Audience in the center: Let’s talk about audience development…

Geographically speaking, the city of Stockholm might be placed on a corner of Europe, but in the terms of economics, politics and culture, it sure stands out as one of the centers of Scandinavia, Europe, and the whole world. Thanks to Intercult (a cultural organization from Stockholm that engages in trans-border cultural projects), in the second part of February 2017, that city also became a meeting point for dozens of cultural workers from three different platforms: Baltic Audience Links, River//Cities and Corners.

One snowy morning we all crowded the champagne bar at the top floor of Södra teatern, the oldest theatre building in Stockholm with an amazing view on the whole city. Contrary to what you might imagine, we weren’t there to drink champagne but to take part in the Audience Links Xchange, a conference that tackled the questions of audience development, starting from the point that one of the greatest challenges for cultural operators and institutions is to reach the broadest possible audience. In addition to a number of presentations given by international guest speakers, the conference was an opportunity for the first public introduction of the study entitled “Audience Development: how to place audiences at the centre of cultural organisations”, which was commissioned by the EU and delivered only one month prior.

In the past few years, I found myself many times wondering why “audience development” was such a burning issue. Even though it’s not a new concept, it is one of the priorities of European Commission’s Creative Europe Programme and for some reason still remains an important subject that everybody keeps talking about. It turned out that I hadn’t been the only one haunted by the same riddle. Ten days earlier, in our conversation about the following trip to Stockholm, Marijana suggested that we should try to solve the mystery and find the reasons behind the ongoing popularity of audience development. “Let’s talk to someone who knows everything about it!”

So, during the cheerful dinner at Intercult after the long day of discussions at the champagne bar at the top of Södra teatern, we decided to kidnap a few of our carefree colleagues and face them with a couple of questions. First on our pray list was Chris Torch, one of our hosts from Intercult, also known for being the artistic director of Corners project and, more recently, one of the authors of the above-mentioned study, alongside Cristina da Milano (ECCOM), Alessandra Gariboldi and Alessandro Bollo (Fondazione Fitzcarraldo). We came at the right time to ruin their celebration of finishing the study, especially because we also asked Alessandro to join along. Given that his main research focus are the questions of economy and management of culture, evaluation of cultural policies and programs, innovation in the culture field and – audience studies, he seemed as a perfect source of information on the subject. Last (but not least) victim that we’d had in mind was Iker Tolosa, whose role in Corners is to coordinate the Corners Audience Links, a series of seminars and workshops on how to recognize public needs and bring audiences closer to art.

Quiet surroundings of Intercult’s office quarters turned out to be the perfect place for conducting our “interrogation”, that we now present to you. Marijana started with the question that has been on our minds for such a long time: why has audience development become such an important issue, and why should we deal with it in this moment?

Chris: For sure, it’s not just now that the audience is becoming important. The audience has always been a central part of everything called “arts and culture” in the history of human civilization. If we look at the Greek civilization, the word “democracy” and the word “theatre” were used in the same decade, and they meant the same thing. The amphitheaters were citizen’s gathering places, and the whole point was being there together with other people. The declarations coming from the stage were only stories to get our minds at work. It has always been this way. In my opinion, it’s been taken and put into a corner by a certain class of people, of certain education, of certain social capacity. This re-evaluation of the audience as an important part of our arts and cultural motivation it is not new, but it is on the other hand more essential than ever.

Alessandro: I agree with you, Chris. Audience development is not a new thing, just like the concepts of participation and audiences, and even the concept of art or cultural production. The concept of audience development is getting a momentum because of different aspects. One is the emphasis that the European union has put on this concept, also thanks to the Creative Europe programme. Why? Probably due to simple reasons. The first is the fact that they’ve seen that the statistics on cultural participation indicate very clearly that the majority of the population doesn’t participate in publicly financed culture. If you compare the statistics from 2013, they are quite similar to the statistics from 5-10 years before. The other aspect is a rhetoric vision that links the culture to the possibility to use arts for creating a better society, encouraging development, linking cultural participation to different fields like citizenship and health, and working towards more mature, competitive and collaborative society. But the point is that if you want this rhetoric vision to become real, you have to enlarge the social base. Otherwise, the risk is to have a high-speed society with people that can afford to have the instruments and knowledge to take part in the cultural field, while the rest of the society remains aside. This is why the idea of audience development is being accompanied by the idea of diversification – enlarging the social base of people, finding new ways, new tools and new languages for involving people.

Dubravko: So, Iker, what does this have to do with Corners?

