Monday, 14 February 2011

Talking about 'new' audiences...

Very frequently, we hear those responsible for cultural institutions talking about ‘new audiences’, their ‘creation’ (in the english-speaking world it´s called ‘development’), about ‘doors open to all’. I´ve been thinking about what this means in practice. ‘New’ meaning young or ‘new’ because they might be coming for the first time? They are ‘created’ because they didn´t exist before? We open the doors and wait for them to come?

I feel that in many cases ‘new’ mainly means ‘more’. More of the same. An effort to bring more people to our exhibitions, shows and activities, people whose socio-demographic profile, though, is not far from the usual. Because if we wanted it to be different, our work would have to be something more than simply reinforcing the promotion and publicity of our offer; it would have to be a joint effort on various fronts.

Cultural participation, let´s call it like this, takes various forms and develops at different levels of involvement:

1st level through the media, such as TV, radio, DVDs, CDs, the Internet.

2nd level attending live events, such as theatre or opera plays, concerts, visiting exhibitions and participating in activities that complement these activities, such as conferences, debates, educational programmes, etc.

3rd level through greater personal involvement in what concerns cultural /artistic practice, as it happens with amateur artists, volunteers in cultural institutions, board members, etc.

Having said that, we may conclude that the big majority of people do participate, one way or another, in cultural experiences. So, they are not exactly non-audiences. At the same time, the big majority prefers to - or is obliged to -participate from a distance. One of the challenges for culture professionals it to manage to convince more and more people to consider ‘changing levels’ and to have the chance to do so, should they wish to. ‘Changing levels’ not because one form of participation is more valid than the other, but because the experience, when crossing from level 1 to 2 or 3, may be more profound, enriching, liberating. And also because it can bring about a different and better understanding between the professionals and the public.

We do not lack today studies and reports on cultural participation, on the motivations and expectations of people when choosing one form of participation or another. Or none. (The links to some of my most recent readings are listed at the end of this post). Respecting everybody´s choices of participation, but wishing to promote and facilitate ‘the changing of levels’, I thought about what ‘new audiences’ can actually mean, after all, and how it can affect our work.

Enlarging existing audiences is one part of our work. ‘New’ in this case would mean ‘more’; more people among those with a predisposition for the consumption of culture, but who very often stay away for practical reasons: lack of information, problems in what concerns access/parking, opening hours / timetables, presence of young children in the family, etc. Issues related to styles of life, which we need to understand better in order to look for answers, and be able to facilitate the participation of those interested. This is about eliminating practical barriers, really.

But ‘new’ can and should also mean ‘different’. Another part of our work should be about diversifying audiences, making an effort to reach those people whose socio-demographic profile and habits of cultural participation (or lack of them) keep them away from our premises. In this case, barriers are not practical, they are mental and psychological, resulting from lack of previous experience, knowledge and practices. In these cases we usually speak about ‘creating’ (developing) new audiences. If we take a look at the various forms of cultural participation, though, we cannot exactly say they did not exist before. They are not ‘our’ audiences, they are not consumers of our offer. Our aim is to create the conditions for them to be able to taste it: raising curiosity, showing its relevance to them, making it somehow tangible, creating confort (mainly psychological), well, building bridges, as Donna Walker-Kuhne would put it. In many cases, we will have to open the doors; not only for them to come in, but also for us to go out, to leave our confort zone and go to meet them.

Still, another part of our work is about deepening the experience, in the sense of a greater involvement, with both cultural and social aspects: involving or training amateur artists, integrating volunteers in the teams, involving members of the public in the programming, including non- professionals in the boards, attracting sponsors, etc. ‘New’ in this case would mean... ‘in a new role’? Yes, I believe we can say that.

The work of ‘creating' (developing) new audiences in culture is mainly associated to education and communications (that is, when ‘new’ doesn´t mean ‘children and teenagers’ and when we do not consider this to be the responsibility of schools...). Nevertheless, if we could just leave aside the idea of ‘creation’ and concentrated on that of ‘building bridges’, I believe it becomes obvious that this is a work that involves the whole institution, and in particular the joint effort of programming, education and communications.

These three objectives – enlarging, diversifying and deepening – make sense in our work; somehow, they are an obligation we must take on. They make sense, but they also give it a sense. Among the three, the one that most appeals to me, that motivates and touches me the most, is the second. When four years ago São Luiz had its first theatre session with interpretation in portuguese sign language, the television interviewed a deaf lady when leaving the theatre, visibly emotional. She had just seen Moby Dick. “I am 74 years old”, she said. “It´s the first time I came to the theatre. Why?”.

That´s what it´s all about.


Holden, J. (2010). Culture and Class. Counterpoint

McCarthy, K.F. and Jinnett, K. (2007). A new framework for building participation in the arts. RAND

National Endowment for the Arts (2009). 2008 survey of public participation in the arts.

Walker, C., Scott-Melnyk, S. and Sherwood, K. (2002). From Reggae to Rachmaninoff, How and why people participate in arts and culture. Urban Institute

Walker-Kuhne, D. (2005). Invitation to the party: building bridges to the arts, culture and community. Theatre Communications Group

Wallace Foundation (2009). Engaging audiences.

No comments: