Intervjuserie: #2 Heather Maitland

skrevet av Matic Gajsek — 2017-02-17

In the second expert interview on audience development with Heather Maitland, we are exploring the evolvement of audience development since the publishing of 'A guide to Audience development'. Interviews with leading experts on audience development are presented as part of the undergoing research of NPU’s Best practice and MSc research project of Matic Gajšek.

Heather Maitland  is an arts consultant, author, trainer and Associate Fellow at the Centre for Cultural Policy Studies at the University of Warwick. Heather has worked as a marketer for a wide range of arts organisations and was head of two of the UK’s audience development agencies. She has nine books on arts marketing and audience development to her credit.  She has delivered over 200 seminars and workshops around the world including in Colombia, Malawi and Syria. Her current projects include researching audiences in the Republic of Ireland and in Wales, working on audience development with the Aerowaves European dance platform and delivering training for Kultur i Väst, Sweden.

If starting from a broader perspective, what was the context and motivation initially inspired your research in the field of audience development?

We would go back to the mid to late 80’s. Arts Council England as the governmental body has always talked about audiences, actually audiences were really everything that Arts Council policy tackled. But it was all about the provision. There was one exception and that was the touring department, which used to fund companies in ballet, drama, classical music, opera to tour around the country and this was all that Arts Council did in terms of audiences. 
There was not a lot going on, apart from the national study about how many people engage in the arts. The touring department however was interested, because they were approaching audiences in areas of the UK, which do not have the means to see opera or ballet. Out of their interest to target those audiences, they set up a network of regional marketing offices, with staff working 2 or 3 days per week, to support companies touring. So it was about facilitating regional marketing offices, in order to build up the audiences. There were two things joint together: firstly, the vast of research kept indicating that the social profile of people who said were visiting different arts events has remained fixed for a period since 1982. And secondly, the continuous need for reaching and attracting audiences to the arts forms provided, rather than only selling the shows, as indicated by the regional marketing offices. This enabled the discussion about audiences. So, we are still unsure where the term audience development came from, but we are pretty sure it started in the touring department, as the phrase they used to describe their work. Later on, the first publication addressing audience development I worked on was the ‘Guide to audience development’, which was commissioned by the Touring department.

It was very difficult to get hold of this publication, but I managed to get hold of the only copy available in the Netherlands. 

Yes and this is because it is so old. I do not really believe in a lot of the things that I said in that document anymore. 

The marketing department and profile of people is something you mention. Would you agree with segmentation being at the core of any audience development programme?


To which relation, when referring to works by Kotler or Hayes and Slater, should factors influencing behaviour of consumers in arts be integrated or linked to the segmentation in audience development? 

Segmentation is very tricky because it is very easy to opt for the easy approach. So when discussing this with marketing professionals I generally ask them to list all the ways that you can segment audiences. Answers are generally about the age, gender or occupation, so about things that describe people.  But if you ask what is the most influential factor as to whether or not somebody goes to see the arts or not, the answer would be beliefs. Then we talk about the hierarchy, starting with description, behaviour, attitudes and beliefs. And beliefs are the core drive for an individual’s setting of identity and behaviour. 

Would you disagree with generally accepted ‘fact’ that education is the best predictor of attendance?

Big part of research by Orean Brook in both London and Manchester, where she looked at millions of transactions, is focussed on education and also on the familiarity with the journey. Addressing the question ‘what drove people to particular places’, as there were surprisingly some patterns of loyalty to places. Findings reveal it is about the familiarity of the journey and not the distance. What is of interest here is the relevance and how can going to the specific art forms indicate the relevance, either in everyday life or in the society. Thus, it is relevant to speak about the familiarity of journey and educational influence on it, rather than about the class or income. Because of all those discoveries, I do not agree anymore with some things that I wrote in the ‘Guide to audience development’. This is obviously related to cultural capital and theory of Bourdieu.

In a series of interviews with various performing arts institutions, I was able to identify a broad consensus of professionals working with audience development that identify audience development as a long-term experiment. Would you agree with such statement?