Iker: I think that nowadays this high-speed society is the reality. From the European perspective, the culture has become the last resort for doing what has already been done with the creation of European Community. After failing to create the European identity in the economical field, it’s like somebody said: “Let’s call these guys from ‘culture’ and see if they are able to do something with this common identity”!

Chris: Are we? Could we be these pioneers? We were in any number of times in history. The artists or artistic movements have lead this kind of adventures before. Do we have that capacity?

Iker: I think we are still too far away. We are dealing with attempts that are too small to generate something that big. The need is much more structural. There are some attempts, but we are the last in the row.

Dubravko: What was the approach to audience development inside Corners, was it important to reach the maximum number of different kinds of people?

Iker: I think that Corners was successful, in a way that if some change has to happen, it needs to start from the small things: first you have to put the seeds. Corners opened up some opportunities for a lot of people and lot of places to experience and experiment with a real European relationship in the terms of culture. In that sense, it was necessary because you have to start from a certain point, and it’s interesting because it creates the debate about achievements and failures. We absolutely always dream of a large audience for everything we do: “This is gonna be a great project, with a bunch of artists, very attractive, it will gather lots of people!” And that’s not the reality. If you are at least a little bit honest with yourself, you know that you can never achieve an extreme number of people. It took us some time to wake up from this dream, and now our dream is to be able to look back and to realize that maybe it was more important to make a good analysis of what was happening during all these years, and leave it as a good legacy. Because, this seed we planted is more important than some big project that attracted a lot of people.

Chris: My feeling is that many small sparks make a very big fire. So, it is not a question of spectacle. What we have to always remember, when thinking about this question of the duality between excellence and engagement, is that we sometimes take the excuse that what we do is not that big, it doesn’t have a big technical budget and therefore it’s not really that important. That we as artists, as producers, take it less seriously because it’s low budget or because of the status of the audience who are not going to get any reviews. None of us got reviews, occasionally we got an interesting article, but we were very unseen by the mainstream. That smallness sometimes gave us an excuse to be lazy, that’s my feeling, to be lazy about our relations, when in fact we had to work even harder for our relations than for example if we’ve done something beautiful and flashy.

Dubravko: Let’s talk about something that was mentioned at the conference. What would be the difference between audience development and marketing, advertising? To some people, it might seem that audience development is just another term for “going viral”, to achieve the biggest impact you can have.

Alessandro: This is a good point. Even in our study we realized that for many people and cultural institutions, particularly in some sectors, “audience development” has been and is still used as a cool word for marketing. “Marketing” became a bad word and “audience development” can be a much more politically correct term for doing all kinds of things. Audience development, as the concept we intended to present and propose in the study, is something bigger. It’s not some sort of dichotomy, it’s not something different – it’s a strategical approach. It means that if you want to be audience-centric, you have to put all the different aspects into the pot. It’s not just the question of being good in communication, or being good in doing analysis of your target. The thing is to put the right question at the beginning of your projects.
The correct questions are: “for whom am I doing these things?”, “what are the impacts I want to produce – social, cultural, artistic, economical?” And then, once we have answered those questions, the structure of our organization has to be consistent with this approach. There is no single solution that fits. The idea is to create an organic strategical approach to the audience. Personally, I have ambivalent feelings about audience development, because I think that the word “audience development” is inadequate to describe what’s going on. What’s going on is a story about the need to overcome the idea of audience – we are dealing with people, with active engagement, with participants, and that concept is different from the concept of audience which is much more passive. On the other hand, audience development represents a fantastic opportunity for the whole cultural system in Europe to rethink its role and its mission; it’s a fantastic boost for mainstream cultural organizations in particular to rethink their position in society.

Chris: I think that this last point is essential, because what we are suggesting is that public financing and investment in culture should shift perspective completely. That is what activates people into cultural exchange, which is transformative rather than performative. Until now, we’ve had 100 years of what’s really a historical parenthesis, it’s only been some 100-150 years of national theatres and national concert halls. If we want to publicly invest, we have to invest in the kind of things Alessandro was talking about. That has nothing to do with amateurism, we have to have a whole new profession called “artists who work with communities”, but who are not community artists.

Marijana: I would like to continue in that direction. On the one hand, when we look at Corners, we see a geographically dispersed project that will end at a certain moment. But, the organizations that take part in Corners are pretty much local (although they have international relations with other organizations) and they are based in their local environment for a long time. As Alessandro mentioned, it takes an effort for all of us working in institutions to embrace audience development as a core part of our activities. And so far, this hasn’t been happening in many organizations. What are your thoughts about it? Maybe you have some examples of organizations or collectives that did this in successful way?

