Diversifying audiences and the solvable problem of Audience Development

Audience Development is a term used often in the cultural industries that broadly describes the notion of developing relationships with audiences, whether long or short term, local, national or international, existing or potential.

It involves a greater level of investment of time, resources and manpower from the company and can encompass a mixture of activities including marketing, artistic delivery, educational learning and more. The intent is to grow audience engagement (and support) across the breadth of a company’s cultural offering. Many organisations in the UK have at one time or another, over the past 10 years, drafted an Audience Development Strategy. So, if we bring into the conversation the topic around (ethnic) diversity within audiences, and the lack of engagement from Black and Global Majority (B&GM) groups in the arts, we should question why it seems so difficult for organisations, especially venues, to broaden their reach?

One of the first questions I tend to ask is, are those tasked with developing and delivering the strategies part of the problem? In a 2015 article in The Guardian written by Hannah Ellis-Petersen, named, “Middle class people dominate arts, survey finds”, Ellis-Peterson discusses a survey of the cultural workforce undertaken by Goldsmiths, University of London, and arts organisation, Create, that showed “more than three-quarters of industry respondents came from a middle-class background”. 

The article further discusses the lack of social mobility in the cultural industries and how those from working-class backgrounds, and what we used to refer to as BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) communities, found it significantly harder to enter the field. 

Linking this back to (ethnic) diversity in audiences, we could conceivably argue that white middle-class administrators are attempting to engage with potential audiences that they know nothing about and cannot identify with. In a lot of these cases, it often leads to very basic and shallow forms of delivery activity that serve more purpose as a tick box exercise than meaningful engagement. 

Another issue to look at is the systematic (rigid) framework and financial pressures of constantly reduced budgets that organisations deal with. I often experience a one size fits all, rinse and repeat method of engagement practices for works I have toured over the years. But, when I speak to administrators from the venues about collaborating on other types of development activities, they are often well intentioned, but overworked, with little to no budget or agency to truly be innovative or make a commitment to prolonged engagement with audiences.

This issue sometimes leads to some organisations relying on the visiting company to solely deliver Audience Development activities, usually at their own cost, with little to no support from the venue. 

I believe it is important that touring companies make every effort to connect and engage with local audiences, but this should be developed and delivered in conjunction with the venue, who, in theory, should have a better understanding of their community. Unfortunately, one too many times, I have experienced apathy and an acceptance of their inadequacies, as venues give the bare minimum to support expansion of audiences. 

What this then leads to is programmers wanting to book “safer bet” shows or work that satisfies the small audience numbers they know they have – who, coincidentally, are also usually predominantly white and middle class – thus maintaining the status quo.

In summary, my takeaway is that to successfully implement an Audience Development strategy, that can truly bring deep-rooted and consistent diversity to any organisation, there needs to be commitment to its delivery at every level. This includes an honest conversation about who is tasked with making the changes and if they, as mentioned, are part of the problem.

At Uprise Rebel (UR), one of our three main strands is Audience Development, specifically of B&GM communities. We recognise that change is slow and difficult, but we choose to tackle this by supporting B&GM individuals, groups or micro companies, who are already doing great work, or have the potential to deliver great work that authentically connects with diverse audiences. We believe in this model and believe that representation matters and is an intricate and irreplaceable part of creating change and ushering in true inclusion.