Indeed, it is impossible to do it short term, as it is about changing beliefs. It is about making those aspects relevant and you cannot change your set of beliefs in a short period of time.
One of your first answers was about disagreement between some of the views presented in ‘A guide to audience development’. How did your view evolve over the course of time and most specifically in relation to your proposed definition of audience development (which remains the most frequently cited definition: “audience development as an activity of breaking down the barriers and building a relationship between the arts form and audience”)?

It is important to note that the Guidebook was published for over 25 years ago. And the perspective on it changed throughout the last 10 years, which we spent ‘breaking down the barriers’. When removing the barriers such as money or access, it became that clear that people still did not come. I came to a conclusion that it is necessary to first make the form relevant, in order to be able to break down or remove the barrier(s). Then people can recognize the value in the offering and possibly attend.

When talking about the barriers, Hayes and Slater distinguish two approaches: mainstream, targeting existing and missionary approach, targeting new audiences. Could we then see mainstream approach as the first stage and missionary approach as an extension?


Or possibly an interrelating approach, because of variety of audiences being at different stages? 

I would say this is a journey to the arts, so not at all about the distinction. When talking about missionary approach, it is necessary to see it in the context of the the democratization of culture. It is not about saying “here is the great art and we will be ambassadors who will democratize the high culture”.  But it is about the relevance, even with high culture, and not a distinction into phase one or two. Organizations should be always concerned with their relevance. The alternative approach is the approach of cultural democracy, concerned about the difference between culture as market or a temple. Such approach of cultural democracy is taken rather seriously by many organizations in the Netherlands. In the example of Arts Centre Groningen, it is about the exchange of ideas, a dialogue, which is not imposed by the ideas about the arts. 

When talking about the journey, could we also speak about Andreasen’s 6-stages ‘adoption process model’ (development through phases from disinterest, interest, trial, positive evaluation, trial, adoption and confirmation)?

I think it is a decision making process and not a process describing people’s relationship with culture. In example of opera, you may ask if ‘you are going to go to an opera performance’ and then apply the answers into 6 different stages.  The difficulty is that the idea of people experiencing something ‘lighter’, so they can eventually try something ‘more difficult’, and afterwards be persuaded to come back is just too simple – it is not as straightforward as that.

In interviews with some of Austrian concert promoters, it came across that the audiences forming strong base also have a lot of power. In result, the strong audience base can exercise the power on artistic programming, as one of the three proposed elements of audience development (triangulated with education and marketing). Would you recognize such tensions and if so, how can such tensions be mediated? 

I am not sure whether audience development is necessary in situations when the houses are still full. In some other countries, such types of organizations would be very much concerned with the justification of their public funding, by making sure that there is social profile of their audiences, meaning not only the posh and the rich. Royal Opera House in London for example has projects in lots of deprived areas in the South of England, where their aim is to build relationships with audiences that would never consider going to the opera. Arguably, the project is not necessarily effective, because they face a difficulty in understanding the audiences with no interest or beliefs that the opera or ballet are relevant to them. 

Could this be an issue of premium brand? 

Very much depending on the context, but I think audience development becomes important in countries where cultural policy is about human rights, involving the quality and access to culture. In countries like the Netherlands maybe 15 years ago, suddenly there was a change of government and the focus shifted to building audiences and equality. Even at the Royal Concertgebouw, reaching ticket sales between 80% or 90%, they had to find the way to grow their audiences or face cuts in funding, despite successfully selling out the seats. 

A similar issue arose in Slovenia, where the new cultural strategy does not entail audience development. Audience development became an emerging priority of cultural policy across Europe, but arguably most developed in the UK cultural sphere? 

There is a vast amount of research in the field of cultural policy and political influences. Broadly speaking, the emphasis on the subject in UK in 1990 was a result of the recession and concerns over the financial sustainability of organizations. It was about building the governance and that was with one of our right wing governments. Left wing is on the contrary concerned with the democratization, equality of access, and culture for further generations or culture as health. The evolution of audience development thus greatly depends on the political orientation. To be completely honest, a tiny part of my brain is very cynical and argues that when talking about audience development, we are in fact discussing marketing principles. It might just be a polite gesture when our political leaders are willing to accept the topics addressed. I find it very difficult to distinguish between the audience development and marketing, when on the other hand some organizations see marketing solely as communication.

But as proposed throughout your work, audience development should be balanced between artistic planning, marketing and education? 

This is a very difficult question, as it depends on the organization. I think in all organizations you will find a champion, not necessarily the expected person, which might be from education, marketing or artistic planning department. The main issue is cross-department collaboration.

I have been working with a small-scale organization which is all about audience development, for example. Their focus is on disabled artists and audiences, but their education and outreach team work separately from their marketing team.

What are the applications of the model, encountering the organizational diversity? Could we draw some distinctions between promoters and producers or orchestras? 

It greatly depends on the organization. Some companies do not engage enough with audiences and have a limited understanding of audience. In such examples, organizations perceive audiences as much more committed and more frequently attending than they are, so audience development does not seem to work. Several venues have a much better understanding of their audiences, but if they think in terms of the dance or the classical music audiences, a similar mistake occurs. This assumption that people attend performances out of their interest is wrong, on the contrary 9 out of 10 audience members attend it because it is something different and they want to experience it. So there is a need to engage audiences in the full cultural offer of the venue.

Looking from the long-term perspective, could we argue that audience development is an example of strategic marketing or customer relationship management tools?

This is an interesting point you are making. I think audience development is philosophy and customer relationship management and strategic marketing planning are the tools that make it happen. The problem with audience development is that it is such a vague and blurred term, it can mean almost everything that organizations want to mean.  Nevertheless, where organizations have the whole business planning set, also their strategic business planning, audience development and marketing strategies are much more effective.

In a truly inspiring interview with Afa Dworking from Sphinx Detroit, focussed on participation of ethnic minorities, she suggested the extension of your model of audience development (artistic planning, education and marketing) with fundraising. Do you recognize such extension?

This extension should be looked from the point of view of a USA based venue. I think in the UK customer relationship management is not as nearly developed, even though we have people who become donors. Mainly because we do not have the tax breaks and have more public funding. Usually we speak about a quarter or third of funds coming from business sponsorships, followed by charity grant sponsorships and the last third from public subsidy. 

Academic discussions indicate the recent shift towards diversification, by reaching new audiences as well as increasing the access to the art forms.

I think we have been through this cycle in the UK several times in the past 25 years. It again strongly depends on the politics. I think there are lots of cultural leaders and organizations who genuinely believe in the subject of access, so there have always been some drivers also in cultural policy. 

What is the current direction of audience development in the UK? 

I cannot really answer this question, because we are going through a period of austerity, organizations are being cut very heavily and public funding is being greatly reduced. So the organizations are mainly focussing on the sustainability or whatever that could all mean. Practically speaking, they are trying to survive. In some organizations that means big cuts to marketing, audience development or education. In other organizations where audience development and audiences are at the focus, those activities are a central part, so their objectives remain clear. But where audience development in organizations is seen as an extra or a luxury, they are being cut. Everything has become drastically fragmented and a lot of organizational infrastructure enabling discussion of audience development activities disappeared. The funding bodies are now no longer curating a discussion about audiences or audience development, so I think we have absolutely no idea what is actually happening. 

Such drastic transition can be contrasted with the Creative Europe programme, where audience development became one of the main emphases. Does Creative Europe provide a tool of monitoring the organizational work in the field of audience development?

There is a difference between controlling and having an overview. There has never been any control in the UK aside from the requirement that all regularly funded organizations must have an audience development plan. The overview or the research into practices is what is missing, but the overview of audiences through governmental research still present. Practically, we do know, and in quite some detail, who engages with the cultural sector and who doesn’t. Because we have been doing audience development for the past 25 years, it is much more common in UK’s cultural organizations compared to elsewhere in Europe. So we are more likely to come across audience centred organizations. In Europe, there are just isolated examples of extremely good practices, when in the UK it is more likely to be shared amongst many. So if encountering this difference, I do not believe Creative Europe’s emphasis on audience development have changed a lot. What we can see is the interest of sharing the ideas and examples of good practices.

