Evolve or Die? ITC shakes up our thinking

At a packed Independent Theatre Council conference in Tuesday we answered the call to discuss the timely issue of seeking alternative funding sources or models in these times of cuts and gloom. The title was deliberately provocative; and we all giggled nervously as we considered on which side of the divide we would fall.

The challenge of the title carried on through initial presentations by Dawn Austwick of the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, ACE’s Althea Efunshile and Lorna Brown of Nalgao – and on through the afternoon’s breakout sessions.

 The clear messages of the day were:

  •   Cuts are here, don’t pretend they’re not.
  •   Arguing that ‘the arts’ per se are a special case and should be protected will not win any sympathy – indeed, quite the opposite – in the minds of the greater public.
  • Concepts such as the ‘Big Society’, a shrinking public sector and the cuts themselves are aimed at fundamentally changing our society, a paradigm shift. How can we frame what we do in the context of these ideologies? How do we ensure our values and ideas become part of the concept?
  • We can no longer be a ‘growth’ society as we’ve been used to – forever doing more. We need to learn to do less, better.
  • Big scale philanthropy may kick in, but not for a few years yet.
  • We need to prepare our minds for working with lower budgets – and not just a ‘keep doing what we do but squeezing and cutting corners’ mentality. This is a time for radically re-thinking how we structure our organisations, our offer and our relationship. Get creative!
  • Focus on what your core purpose is but also on what your assets are. Are they your building, your brand, your audience and supporters, your ability to create connections or unlock memories…?Image of an audience at Sadler's Wells
  • Keep close to and fully understand your audiences – their needs, desires and perceptions of you. Audiences are still a substantial source of income for many organisations. Now is not the time to cut your communications with them. It’ll also help you understand and respond to your own ‘Big’ community.
  • Collaborate, make partnerships, share and save – maybe even merge. From sharing sets to sharing producers; co-training to giving office space to a smaller company; from co-commissioning audience research to reusing past productions.

For Audiences London’s part, as well as implementing our own new models of working with you, we see ourselves as helping arts organisations collaborate between themselves – through such projects as the newly-established Outer London Venues Audience Development Support project and through the wealth of intelligence from previous joint research projects, available free on our website.

AMA conference – An Audience Development / Marketing Perspective

notcommunicating‘Exploring artistic excellence and public engagement’ was the theme for this year’s conference.

The key thing I took away was that artistic and marketing teams need to be working together more closely to broker relationships between audiences and the art. It was one of those conferences where many delegates were bemoaning the lack of artistic directors, programmers and curators present. Surely they needed to be here to listen to this too? Many were also considering how open their own particular artistic director would be to working in a more collaborative way. But as Jo Taylor, Head of Marketing at Wales Millennium Centre countered – marketers should rise to the challenge and advocate for change, rather than waiting for their directors to take the lead. Dave Moutrey and Sarah Perks from Cornerhouse in Manchester talked about how they’ve merged their artistic and marketing departments in the hope that better internal collaboration will ensure better engagement of their audiences with their artistic offering. Their new structure has only been in place for a year so far, so it’s too early to tell what the impacts will be yet – we’ll have to watch this space. Wales Millennium Centre is also working in this way – it was interesting to hear from companies pioneering these new approaches.

Some of the questions it seems we should be asking ourselves to help us develop audiences for the arts, are “how can we”:

  • Collaborate to grow the shrinking pie of arts attenders?
  • Better engage our audiences online by digitising art and allowing it to be re-appropriated?
  • Better invest in our audiences, and develop their taste and appreciation for the art we provide?
  • Create and foster social networks to develop audiences?
  • Broker better relationships between the art and audiences?
  • Enable audiences to become co-creators?
  • Convince our audiences of the relevance of our art offering to them?
  • Give people opportunities to relive their experiences of the arts that will make them want to re-attend?