Understanding Audiences for Contemporary Arts - SPARC Study

This study from Stephanie E. Pitts and Sarah M. Price of SPARC looked at the audiences of 20 different arts organisations in Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool, and London. They conducted in-depth, qualitative interviews with audience members, attempting to discover what made them attend their chosen art forms, and what put them off attending others. You can download the original report, but here are some of the most interesting findings:

Marketing and copy are key to engaging new attenders.

“Finding information about any arts events, but particularly unfamiliar ones, was a challenge in every city, and there were frequent calls for a 'central, easily-filtered listing service' - though also some recognition of how difficult that would be to provide.”

The above quote will be familiar to many people here in the Northern Irish cultural sector. For years, organisations have called for a 'one-stop-shop' for cultural events. But there are lots of smaller things organisations can do on an individual basis to improve attendance and visitor engagement.

To reach new audiences, information on events and shows needs to be accessible outside ‘arty’ venues. Think about where you advertise and stock flyers or programmes. Are non-attenders likely to come across them?

As well as being discoverable, the language and images in marketing materials needs to be clear to those without prior knowledge of the artform or performer:

“You see all these names, so that the listings will just literally have the name and the location and, and who the artist is, if you don’t know, how do you even begin to know.”

Even when an audience member has reached the venue, the use of language is still really important. The study found that abstract works in every art form were the hardest for new attenders to access, but that providing a story around the work in plain language can help audiences to find a way in.

It's important to encourage 'sharing' of audiences across different organisations.

Audience members appreciated hearing about connections between venues, and they trusted recommendations from their regular venue when it came to trying out something new. One arts organisation can become a gateway or signpost to a wide range of new cultural experiences.

Venue and visitor experience is a huge factor.

“An arts venue affects its audience from the moment they arrive, through the welcome its staff provide, the hospitality of its cafes, toilets and social spaces, and the comfort and accessibility of being an audience member in that space."

Smaller venues were very warmly spoken of - with their attendees appreciating the atmosphere and familiarity of spaces, only going to larger venues to see specific big-name artists.

Cafés and garden spaces were really important for providing a welcome into arts venues. For some, a visit to a museum or gallery café was an ethical choice - to help support the venue. For others, they enjoyed the feeling of being part of the arts environment. The study found that some people only ever went to the café, and never entered the museum or gallery. However, we have to ask ourselves - is this really an issue? Relaxing space is well-needed within most urban settings, and café revenue can be used to fund vital work by arts organisations. One way to make the most of café visitors is to start programming and showing work within the café space itself.

Busy café with modern interior design


Unnecessary rules create barriers for infrequent attenders

Theoretically, it's easy to 'pop-in' to an art gallery, as many have free admission and flexible opening times. However, gallery etiquette and rules were offputting for many less frequent attenders:

“They won’t let you in there with backpacks and there’s things like that... Look, just stop putting barriers in for stuff like that. It’s meant to be, like, for the people.”

Just making things free doesn’t create an accessible event or exhibition for new audiences

Students and young adults particularly appreciated free or cheap events - but a high level of arts knowledge was still needed to access many of these offers. Organisations need to focus on being welcoming as well as removing price-barriers. Marketing copy and imagery, wall texts, and the café experience were all things that made venues more or less welcoming for audiences.

Booking and planning behaviour differs between artforms.

As you'd expect, audiences made more spontaneous visits to galleries and cinemas, while booking in advance for popular music.

Festivals are a way in to new experiences for audiences. People are often more willing to take a chance on new art forms and venues when they're presented within a festival.

Programming for time and convenience.

Sometimes audiences were simply looking for an activity to suit a specific day, such a free Saturday. They were less concerned with what was on, than with convenience and price. There's a potential opportunity here for organisations to reach new audiences by programming to suit people's lifestyles. Late Night Art and museum lates are good examples of opening up venues at different times to attract new audiences.

Life transitions offer an opportunity to change arts-attendance habits.

People experiencing life transitions like moving city, becoming parents, or entering retirement are in a great place to change up their arts attendance. There's an opportunity to market directly to people experiencing these transitions - whether it be getting families along to family-friendly arts, or welcoming retired people to the gallery during the day when it's less crowded.

Contemporary arts audiences like to find out information independently and see ‘behind the scenes’.

Some audience members were resistant to more organised forms of information like panel discussions or pre-concert talks. Instead, they preferred to find out about the arts themselves through behind the scenes visits to artist studios, or opportunities to see artist journals or works-in-progress.

Reassure audiences that it’s okay not to ‘get’ it… or even like it!

“Audiences can be helped to engage with unfamiliar arts experiences by being reassured that their emotional reactions, their puzzlement, and their sense of the unfamiliar are all valid responses."

Birmingham Contemporary Music Group created the tagline 'the only guarantee is that it’s new' to get audiences excited about something that might be puzzling or even off-putting. The phrase reassures people that the experience will be an unexpected one for everyone in the audience, not just them.

This in-depth qualitative study looks at arts audiences from 20 organisations across the UK, uncovering why people attend shows, events, and galleries - and what holds them back from engaging more.

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