Intervjuserie: #1 Cristina Da Milano

skrevet av Matic Gajsek — 2017-02-02

I en serie intervjuer knyttet til sin mastergrads-forskning på best praksis publikumsutvikling i norske kunst og kulturinstitusjoner presenterer Matic Gajšek ledende publikumsutviklings-eksperter internasjonalt. I det første intervjuet møter vi Cristina Da Milano, som gir oss et innblikk i noen av de viktigste funnene i en stor og foreløpig upublisert EU-rapport med tittelen "How to place audiences at the centre of cultural organizations”. 
In a series of interviews Matic Gajšek on a weekly basis presents leading experts on audience development, as part of the NPU's undergoing research of 'Best practice' in collaboration with the MSc research project of Matic Gajšek. In the first interview with Cristina Da Milano, we are  presenting the first insights of the major European study funded by the European Commission “How to place audiences at the centre of cultural organizations”? Research is to be published in the upcoming weeks.

Cristina Da Milano is one of the leading European researchers on Audience development. The interview was conducted as part of the NPU’s ongoing research project for evaluating best practices in arts- and cultural organisations in Norway. With the tittle questioning ‘how to place audiences at the centre of cultural organizations’, Cristina Da Milano shares the insights of the research project funded by the European Commission programme Creative Europe. 

Opening our conversation, your report is addressing an issue of audience development still being an activity rather than a discipline. How does the research study ‘How to place audiences at the centre of cultural organizations’, as a research stimulated by the policy-making and funding -body, add towards audience development as a discipline?

That is a very good question, which should be addressed to the European Commission. The report includes recommendations also for the policy makers as well as for the European Commission, in order to empower the cultural operators and in a way stimulate them to turn this technique into a discipline. There is a need for training, but not training in a technical sense, but training in conceptual form – so what audience development is. The problem is not how to learn the technique to engage audiences or analyse audiences, but it is more of a political choice of the organizations to put audiences at their centre.

The key points of recommendation was about raising awareness, which is exactly what I meant with training in political terms - raising awareness about the concept of audience development, raising awareness about the importance of adopting an evidence-based approach. The issue is also with not using the evidence-based approach for demonstration of audience development effects. Secondly, the European Commission should strengthen the link with the education sphere. It is not difficult to work on audience development, but it’s much easier if the process starts already during the formal education stages. So creating the strong links between the cultural organizations and the formal educational system, this might give us much better results. But such attempts depend strongly on the national policies, since in many European countries art education and music education are disappearing form school curricula. So our position stands for  on one hand creating awareness, and  on the other also fostering a proper training in audience development, because it is still very much confused with pure marketing and communication activities, while in reality it’s a much more complex discipline. So with such perspective the Commission could monitor and evaluate the audience development projects that they fund on a longer term. The results of audience development are almost always medium or long term. So the policy makers and funders should realize that a clear picture of impact cannot be seen without the long-term funding and evaluation applied. For this reason, we do recommend the creation of the European agency or directorate dedicated only to the issue of audience development.

Considering the broad-European research scope in your research, where does the audience development in Europe stand today, over 25 years after the initial research of Heather Maitland for the Touring department of Arts Council England?

We can see this clearly from the analysis of literature – there is a shift from the concept of access, accessibility, which was defined by the physical, economic, geographic access, towards the concept of audience development. An interesting thing is that when making this shift, what happened is that at the purely theoretical level audience development has changed. So if audience development was before something that at the theoretical level meant marketing and communication, which is still very much true on the practical level now, this is no longer the case in academic discussions. Audience development thus started as something with origin in marketing and communications, but then shifted towards the concept of access and accessibility. Audience development is therefore a much more complex multi-dimensional concept, also including activities oriented towards the social inclusion. The concept which has some elements originating from marketing and communication, so obviously is targeting the regular or traditional audiences, which in our research we identify as ‘audience by habit’. So for audiences by habit it is mostly about the marketing and communications because of dealing with the people who have access to culture, regularly participate and are regularly engaged. Audience development furthermore also includes ‘audiences by choice’ and ‘audiences by surprise’. We are therefore trying to get a much deeper relationships with some audiences or trying to engage audiences, which normally do not participate, do not have access or are simply not engaged in the arts and culture. And with such scope, audience development obviously goes beyond the marketing and communications context.

When discussing this issue with Heather Maitland, she argues that there is a shift away from the traditional notion of audience development as justification of public funding, becoming the philosophical or artistic drive of the organizations. Would you agree with such statement?  

