Audience Development: about marketing yet beyond marketing

What is Audience Development - AD?

According to the European Commission Audience Development is a strategic, dynamic and interactive process of making the arts widely accessible. It aims at engaging individuals and communities in experiencing, enjoying, participating in and valuing the arts through various means available today for cultural operators.

AD could be represented as a multi-faceted means aimed at deepening, strengthening and widening the relationship between cultural institutions and different audiences.

But how do students of cultural management understand AD? At the same time, to what extend are cultural practitioners aware of the importance of AD for their professional activities – and their cultural organisations at a broader level? And above all, would both students and practitioners be interested in taking a course in Audience Development?

These are the questions addressed by two different surveys carried out within the frame work of CONNECT, namely within the Working Program devoted to research activities. And here are the main findings of the surveys.

Students and AD

The research activities involved the participation of over 45 students enrolled in MA courses in management of the cultural sector over 5 different countries (Denmark, Italy, Poland, Spain and the United Kingdom). According to the vast majority of interviewed students, AD should indeed be taught in universities even if not as subject per se. Conversely, it should be addressed as an innovative way to approach cultural practice, and therefore the teaching of AD should delve less into technicalities and focus more on providing students with new tools for interpreting and understanding people, their thoughts and practices.

MA students would warmly welcome a course in AD. The course should indeed be thought-provoking in addressing the main features of AD, while it should mostly carry a practical connotation. Students would be interested in having the chance to conduct fieldwork, to visit cultural institutions but most importantly to work on AD-related project works granting students the possibility to think for themselves. With the ultimate goal of picking up from the course what makes potential audiences tick, how to better understand and reach them as well as how to communicate successfully with them.

Cultural practitioners and AD

Parallel to the survey on students ran an online questionnaire that reached out to over 620 cultural practitioners over the 5 different European countries. Cultural practitioners shared with students a strong interest in Audience Development. Yet, while students appeared to be more flexible in their approach to AD and therefore more eager to learn, practitioners working in the field reasonably shared a more structured understanding of AD. According to the data gathered, only about half of the cultural practitioners understand Audience Development as a subject not limited to marketing. And among those practitioners potentially interested in taking a course in AD, only half seems to possess the key management and marketing tools necessary for an effective delivery of AD-related activities.

Cultural practitioners too would warmly welcome a course in AD. Together with students, they would favour a practice-based approach. The importance of formal accreditation of such AD course starkly varies from country to country, while the vast majority of practitioners favours innovative teaching methodologies based on active learning over traditional lecture-style teaching.  

AD and higher education

The main findings of the surveys on students and cultural practitioners are not surprising if confronted with the actual educational offer within both graduate and post-graduate courses in the 5 countries covered by the research.

In fact, a third stream of research activity within CONNECT consisted in a survey of existing programmes of current practices on entrepreneurship education and audience development (an entrepreneurial approach is strictly linked to audience development practices). The main findings of the survey show that, with few exceptions with a good degree of coherence across all the 5 countries countries, both Audience Development and entrepreneurial skills are not yet commonly found within course curriculums and are mainly provided by vocational training providers (e.g. agencies, foundations, associations, etc.), rarely by universities.

Conclusion

Drawing from the survey on higher education courses, as well as from the surveys on students of cultural management and cultural practitioners across the 5 countries, AD is still an open issue in the European higher education sector. Few university courses target AD specifically; students are enthusiastic about discovering AD even if they struggle to conceive it as a subject “per se”; cultural practitioners agree on the strategic importance of AD but still tend to regard it as “mainly about marketing”.

What emerged from the research seems to acknowledge the importance of designing ad-hoc courses specifically dedicated to AD. Do not fear though – CONNECT Twin Track training programme is coming in Autumn 2018. Stay tuned for updates!