Did Creative Europe also have implications on academic views on audience development?

We have been working on audience development between 25 and 30 years by now in the UK, so there is not a lot of a change as the result of Creative Europe, at least not in the UK. It did have some impact in Ireland, but not much, as the theatre sector was already engaged in audience development for 10 years and for some marketers even longer. The notable difference is only the sharing of good practices with European organizations. The main benefit of the Creative Europe project was an increase in collaborations with other European organizations artistically, rather than in terms of our understanding of audience development. There have also been some financial benefits, enabling further development of audiences. 

So you would agree that terminology and the philosophy behind audience development is still ‘coming’ to the Central and Eastern Europe? 

Yes, but I firmly believe that adopting the practice from Western Europe is not terribly helpful, because the cultural context is entirely different. My belief about audience development is that it is a thinking process, eventually contributing to the decision-making, and should be translated to the local cultural context. I do worry that some countries just adopt the term audience development, when I strongly believe it should be adopted to local context and what you want to achieve. It is not a model, but a way of thinking that enables the creation of a model, and each model works effectively in its specific country. I am now trying to talk more about audience engagement, because development is something you do to people. With strong implication of doing so being because it is good for them, but through the ideology of high culture.  Audience engagement is on the other hand about engaging people into a dialogue and I think this is a much more healthy approach to take.

Could we then articulate the meaning of barriers, to which you refer in the definition, as the barrier of social definition or perception on what audiences in the 21st century actually are? 

This is a very interesting thought, because whether an audience member is engaged depends on how you define culture. 

The notion that there are people in our society who are not at all involved in culture is just ridiculous. They actually engage very strongly, but it is just not a culture that we believe in or acknowledge in funding systems, so the idea of great art, which is not necessarily a very helpful one. So I would agree, one of the barriers is how we define culture and another barrier also how the organizations perceive or define audiences and their needs.

When speaking about the distinction about the low and high brow culture, there is an active discussion in academia on whether lowering the barriers in terms of artistic level for the new audiences or keeping up the barriers.

There are two aspects to this statement. Firstly, this idea of barriers, which we can see in order to get engagement and as such, there are physical, financial and social barriers to engagement. However, what is important is building cultural capital and when building cultural capital you can also talk about building relevance. I think there is a very close relationship between those two subjects. The moment we stop talking about the high and low brow and lowering standards, which is interestingly applied value judgement about what is great art. But I am not sure that this is a helpful premise to work on. With the assumption that audiences are stupid, they consequently cannot appreciate the art. I did a very interesting part of the research, where we explored the people who went to the opera for the first time in their life in their local venue. In our findings, we could tell that even though they were first-timers, they could identify the brilliant singers and the not so good ones. They could also make the same set of judgements about the quality of the performances that the experts were making; the only difference was the articulation. The audience did not have the vocabulary to express their judgement in the same way as the experienced visitors can or well-versed critics. There is plenty of research on whether different people listen to music and see dance in different ways, and if the experience is skewed by their perspective. Practicing musicians use their actions and the brain when experiences. Audiences do not have the same knowledge, unless they have studied an instrument or danced. Nevertheless, they are still responding and engaging, but just in a different way. Thus, engagement seems to be a positive solution to distance ourselves from this set of value judgements.

Would then be usage of audience engagement rather than development more appropriate? 

There is a set of baggage that goes with audience development in the UK model. And this is about the democratization of culture. The last government started talking about engagement, community engagement, social engagement as a social policy. This government is a much more right wing government and has gone back to community development and audience development, because it is a top-down approach, which has grown within the government. I do believe it has a lot to do with government policy outside as well as inside the arts. For example, aspects of our education policy, where creativity does not seem to be part of the curriculum, as much as writing effectively. On the contrary, being able to break a sentence down into its grammatical parts is an important component. The attitudes of people are what drive a major part of cultural as well as social policy, particularly in education.