I think the two things are connected, of course it implies the philosophical level of organization, but this is obviously connected with the social role of organization.  It is not only a way for justification of public funding, but the attitude is obviously different from private to public organizations. Private organizations are not really forced to pursue audience development and of course our report was about the public funded organizations, but we came across private organizations too. When talking about audience development in private sphere, it is something still purely connected with marketing and communications. On the contrary, public institutions, which try to reach for example excluded audiences, do it because they are concerned about their social responsibility, although sometimes it is also because they are forced to do so, in order to justify the funding, necessary for their existence.

When talking about the shift in participation, where we remain in discussions about the attenders and non-attenders, you mentioned the shift towards diversification. Similar shift is also identified in work of Tajkova, talking about the shift from mainstream towards missionary approach targeting the non-attender groups. What about the existing audiences? In interview with dr. Sebastian Nordmann, intendant of Konzerthaus Berlin, he similarly indicates the priority for audience development, but with focus on both existing and new audiences.

This is absolutely crucial. The group that we call audience by habit is exactly that – the existing audience. Many institutions working on those, also work hardly on the excluded audiences, the difficult target groups. So the simultaneous focus on both existing and new audiences can be found.  It nevertheless requires a different approach, more resources, which is again a matter of choice.  Choice of the organization to dedicate part of the resources on new audiences or to focus on the traditional ones. And such choices need to be framed within the diverse contexts of organizations and their mission statements. There are some organizations, as shown by the infographics of the report, which choose to work on their existing and traditional audiences, not reaching out to other kinds of audiences, while others work particularly on that. It’s a matter of mission-related choice.  

If we shift to the marketing side of audience development, the main academic discussions suggest audience development is in the majority of cases integrated within the marketing and communications department.

And that is still very much the truth.

On the contrary, marketing discussions are moving beyond the traditional segmentation criteria, when encountering the rise of information and communications technologies (ICT) enabling customization.  

This is right and it is obviously something related to traditional audiences. But it does not work like that when addressing the excluded audiences: in such case, the traditional marketing and communication approach would not work at all, it is almost a one-to-one relationship that you have to establish in order to be effective and successful. But with traditional audiences you can still also work with the traditional tools of marketing and communication, although one has to consider also the issue of engagement – in the case for example of audience by choice - which is about going in-depth in the relationship and not just working horizontally in terms of numbers, but vertically, in terms of deepening and strengthening the relationship. There is a need for the use a much more customized relationship. There are different possibilities: working with the traditional marketing and communications tools with traditional audiences – audiences by habit; working with the much more customized approach, allowing you to work with your audiences by choice in order to go in-depth with relationship building for this group and also with the audience by surprise. . It all depends on the goal of the organization:  if it is to strengthen and deepen the relationship, then a customized approach can be more effective.

In the glossary you are de-structuring the term audience engagement into reach and engage. What is the shift and does your report reveal potential shift from audience development as mechanic and negatively articulated approach, towards the engagement?

I would not say that the difference in the report is so evident. This difference really is when analysing the literature and studying the words, and the meaning of words. In practice, the process is much smoother. So we do not really aim to divide the black and white in practical case studies, which is nevertheless an interesting thing - the practice is not simple, but rather much more complex, difficult to separate on black and white basis. . What emerges is this idea of awareness: what is very clear is the distinction between the institutions that are aware of what they are doing and the others, which are much more passive and do audience engagement or development activities because they are forced to do so. So in this case, we can see the shift from negative to positive idea of engagement.

As the name of report ‘Putting the audiences in the centre of organizations’, what is the recommendation on integration of audience development within the organization. Do you follow the most core model of Heather Maitland, recommending the integration of audience development in organizational context within the artistic planning or curating, education and marketing department?

Yes, absolutely. We really backed up this idea, but not only from the artistic or curatorial point of view, but mainly from the managerial point of view. It is not only a matter of the artistic directors or curators, but it is a matter of directors. It should really be embedded on all levels and there are organizations which are dealing in a very strict way towards this issue. Just to give you an example, there is a theatre where the director selects the artists only after having understood if they have a real interest in engaging with the public or not. As you know, many artists are not interested in having a direct relationship with the public. There are institutions which have taken very strong positions towards the role of artistic planning and curators, which is in some cases of course leads to difficulties. It greatly depends on the direction of the institutions and – consequently – on its mission. I go extreme here, the position of the organization towards audience development should be explicated in its mission. But at the end, there is a crucial issue related to leadership: it is very much dependent on the person, the leader – whether or not he or she is strong enough to trigger a change implying this vision of the public as the centre of the activities  

It is interesting to compare our aims to attract more CEOs and Artistic directors on board, and not to only send the marketing and communication departments. The decision about projects will be at the end made by the Artistic directors or CEOs.

