Audience development is an ambiguous term that is used differently by different groups in the cultural sector. Some speak of it as a methodology with a set of tools, while others understand it more as a sector-specific ambition, a set of values, and an ideology that legitimizes the high degree of state funding in the arts. Regardless of how you define it, it is still about democratization of culture.
For the community developers in state, county and municipality the goal is for audience development to give them competence and tools to better prepare them for developing democratic culture and art in their region.
When the words “audience development” are about to be operationalized, the focus of the institutions tends to be on the Communication Department. Especially when the ambition is to activate people who don’t normally show interest in participating. But the Communication Departments can’t provide the institutions with a more democratic audience than the content deserves. You can market yourself to a better position in an established market. Marketing works when the product is already adapted to the market. But for publicly funded art, the market is often too small to provide a sustainable economy. It can preserve traditions, or it can be innovative and experimental. But it rarely offers only entertainment and an escape from reality, and can be demanding to like for a new audience.
The content of the program and the artists are the most important factors when working with audience development in the institutions. Secondly, you find good communication and arena development. They, too, are necessary, but not sufficient conditions for the democratization of the audience. New groups show up when the program is relevant and the right people recommend it.
Audience developers can have a missionary basic approach. We believe in the power of art, and that society gets better when more people get to experience the same things we do. Sometimes we forget that people already have a lot of culture in their lives, although they don’t visit publicly funded art and cultural institutions. Qualitative in-depth interviews with people who don’t visit the institutions show that they have a clear understanding of what they are missing out on. They know the difference between art and culture. Art is the culture that is not just for the sake of entertainment, but that demands something of you. Cultural heritage is the culture that is important to preserve, but not everyone finds it exciting to experience. Most people support the idea of public funding of art and culture through taxes, even when they don’t want to make use of what’s being offered.
In the arts, we often use the argument of quality to defend the fact that art and culture can be demanding. We will argue that although quality art and culture might not be as “easy on the palate”, it does provide greater benefits. And we set higher and different quality requirements to art produced in the institutions than art produced outside them. The truth, I would think, is that excellent art and culture is also being produced outside the institutions? At least the institutions need the audience to the same extent – yes, maybe even to a greater extent – than the audience needs the institutions.
Democratization of majority culture happens all the time – out there, on the internet, at the festivals, in the concert venues, on NRK, and on Netflix. It is the democratization of the institutions that we are struggling with. And that is not surprising when you consider that we, on the one hand, finance them to create demanding art that is not adapted to the market, and on the other hand, demand that the institutions engage a representative population. The market consists of different segments, according to taste. The public funding of the institutions is there to operate from the taste of the majority freely. The quality controlled taste of the artistic leaders of the institutions cannot and shall not reflect the taste of the majority. To sum it up – the cultural policy is contradictory if we take it literally. But maybe we shouldn’t?
Cultural responsibility is a term that Kristian Seltun came up with when he was on the board of Audiences Norway (NPU) from 2014-2016. It was the title for NPU’s annual conference in Stavanger in 2016. At that point, Seltun was the Artistic Director of Trøndelag Theatre. As the Artistic Director of Nationaltheatret (The National Theatre), Seltun, from my understanding, wants to contribute to the democratization of the art from within. One of the first things he did after taking over the reins at the venerable Nationaltheatret was to appoint Camara Joof as Resident Playwright, an artist who insists on her art as instrumental and serving of a specific anti-racist purpose.
When Camara Joof agreed to play her first performance of “Pavlovs Tispe” (Pavlov’s Bitch) at the Cultural Responsibility Conference in 2016, she did not have anywhere near the position she has in the sector today: a member of the Arts Council, Resident Playwright at Nationaltheatret, a celebrated author of the book “Eg snakkar om det heile tida” (I talk about it all the time), and a regular columnist in the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet. At that time, she was still developing Den mangfaldige scenen (The Diverse stage), which she and Liv Hege Skagestad received the Oslo City Culture Award for this year. She was living in Copenhagen and worked as a assignment playwright for various directors and theatre collectives with activist goals about anti-racism and anti-prejudice against queer culture. Camara had been working part-time for NPU, and we agreed that audience development and diversity in the institutions could only take place if the institution and the program was diverse and representative. We used the NPU-conference as a platform to show what we meant.
The same year, Det Norske Teatret (The Norwegian Theatre) won the NPU Award for their commitment to “Det multinorske” (The Multi-Norwegian) in close competition with The Ultima Festival and The Munch Museum. All three could show a significant effort to not just grow but actually expand their audience base. And all three made use of artistic methods. Ultima and MUNCH programmed specifically for different target audiences. Det Norske Teatret, with Erik Ulfsby at the forefront, took cultural responsibility through establishing a drama school for people with a non-western background, from the belief that democratization of the art has to happen on the stage first, then in the audience.
In 2013 and 2014 NPU was part of the EU-funded mobility program Open all Areas. The purpose of the program was to establish contact between people who were working with the democratization of culture and to learn across national borders. Among other things, we visited Belfast and Audiences Northern Ireland. Here we met with Steven Hadley, who at the time was the leader of the organization, and who was behind numerous attempts on audience development with grants from the Northern Irish Arts Council. Like the rest of us in the international traveling party, the Irish stood on the shoulders of British audience development entrepreneurs, with grants from Arts Council England. It was there, in the late nineties, that audience development as an ideology and field of practice was developed and eventually financed through a number of programs and initiatives in the period from 1997-2017.
