This article was commissioned by the Arts Marketing Association and published by UK Theatre in November 2014 on the provocations from politicians and the desire for “representative audiences” and culture for all

This June 2014, in a surprising co-incidence, both the new UK Culture Secretary and his Labour Shadow made speeches within days of each other about “cultural exclusion”.

“A lot of people who are paying to support culture through their taxes and lottery tickets seem to think that consuming it is simply not for them. That the work they subsidise is for other, richer people.” That’s Sajid Javid, the UK’s Culture Secretary in his first speech on Friday 6 June, at St George’s in Bristol.

“It is every child’s right to open up and explore their artistic and creative potential which should be a journey which goes on for the rest of their life…How, then, can we accept a situation where some get that opportunity and others do not? How can we tolerate cultural exclusion?” That’s Harriet Harman, the Labour Shadow Culture Secretary the following Monday, at the Roundhouse in London.

Both of them laced their speeches with personal experience. Like Sajid Javid, Harriet Harman made the point about who the arts was actually reaching: “when I went to the Opera House last week – even from the cheapest seats in the house – I couldn’t see in the audience anyone who wasn’t like myself – white, metropolitan and middle class. For institutions which get public funds, it can’t be like that. To change audiences, there has to be committed, focused intervention.”

Sajid Javid: “Never forget that every penny of taxpayer support and lottery cash that goes to culture has been provided by hard-working people from every community in the UK. Communities like the one I grew up in. My family lived on a road that has been described as “Britain’s most dangerous street”. And for a bus driver’s son in that world, the idea of popping along to the Donmar Warehouse – or even the Bristol Old Vic – to take in a cutting-edge new production was simply not on the agenda. It wasn’t what people like me, people from my background did.

Harriet Harman went on to say “we must have state support through public funds for the arts. It cannot be left to the private market or philanthropy. But there is a democratic imperative for the arts to show why the hard-pressed tax payer – struggling with the cost of living crisis – should fund the arts.” Sajid David pointed out “I want you to make what you do accessible to everyone. That doesn’t mean striving for popularity and aiming for the lowest common denominator. It means ensuring that everyone in the UK has the opportunity to engage with our artists and actors, our history and heritage. It means giving everyone a chance to develop their own cultural tastes.”

Arts Council guidance

 This ought to be the outcome of policy combined with the knowledge and experience of the sector. Current Arts Council England guidance to National Portfolio Organisations (NPO) is that they “will demonstrate how they are sharing their work with as large and wide an audience as possible, including those who are currently least-engaged with arts and culture.” Every NPO must have an audience development plan and priorities could be that:

  • “current audiences are not as representative of the local population as you would expect”

It does seem reasonable for every publicly funded arts organisation to make itself welcoming to the whole community around it, and to seek to engage with as many people as possible in appropriate ways, so that most sectors of society are “represented” in their audiences.

I often ask staff in arts organisations: When you are thinking about your customers, the potential attenders, what’s your perspective? Are you standing inside your venue looking out at them? Or are you standing out there with them, where they live, understanding their circumstances, and looking at your organisation from their perspective?

Not for the likes of you

Standing with them, what do they see in terms of the communications and messages coming at you through all the different media, all the different channels, the print and the advertising? If you were them, how genuinely friendly and welcoming is your organisation; how do your marketing messages and their means of communication relate to their circumstances and lifestyles? In arts marketing this is defined as “positioning”, often complicated by the apparent “ownership” of the arts in the UK by people of particular ages and socio-economic groups, with similar higher education levels.

This is also the ‘Not for the likes of you’ argument, based on extensive action research on 32 different cultural organisations in the UK. Though dating from 2004, it is even more relevant today than then. Their focus was on how a cultural organisation can become accessible to a broad general audience by changing its overall positioning and message, rather than just by implementing targeted audience development schemes or projects (though those of course are entirely necessary). There are many resources in the AMA’s CultureHive to help.

People working in the arts have long recognised that there are not just geographical barriers to attendance, but physical, social and psychological barriers, and the Arts Marketing Association conferences and workshops have regularly addressed the issues. Previous UK Government and Arts Council England policy had been criticized for trying to correct the imbalances in society, described by some as “social engineering”, but, though the emphasis may have shifted subtly, even today NPO guidance defines diversity as encompassing “responding to issues around race, ethnicity, faith, disability, age, gender, sexuality, class and economic disadvantage and any social and institutional barriers that prevent people from creating, participating or enjoying the arts”. ‘Representative audiences’ need to reflect all the communities they come from.

You will still hear criticism that being “more accessible” equates to “dumbing down” and is more “worthy” than realistic, but the practical “experience is that, far from suffering as a consequence of taking access seriously, your product gains new life, vibrancy and meaning. It connects with people in a new way, and so moves them as it was not able to do before” report the Not For The Likes of You researchers. It is do-able.

 Many Voices

 Francois Matarasso in ‘Many Voices’ points out that arts organisations “need to build trust in their good faith as convenors of a cultural discourse that is fair, inclusive and open. There is no reason to expect those who feel marginalised by existing public cultural policy to accept the legitimacy of public actors”. He was speaking in 2006, but this is a particularly interesting question in the changing make-up of UK society today. Though ethnic “minorities” remain such in many parts of Britain, the not-white populations of some of our major cities such as London, Birmingham and Leicester are reaching proportions that could question that “legitimacy”. What should city centre audiences look like in the cultural institutions in those cities? How should cultural institutions reflect the plurality of their surrounding societies? Some arts organisations – the Royal Shakespeare Company is a good example – work hard to ensure that their staff and actors are representative of contemporary society, but the continuing challenge is to achieve representative audiences.

 Genuine targeting

 It remains the case that, despite the tools for segmentation and customer relationship management, many arts organisations messages are not ‘broadcast’ but ‘narrowcast’:– a single ‘message’, one tone of voice, one vocabulary, often using “insider” jargon and imagery. So while the tools for reaching different ‘target’ communities with appropriate ‘tailored’ messages for them are available, they are just not used as they could be. However, understanding the diversity of the opportunity needs dialogue and understanding, getting closer to people and listening, to find what is relevant to them. Experian reports that “52% of consumers would walk away from a company that tried to sell them something they weren’t interested in”. But where does the lack of interest come from? We can say the problems of arts education in the UK in recent years are not helping, but ‘Not for the likes of you’ action research demonstrated that real change was possible from arts organisations own holistic efforts.