Chris: In our study, we identified a group of 30 paradigmatic examples of organizations that work in different sectors. They are self-defined audience developers, but I think we’ve only identified a few of them that we feel have put organizational change at the rig of it. Even among us – and Corners is a weird project because it kind of hangs in the air over the period of years, it’s not any of our core activity – we the partners, the producers, the operators, the founders, the ones who were mediating for EU and local funding, we are much more interested in it than the artists. In the end, we keep feeling we are more interested than the audience! That is, why are we so worried about audience development when the audience doesn’t seem to want to be developed! And it seems that the artists don’t want to be developed either.
But then magical things start to happen, and that has been the beauty of Corners for four years. We aren’t just one project, one production. We keep making mistakes and trying something else, but we are arriving in a certain part where the artists actually have been changed. They start to think about their audience, they think first about it before they come to the next place because they know that that’s the problem and the riddle they have to solve. I feel the same about us, the operators, that we continue to be committed to that idea.

Iker: There is nothing more frustrating for a cultural operator or an artist than, after investing a lot of effort in developing a project, to suddenly realize that the third leg of the table is missing. Especially when – like in Corners – the audience (local people) is the core part of the project that should adapt to the local context. The most valuable thing that Corners gave us is a new perspective which reminds us that even a picture on the wall needs someone to view it and give it a meaning. In the case of Corners, we are experimenting with different types of projects that took inspiration from different parts of Europe and need to find a way to make sense in local contexts. I find that all these efforts ended up in a remarkable way.

Alessandro: The problem is that many cultural organizations don’t recognize the fact that doing audience development also requires organization development. If you want to change your audience, you need to change yourself. Otherwise it’s just either improvisation or arrogance.
Also, the time is a crucial factor. The idea is not to provide cultural organizations with audience development tools that would give results in six months or one year. Audience development is a set of much longer processes that are very fragile and risky, so you need a political, an institutional frame that will secure them. Otherwise you risk starting a boomerang effect, when you take a step back after not having reached the wanted results in the period of, let’s say, one year. And this is where the frustration comes in.

Dubravko: One part of the title of today’s conference was “The Future of the European Project”. How do you see the role of projects such as Corners in the future development of our societies?

Chris: The people who created the European Union didn’t understand about how to make projects. Corners is learning how to make projects so that we could make something bigger, cooperatively with the other people in the future. They started from completely the wrong beginning points; they started structurally, pedantically, authoritatively. While the future of the European project is, in fact, activating citizens to start taking and expressing their own lives. At that moment when they are empowered as critical people, which is what we somehow are trying to do… You know, I’ve always been so touched by Corners about how some artists seem to get captured by some half-crazy person from the neighborhood, and I keep thinking that crazy people know what’s going on, they know when energy is happening. So why wouldn’t we value these pearls like we would do for a child who was difficult, but brilliant in the school, and the teacher who could release that kid to make him into a great rock and roll musician or something; in other words, the people that everybody values most in our society, who see brilliance where there’s trouble. So, if we set up slightly different criteria, the future of the European project is to see that those things which seem to be troublesome are actually the things that can save us. Take for example – the refugees. Instead of seeing them as a problematic class that we have to get involved in our Shakespeare performance, we have to choose another perspective; these people know how to survive, unlike us – if someone turns off the electricity tomorrow, I’m dead – these people made it over the ocean, through a camp, they come from difficult circumstances… I don’t want to cliché, but I really believe that we have a lot to learn from those that are a little bit on the edges. In what’s called Corners, the people we were looking for were actually at the corners, so maybe those corners can tell us the story that could change the future of the European project.

***

Some things did become clearer that evening, at least for me. As the corner can instantly become a center, depending on a perspective we take, our need for a bigger and diversified audience can and should become a reason to rethink the position of our own organizations in the whole story about the ecosystem called Arts and Culture. Sometimes, we as cultural producers and organizers want to be under the spotlights, we want to be recognized as an important factor that makes everything going, but there is always a moment when we have to pass that position to the artists and their artworks – so, why should we leave the audience behind? We can’t expect to become a center for our audiences if we can’t offer them one of the leading roles in the whole play. We are all legs of the same table.

(…)

Before calling it a day, in the end we did have a glass of champagne. It was a night of celebration and solving mysteries, after all.