In recent years, Steven Hadley has been working on a dissertation that has just been published as a book. It is the first Ph.D. to critically examine British audience development. The way I read him, he has lost faith in the democratization of culture with a capital C; read institutional culture. Data collection in recent decades shows that most of the audience development projects with grants from the British Arts Council in the institutional field have failed. Only about 8% of the UK population engages in publicly funded art and culture on a regular basis. The rest are low-frequent or indifferent. It simply doesn’t concern them. This is what he calls “The dilemma of failure”. I recommend anyone who is seriously interested in audience development with ambitions towards democratizing culture to read this book. As an NPU-member, you get access to the book with a members-only discount.
According to the numbers from Statistics Norway, the democratization of culture isn’t going too well in Norway, either. This impression is confirmed by a dozen population surveys conducted by NPU since 2016. It is the highly educated cultural middle class, especially older women, who are proactive users of the publicly funded art and cultural institutions. Speaking of cultural diversity: in the cases where people with a non-western immigration background make use of the institutions on their own initiative, they have a matching socio-demographic profile: high education and established cultural habits. The multi-cultural middle class will, in the years to come, end up coloring what was previously known as “all-white” art and culture. But audience development is not just about multi-culture and color; it is also about class. People with low education and socio-economically difficult conditions are the ones who excel to the greatest extent with their absence in the publicly funded art and cultural institutions. They come in all colors and shapes, and a growing number of them are young, frustrated men.
Arts Council Norway has been commissioned by the Ministry of Culture to coordinate the work on diversity in the sector. They divide the diversity mission into three focus areas – creator diversity, content diversity, and user diversity. The cultural funding of the arts should contribute to content diversity. But the content won’t get more diverse than the creator diversity allows. The directorate branch of the Arts Council is therefore working on finding ways to strengthen the creator diversity, sometimes in conflict with the understanding of quality sustained by their own organization. The various professional committees in the Arts Council are meant to provide grants for projects of high artistic quality. A lot of the “diverse” projects are not within the quality requirements of their peers. The publicly funded artistic means of production are obviously not democratically available for everyone. You need to make it through the eye of the needle to get into the sector. There is a widespread opinion that structural measures must be taken to ensure a more representative diversity of applicants for the Arts Council's own grant schemes.
Audiences Norway (NPU) is an association that works to strengthen the position of art and culture in society. Our main contribution is to produce and disseminate analysis of a quality and scope that contributes to strengthening audience development in the sector.
The Norwegian Labour Party’s slogan “Alle Skal Med” (Everyone should/will be included) was the value base of Audiences Norway in the beginning. As a slogan for the development of society, I personally support such a formulation 100%. But there is something paternalistic about the same slogan when applied to audience development in the institutional field. Not everyone should or will join. It is absolutely fine not to like the art and culture being produced and displayed in the institutions. NPU's role is to keep track of who comes and goes, who is very engaged, who is lukewarm, but possible to persuade with the right program, and who is systematically absent, but perhaps should be activated through recruitment and/or desired social development.
Our ambition is to strengthen the position of the institutions by contributing to greater insight into their own audience development. We will gather the institutional field for a zero-point measurement in 2021 and monitor developments in the years to come. We will establish an analytical service for the entire sector. It will form time series and show where the individual institution is heading with both its own artistic and cultural goals and the sector-specific goals of diversity and representation. Read more about NPU Monitor HERE.
According to Steven Hadley, audience development as a field of practice is still in an “ontological phase”. An agreed and united field of practice has not been established; there are still several and partly conflicting practices with reference to the same concept.
I interpret Hadley to mean that he wants a radical cultural-political paradigm shift. He wants to replace the "democratization of culture"-paradigm with "cultural democracy" which, put bluntly, will give the people the power over the artistic means of production. He does not necessarily want to stop the funding of the institutional field, but he wants to do away with the cultural policy that uses an unrealistic dream of democratizing art and culture (with a capital C) to legitimize itself.
Audiences Norway is working within the paradigm of democratizing culture. We believe in both art and culture -- large and small. We are especially focused on working with the challenges of the publicly funded institutions at the intersection between education and cultural democracy. Our ambition is to contribute to greater insight for the development of free, autonomous, open, and democratic common arenas – art and cultural institutions who hire and program diversely and communicate to a diverse group of target audiences. Not all institutions should have the same goals, but together they should constitute the cultural infrastructure that is a prerequisite for a generous and inclusive society.
I started this article by underlining the ambiguity of the term audience development. After ten years as leader of Audiences Norway, and after numerous written and oral attempts to create a complete and including definition, I have given up on embracing all of the different goals and practices in one single sentence. My offer on what audience development is, comes in the shape of a statement about how audience development appears.
Audience development appears as a change in the audience composition over time.
Audience development is something that takes place and that can and should be measured in several audience segments over a longer period of time. A rapid rise and socio-demographic expansion one year should not be seen as the audience “dropping off” the following year. Blockbusters, like the Kusama exhibition at the Henie Onstad Art Centre in 2016 or The Book of Mormon at Det Norske Teatret in 2018, can be good ways to create new relations with the audience. However, there is no audience development before you see a lasting growth in certain segments that changes the audience composition.
Audience development should not be measured by the number of tickets sold at a certain venue but by measuring who attends. And finally: Audience development and business development are different things. The one does not necessarily exclude the other, but it is important not to get them mixed up. The aim of business development is to improve an existing business or to create a new business – regardless of who the customer is. The aim of audience development is to make art and culture more relevant in society and to prepare the institution to play a more important part in the lives of more people – people from a more representative socio-demographic and cultural background.