I completely agree and there is a strong consensus on that among all those who worked on this European study. As I said, there is an issue concerning managing and leadership in putting the public or the audiences at the centre. And seeing it as only dependent on marketing and communications department, this is a very partial vision of the overall picture.

Should audience development then within the organization, be a guiding tool towards the relevance of the cultural organizations?

"Cultural organizations should be aware that audience development cannot be relevant only for the marketing and communications department. It should be embedded within the organization and be part of an overall strategy, it should actually guide the overall strategy of organization."

If the organizational mission is to have the public at the centre of its activities, then the real meaning of audience development has to be fully understood. Nevertheless, such ideas can only work when there is a clear idea of doing a social service and social responsibility, which can also means choosing to engage only with specific groups of society. It is obviously a choice of the organization and it is strongly connected to the idea of public funding, public service.

Academia outlines the historical influence of political system and cultural policy, which we could also observe in the example of NPU. Were you able to identify the influence of political systems and cultural policy also in your across-European study?

It is clear when you analyse the case studies, as even though you did not know where they came from, you could tell. So the political framework of the country where they come from influences the results. The research allowed us to identify the cases related to cultural organizations supported by a cultural policy really pushing towards the audience development objective. And that being said, nevertheless the goal might not even be social empowerment or cultural responsibility, but sometimes a quantitative one. National cultural policies are in some cases oriented towards this quantitative objective to increase the numbers, rather than to widen or differentiate audiences. Nevertheless, in most cases there is still a clear mission about the role of culture and cultural institutions: in other cases it is rather difficult to find organic visions framing the overall process. In Italy for example it is similarly still mostly about the quantity orientation, as well as in Spain, although we have of course selected examples where the quantitative elements are in a way substituted by the qualitative counterpart.

Would you agree that audience development is therefore still coming from the Western towards the Central-European context?

Yes, I do agree. The discussion and the evolution of the concept is still rooted in the Western part of Europe and the USA. So the discussion on audience development and relating issues is much more developed within the Anglo-Saxon cultural sphere.

As part of the glossary, you also discuss the indicators applied. What set of indicators to develop, in order to really encompass and grasp the diversity of audience development practices?

In our research the indicators were embedded already in the initial questions, as part of the questionnaire implemented to create a catalogue of experiences. As a response to the call, we received more than 80 answers and we selected 30 experiences. So the evaluation criteria enabled us to select the cases, which were strongly linked to the idea of awareness. We were looking for the case studies in which the concept of audience development was stressed, understood, managed with a certain level of awareness. The focus points were therefore the presence in the organizations of dedicated employees or departments, going beyond something like “we of course do audience development within our marketing and communications department” – such statements were on the contrary a very negative indicator. Our aim was to work on case studies of organizations which actually wrote down an audience development strategy. Do they have the strategy and is this strategy shared with the rest of the organization?  Those were the questions looking for indicators of awareness and the practice. Indicators revealing whether there is any investment in resources, either human or financial, in staff training.

If rounding up, there is a variety of definitions of audience development presented in your glossary. When encountering the scope as well as context dependency, is there possibility at all to comprehend a universal definition of audience development?

I think it is possible to have a universal definition, but then necessary it has to be a broad one, encompassing different contexts, also considering the national and the local ones. . But you can have a broad definition with the main features included, yet with clear indication of application into a specific organizational context. We are able to outline the general features, which are common.

Then concretely speaking of features such as strategic, long-term, cross-organizational and experimentation as some in the field argue?

Yes, indeed those.

In Stavanger we also briefly discussed the relationship between audience development and the Creative Europe Program. Does this report going to ‘make sense’ or at least add to the current understanding?

The main idea for us was to make sense for the Commission and not only for cultural operators. Thus we also worked on the recommendations. Our impression is that Creative Europe has used so far the concept of audience development predominantly in quantitative terms, demanding all funded projects to have quantitative audience development objectives and indicators (such as numbers of either visitors, spectators). What we are stressing in the report is that it cannot be only about the numbers. The Commission should be able to also evaluate or consider evaluating a qualitative approach, with accordingly set evaluative indicators, which needs to be determined. The effort should be made in that direction, enabling evaluation of projects in the medium-long-term scope.

Indeed, the short time scope is one of the major criticisms of the programme structure.

Yes, normally they only evaluate the project results, but there should be a longitudinal evaluation. Of course, it requires a lot of work, but it is necessary to achieve effective audience development strategies and results.