Expert interview: #2 Heather Maitland

by Matic Gajsek — 2017-06-12

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.

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.

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.