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All We Need Is Audience Development?

The audience question is haunting the world of arts. A question without answer, a troublesome relation, a world unexplored. How do they feel? Why do they come? What do they think? Flocks of critics, philosophers, researchers, and producers have looked for an answer for millennia, producing numerous insights and theories that were only to be displaced by new ones. But the desire to capture the essence of audience behavior is as strong as ever. Welcome to audience development—the newest attempt at capturing and influencing audience behavior. It has come to dominate a broad landscape of audience-related theories and practices across the world. Promoted, funded, and celebrated by numerous foundations, national agencies, ministries, and directorates, audience development has been eagerly celebrated. But what is it, exactly?

While presented as a democratic turn to include tax payers and marginalized groups, audience development (AD) is an overly linear, simplistic, and often colonizing effort to solve a problem of unequal access to institutional culture and arts, as well as increase ticket sales. With all its good intentions of empowerment, access, and inclusion, it still promotes a client-oriented relationship between cultural practitioners and audiences. In this situation, the “knowing” and “cultured” people are the ones who decide who is in need of culture and creativity (that is, who lacks them), and what ways these individuals need be involved, educated, activated, or inspired. This entrepreneurial logic of improvement puts both cultural practitioners and audiences in uneasy positions and roles: the former turn into agents of change, armed with questionnaires, measuring devices, and digital marketing toolboxes, while the latter expect agents to approach them and turn them into something a bit more cultural. Even though it’s likely that no one really enjoys this relationship, the divorce is too costly.

On top of this, the very reasons audience development is needed in the first place—because of patterns of neoliberal markets and states, which have produced hierarchies, disciplines, distances, and unequal opportunities for groups, collectives, and organizations—are left unchallenged and even ignored. But dealing with these real issues might in fact be more important than cultural participation of any sort. While audience development has been a wakeup call for many institutions and cultural bodies to review their institutional practices, there are much better ways to have an impact than implementing techniques from audience development handbooks.

Over the years, issues audience development has brought forth have been exacerbated by the fact that it has grown from a niche approach to arts management to an ultimate solution for governance of arts and cultural organizations. Its hegemonic grip has obscured a wide and diverse way of thinking, doing, and writing on the topic of audience. In this article, I am offering a small collection of different ways of thinking and doing in relation to audience development that, for one reason or the other, fall outside of the typical logic. They are in no way representative or exhaustive. It is my hope, nevertheless, that the following ideas can become an invitation for reconsidering the usual practices of working with audiences.

shadows of legs walking

Closely Watch Those Who Watch Publics

Let us start with denaturalizing the relation between arts institutions and audiences. Under the AD logic, this relation is a naïve one—institutions offer a show or an exhibition on a free market and people go or don’t. The better the offer, the more people will go and love it. However, it is nowhere simple as that. In the post WWII years, there was a sober realization that late capitalism is as much about ideas, movies, music, and knowledge as it is about manual labour, iron, and machines. Call it cognitive, cool, or cultural capitalism, but the main issue is that the dominant way of ruling in late modernity is much less about force and coercion, and much more about desires and tastes. Nothing makes the world go round as a chronic desire to belong to the world of our dreams—interpreted by a Hollywood movie star, served with ice on a drive-through. It is the movies, galleries, books, and commercials that shape the subjectivity of millions, much more than laws or regulations. Being an audience member means being a citizen, customer, community member, and worker. It is a sort of control interface for ruling. This is why, as acclaimed French social scientist Daniel Dayan muses, “It is essential to closely watch those who watch publics.”

What can we take from that? There is much to learn from the relation between audiences, cultural products, art works, and institutions. It is not just a game of numbers and reviews— it is a platform for encounters and struggles of ideologies, philosophies, and lifestyles. However, in the logical framework of the audience-development matrices, this exciting relation is not of much interest. What is important is to improve satisfaction, increase numbers, boost the image, build a habit. If, on the other hand, cultural institutions would devote more of their time to exploring their place and role in the history and the present of macro and micro power structures, they could arguably come up with much more exciting ways of engaging their audiences than most of the good practices collections AD would suggest.

The “knowing” and “cultured” people are the ones who decide who is in need of culture and creativity.

We Are Many Audiences at Once

Easy conclusions cannot be drawn from the fact that someone just saw the latest Broadway show. Things are much more complicated than that for several reasons. What one person sees in the show could be very different from another. No number of focus groups and audience testing teams are ever going to be able to fully predict reception of any cultural product. The failures of Hollywood movies serve as a monument to that. This doesn’t mean there is a relativistic abyss out there. Our tastes are always a negotiation between our structural position (class, profession, gender, ethnicity…) and our peculiar idiosyncratic paths and choices.

