
One respondent said: “If there were financial perks to increase opportunities for diversity either through programme, audience or staff force then some of the challenges facing organisations to become more diverse may be eased as they’d be able to put more resource into it.”
The suggestion of targeted initiatives was a popular one amongst the survey respondents. 84% were for the idea of initiatives to boost diverse work and 80% were for initiatives that boost diverse organisations.
One said: “If there is no incentive for work that reflects reality, the less diverse productions and work that have always been meted out will carry on regardless and if we keep putting out work that isn’t diverse of course our audiences will forever remain homogeneous.”
Some respondents called for funding to help with audience development, including help to keep ticket prices low and support for collaborative work with organisations that attract a different demographic.
Staff training was another popular suggestion: 81% of respondents agreed this should be done.
Marketing and communication was a particular area where respondents said they needed help. One wrote: “Help and support in communicating the message that an organisation welcomes people from all sectors of the community would be more appreciated and hopefully more successful.”
Another said: “We want to do much more for disabled audiences and artists – accessibility and communication barriers are hot topics, but can only be solved with more resource, knowledge and experience.”
Skills sharing, as well as training, was suggested by one: “Those organisations with expertise and a good track record with diversity should be supported to articulate how they do it and then invested in to share their practice more widely with the arts sector.”
Many respondents acknowledged the need for organisations to undertake more audience development work and for funders to support it.
One respondent said the arts need “active work to engage audiences who may feel that, as they are hugely underrepresented, the arts and cultural sector is not for them – demonstrating they are invaluable audience members and allowing this to influence programming”.
Another said: “It is a culture change that needs to happen over a sustained length of time. And by culture change, I think I mean behavioural change. It is about changing the perceptions and attitudes towards the arts that cause barriers to participation.” They went on to suggest the sector implement a national PR campaign, similar to Sport England’s ‘This Girl Can’ campaign, to encourage engagement with the arts.
The important of outreach
Many agreed with one respondent, who said: “Community outreach by informed and skilled arts organisations is crucial to breaking down barriers and building new, diverse audiences.”
Some emphasised the need to improve the quality of community-based artistic work. One respondent wrote: “The importance of excellence in community based artistic interventions should be a high priority for funders.”
Others talked about the need for projects to be led by “people with direct experience of the relevant ‘diversity area’”. One respondent instructed: “Work with organisations and individuals embedded within communities, make sure they are paid well, that they are offered significant profile (not just in the small print).”
Another said: “Bring the participation sector into closer relationship with professional sector to ensure that this pathway into arts engagement also provides a route into professional practice for those traditionally excluded from the mainstream.”
Many emphasised the need for outreach work “to be supported and sustained over time”. One wrote: “Long-term planning and slow growth seems to me to be the answer, particularly in a world or quick-fire public perception, where there isn’t time to explain something which isn’t instantly understood.”
Another said: “Inclusion needs to start at a very young age. By the time someone (from any background) is older they may assume that the arts is not for them so exclude themselves from initiatives and cultural events.”
Many respondents also commented on the importance of arts in schools, in order to help young people realise that “anyone can be involved in creative arts”. One respondent wrote: “Culture and art education should be included on all school curriculums, not just be available to those pupils in private education.”
Changing the workforce
On a more fundamental level, many respondents felt a change of mind-set within arts organisations was needed. And, although overall respondents were not in favour of diversity quotas relating to staff, some commented that the workforce will have to become more diverse before the arts can attract more diverse audiences.
One respondent wrote: “We have to stop focusing on projects and start recognising that the entire organisation needs to change in order to be fit for purpose to serve a truly diverse audience.”
Another said: “To be an inclusive and diverse organisation you have to make changes, you have to challenge embedded views – you have to stop being a Florence Nightingale setting out to save the poor, the disabled and the minorities. Instead employ a diverse workforce, don’t patronise them or offer tokenism. Change the programmes, maintain professional and inclusive attitudes.”
Several respondents advocated for leadership development schemes for diverse arts workers, because, as one said: “If the leadership and authority within arts organisations isn’t diverse, and people don’t see themselves reflected, they won’t apply / be attracted to those organisations.”
A new art
Many respondents commented that greater diversity in artistic work would be needed in order for the arts to attract more diverse audiences. 40% were in favour of diversity quotas relating to artistic work, compared with 35% that were against them.
One respondent wrote: “There needs to be a shift in thinking and funding from the forms we consider ‘arts’ now to properly include artforms that younger and culturally diverse people consider art.”
One suggested funding “new commissions and projects which create bespoke product which can tour”.
Another emphasised the need to employ artists “from the widest possible range of cultural backgrounds” and dramatizing their experiences, so that organisations can create “work that appeals to, and expresses the hopes and aspirations of such an audience”.
Several respondents mentioned the need for arts organisations to challenge mainstream arts audiences and make them more open to diverse artistic work.
One respondent said: “We must positively encourage diversity and educate ‘mainstream’ audiences to realise there are so many more stories that they would otherwise be missing out on.”
Another said: “Let’s just spread the word that there is quality and enjoyment to be found in variety, something new, something different, challenging and most importantly: welcoming.”
One respondent recommended adopting “approaches to interpretation and engagement which are inclusive and resonate with our audiences rather than exclude and disempower”.
Another respondent thought that research should go hand-in-hand with programming diverse artistic work: “Organisations should closely monitor what impact cultural products have with regards to audiences, media coverage, critical and aesthetic judgements as it is my firm belief that greater diverse works can attract greater interest and audiences than the ‘pet’ projects that many senior management may hold on to and prioritise.”
Despite a strong desire to attract a greater diversity of people to attend and participate in the arts, there remains a lot of conjecture and fear surrounding the programming of so-called ‘diverse’ work and what effect it might have on existing audiences. This is compounded by the financial uncertainty that many arts organisations find themselves in.
It is clear that not enough is known about what audiences want and what effect presenting a more diverse artistic offer might have. True or not, a significant proportion of arts workers seem to believe that audiences are ‘set in their ways’, but few respondents indicated that their organisation had had bad experiences programming diverse work.
The barriers to engagement of those currently underrepresented in arts audiences appear to be numerous and deeply ingrained, and the sector acknowledges that a sustained, long-term effort focused on outreach and education is required to shift the perceptions of those who believe the arts are ‘not for them’. But a more fundamental issue is whether the sector needs to revaluate its artistic offer, including the concepts of ‘high quality’ and ‘diverse’ art.
Ultimately, the survey results highlight the circular nature of the all the issues surrounding diversity in the arts: a more diverse audience will not be attracted until the artistic workforce is diversified and becomes capable of presenting high-quality art that appeals to a wider range of people. But this is difficult – and potentially costly – to do without the engagement of those who are currently under-represented.
The sector needs to better understand what will attract those who are currently under-represented in its audiences. Working more closely with them would be a good place to start.
Frances Richens is Editor of ArtsProfessional