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Nicholas Serota: Here’s how the Arts Council can help you understand your audience better

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Arts Council England chair Nicholas Serota outlines its new Impact and Insight Toolkit, released today, which aims to help arts organisations relate more closely to their audiences


Running a theatre can be a lonely business. This is true for both executive directors and artistic directors; and even working as a pair, you can be out on your own.

It’s a balancing act. You have to fill seats and do work of genuine creative ambition. You have to build an audience and nurture the relationships that go with that, hoping you can encourage some of those who begin by buying tickets to become more active as partners, perhaps even giving you financial support.

It is a big ask, and it’s becoming more of a challenge for theatres across the country. You may feel a little less lonely in London where there are plenty of neighbouring theatres going through the same trials and you can share experiences, but in a small town or rural area you might be the sole cultural focal point of the community.

The crucial starting point has to be building a relationship with the audience and the community. This means knowing what they think about you and the work you do. In the commercial entertainment industry, from music labels such as Universal to broadcasters such as the BBC, understanding who your audience is and what they think about your work is a given for success. Everyone running arts organisations, museums, galleries and theatres also wants to know more about their audiences.

But how to go about it? Beyond counting attendances and scrolling through social media after the curtain has come down, we need to do more and better research. In an age when so much is known about every aspect of our lives and tastes as consumers, artistic leaders should be able to use the power of technology to give their audiences a voice and develop a better picture of what they do and don’t like.

This is the impetus behind the new initiative Impact and Insight Toolkit, which the Arts Council is announcing today (July 5). Crucially, this idea didn’t originate with the Arts Council but was instead put to us by a group of cultural organisations in Manchester. They had seen a system used in Australia that gave users a better level of insight about their work. It seemed to have been very effective, and they asked if we could run a pilot programme in England.

We ran a number of test projects and pilots that have gone well with organisations saying they found it insightful to receive peer-group comments and input from their audiences. The process of testing has given us time to learn, evaluate and improve. We found, for example, that the initiative posed unique challenges for organisations working with children and young people, and people with disabilities, and so we commissioned research in this area and used findings to inform our requirements.

The initiative will be used by organisations receiving more than £250,000 funding from the Arts Council. They will be encouraged to tailor the programme to meet their needs and will report on the data produced from April 2019. However, all national portfolio organisations will be invited to take part, collect information, and shape the range of cultural insights that will be produced.

I know there have been some misconceptions about the initiative. For example, some people may fear that if an audience doesn’t like a particular production, the Arts Council will cut the producer’s grant.

This is not how it works. The feedback produced by this system will be useful to individual organisations to help shape their programming, but we are interested in aggregating the information, across a range of organisations and theatres, to generate key insights across the spectrum of activities carried out by cultural organisations.

This will give a better picture of what people in the UK think is exciting about arts, theatre, museums, dance and performance. This data will be available to each of the arts organisations for discussion about what can be learned from it.

Moreover, the questions will be more complex than: “Did you like it or not?” They will ask audiences if they think the work they have experienced says something about the world or if it challenged them to think differently. Did the work have a local impact? Did it push boundaries and take risks? Was it fun?

At the moment, organisations most commonly use attendance figures or reviews as indicators of success or impact. But this toolkit will provide insights they may not have previously had. Producers will be able to assess how well their intent for the work matches up with the experiences of their peers and the public.

We want people attending arts events funded by public money, to have a fulfilling experience. This doesn’t mean we want arts organisations to avoid risk.

The best and most pioneering work often polarises opinion, and a positive response could strengthen an organisation

This is not about limiting risk or stopping organisations from putting on work that may be difficult and may tackle questions in unfamiliar ways. Rather, we want to understand what the impact of the work is. The best and most pioneering work often polarises opinion, and a positive response to risky work could strengthen an organisation, helping the leaders to shape the artistic direction confidently.

I’m a great believer in institutions deciding what territory they want to occupy and pursuing that – saying that they stand for certain values, that they deal with certain themes and subjects, and will build an audience around those. But it’s not an easy process and you need all the insight you can get.

Young Vic artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah has said that when he became artistic director of Baltimore Center Stage, he lost half his audience and more than half his supporters because of the way he wanted to change the nature of the productions. He gradually built a new audience and set of sponsors, building an identity for the theatre. Something similar to the tool we’re introducing might well have been helpful to him at that time, so he could know if that identity was recognisable to his audiences.

We want this tool to help theatres, and other arts organisations, to interact with their audiences; to respond to their ideas, and offer opportunities that will help build communal bonds.

A few years ago it was uncommon for directors to hold a conversation on stage about their work. Now these events happen in pretty much every theatre in the country. They bring people close to the theatre process and help them to become more engaged with the arts.

Of course, theatres, and all arts organisations, can ignore these conversations if they wish, but it will be their loss in the long term. If we want to be sustainable, we need strong relationships with our communities.

Some people will react negatively on principle, thinking this is another piece of bureaucracy and form filling. I ask them to take a closer look at what it actually is, what it does, and what it can be used for. This is fundamentally a way to establish a deeper conversation between an organisation and its audiences.

The Arts Council exists to help arts organisations do better, stronger, more vivid work. People often fear that opening their work up to comment will make them vulnerable to criticism, but they will be surprised at how intriguing and refreshing the process can be.

artscouncil.org

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