Moreover, when people watch or read something, it may be about more than the content itself can suggest. In a famous study about women reading romance novels, Janice Radway wondered why educated women read patronizing literature, where a strong man saves a fragile lady, taking her into a brave new world of love and danger. For decades, plenty of feminists have been disgusted by such novels and their readers. But Radway found that the content of books was not the most important part to the readers. Rather, it was about women getting a chunk of time every day to read, and the time to meet with their friends to discuss the books. Radway argues that these women could be reading something less patriarchal, but the main point is that there is more to reading than the experience of the text—just as there is more to going to shows than the content itself.

To complicate things further, as British cultural theorist Stuart Hall wrote, “We are many audiences at once.” What he meant is that we could be easily reading a newspaper while watching television with our favorite novel by our side. And that was before we could have twenty tabs opened in our browser. Our contemporary cultural consumption is so complex and dynamic that it has become very hard to judge anyone based on their cultural taste. Loyalty to bands, newspapers, and TV stations is a thing of the past. Being ambiguous about a play or movie means that our social ties do not have to spread along our tastes. As audiences bask in the richness and accessibility of content, as well as our freedom to change our mind or taste as seasons change, the authority of any audience research is melting like polar ice caps.

This is not to say that getting to know about audiences is an effort not worth taking; to the contrary. However, within the clear-cut model of audience development, professional market research together with targeting, segmenting, and profiling has received an aura of objectivity and prestige to the point where many arts councils, theatres, museums, and galleries are investing serious money into it. However, the problem is that such research is often inventing some audience segments and categories that only exist as models. Instead, art institutions, companies, and artists should be much more open to seeing overlaps, associations, and even contradictory complementarities between various groups and their activities.

Our tastes are always a negotiation between our structural position (class, profession, gender, ethnicity…) and our peculiar idiosyncratic paths and choices.

Knock Knock, Who Is There?

What we think of our audiences might be very distant from their actual reality, and following the psychology of creativity—as well as literary studies—we recognize the phenomenon of the implied or implicit audience. It’s the professor, student, critic, parent, partner, colleague, or just about anyone we invite into our imaginary landscape that we keep on talking to, fighting against, preaching to, or justifying to while we write, sing, dance, or paint. These creatures, imaginary as they are, can be prohibiting or inspiring, powerful or powerless, but one thing they share is that they tend to be sticky. Losing them is hard, if impossible, and they miraculously follow us as we move along in our imagination and do whatever we imagined. But that is only a reminder that we are social beings and that no one is foolish enough to live in a social vacuum. In other words, people mean so much to us and we continue conversations with them even when they are not present. As we are entangled with our fears, desires, and feelings, exploring these imaginary social relations and dynamics is a gateway into our intimate landscapes.

In fact, engaging with implicit audience members can be immensely useful. Personally, why do I assume I need to change my vocabulary when I write for academic journals compared to how I write for a performing arts portal? Why do I assume that an audience in a small city will be less prone to understanding the message I want to express? What kind of hierarchies have I internalized and how do they affect my work? These explorations can go on. But when things get silly is when we equate actual people with the voices in our head. Talking to a favorite professor, frustrating family member, corrupt politician, or helpless bank clerk in our head is one thing—assuming that they are sitting in the audience is quite another. Still, we often shamelessly use our imaginations, turn them into assumptions, and direct our behaviors according to them. Most days, the world is much more interesting and stranger than we think.

Decolonizing Institutions

Much before any European expert came to sell audience development to museums across Latin America, the Latin New Museology ignited a series of reflections, discussions, and interventions aimed at deconstructing colonial, racial, patriarchal, and oppressive baggage of museums as Enlightenment-era institutions. By doing so, they opened a vast space for experimentation, critique, and action. The basic question was: Whose worldview structures the living experiences of people in a society? In that sense, there is no audience to memory and history. No one listens or views history as a passive bystander; history belongs to all those who lived it. Hence, the role of a heritage institution is not to convey or distribute certain interpretations of history and layers of memory (not even in the most participatory of ways), but rather to serve as a communication medium, as a sharing ground. In many cases, Latin New Museology contributed towards moving away from the usual museum institution as a format. Many have ditched permanent exhibitions and have opened up classrooms, sports fields, and concert rooms because that is what they felt was more needed in their context.

For many museums that embarked on this journey, audience development was and is an obsolete and redundant set of techniques. Rather, the question the contemporary performing arts sector asks is: Whose lived experience can be a blueprint for creative expression and whose sensibility should be a yardstick for the new aesthetics? It doesn’t mean that everyone should just jump the stage and start reciting or dancing, but that everyone should be aware where the stage is, who is on it, and who is behind the scenes—in the director’s office, selection committees, or the ministry of culture. These are not usual audience development questions.

Why do I assume that an audience in a small city will be less prone to understanding the message I want to express? What kind of hierarchies have I internalized and how do they affect my work?

Coming Together

While traveling across India, cultural policy and management scholar from Serbia, Milena Dragićević Šešić, came to a village of some three thousand inhabitants. Interested in exploring theatre practices of the region, she went to see a local theatre venue, a rather basic amphitheatre in fact. Astonished by the size of the auditorium—with room for 1500 people, she looked at her hosts, confused. As if confirming her bemusement, a local community leader explained to her that they are experiencing this major problem: there isn’t enough space for everyone at the amphitheatre! Watching traditional performances and dances is an indistinguishable part of their everyday habits, and exclusion from attending is a harsh experience. It is not necessarily a play or dance they are missing out—more often than not programming repeats itself, and everyone knows everything by heart—but rather taking part in the social event.

Do Western art and cultural organizations pay too much attention to what is happening on stage or screen? Are we all that certain that our audiences come because of artistic excellence or knowledge of the performers? Doesn’t a good wine at the bar, a warm room, a quiet ambiance, a cute ticket seller, or interesting people in the audience play a role in our art-related experiences? Of course, we know they do and so much research confirms that. But audience development programs seem to be completely oblivious of that fact.

Moreover, should audience development efforts across the globe—which are increasingly modeled on the internationally spread Western model—be equally insensible to these other visions of cultural life? For many performing arts groups across the violence-filled neighborhoods of North Africa or Latin America, just the fact that something cheerful, public, creative, and peaceful is happening on the streets and in plazas and medinas is a huge political event with strong symbolic message. Art is often a perfect excuse for many things that matter.

Participating in What?

One of the perfect examples of the simplistic understanding of empowerment has been so-called participatory art—the kind that aims to activate audiences. Champions of participatory art have delivered a whole field into the loving arms of the neoliberal machine. By condemning passivity and equating activity with moving bodies, participatory art subscribes to the logic of the entrepreneurial self: always on the run, producing, amassing, communicating… Can’t we take part in a play while being seated and silent? Are we active only if our bodies are moving? Why on Earth can’t we be bored or sleepy in the theatre? One of the biggest troubles of the contemporary industrial complex in the West is that people are losing motivation for the work itself—seeing themselves less and less as capable and willing to produce anything and contribute to the global factory. Now, coming to a theatre near you, a new working morale is going to uplift you. Read that verse, draw your cat, throw these tomatoes, cook a dinner—just don’t sit still like a twentieth-century spectator. Is that what they call the tyranny of participation?

Just Don’t Do It

To conclude, relation between art and society is one of the most inspiring, confusing, and thought-provoking topics out there. The diversity and mystique of the audience is haunting the artistic world, but taming it through modeling, standardizations, and formatting is to render it boring and industrial. The ways audiences engage with art cannot and should not be all too clear. Instead, let us reignite the interest in the magic of artistic encounter beyond the schematic logic of development. 

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The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here

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I appreciate the thoughtfulness behind your essay, Goran, but I disagree with your introductory assumptions and your basic premise. Audience development is about filling venues. If there’s a haunting question here it is and always has been, how do we put more butts in these seats? 

In this respect, I'm convinced that audience development is not too limiting, it’s too broad, and its breadth diffuses the core issue, which is selling tickets.

Most traditional performing arts institutions need to sell more tickets as demand for their products diminishes. For many it's a basic matter of survival. But rather than focus on sales, these organizations - prodded along by your foundations, national agencies, ministries, and directorates - pursue all sorts of peripheral, scattershot, social engineering objectives that, however well-meaning, can’t deliver sustaining audiences. 

Having spent the last forty years filling theaters and concert halls, I know that the best way to assemble an audience is to sell tickets. And the best way to sell tickets - the most fiscally responsible way to sell tickets - is to find the people who are most likely to want to participate and convince them that the event will be worth their time and money. It's a value-neutral process that works across all socioeconomic divides.

You may decry the transactional nature of the approach or, god forbid, the power dynamics of persuasion, but as long as we’re selling cultural products, somebody has to initiate, motivate and facilitate an exchange.

A worthwhile event that’s well marketed and sold will have an audience when the curtain rises. At that point, isn’t it really up to the art - not the marketing and sales - to carry out the political agendas you’re promoting?