Comment: Abigail Pogson on how arts audiences old and new can help one another
30th May 2012
The arts are often perceived as being the preserve of very few people – typically categorised as professionals, mostly living in urban areas, with some disposable income. Indeed, this is borne out by the numbers – seven per cent of the UK population frequently attend arts events. The other 93 percent per cent are visitors to the party, including a great deal of people who have the same characteristics as those in the seven per cent.
At its best, art will widen perspectives, challenge thinking, stretch imaginations and pull us out of our comfort zones – we know this from what audiences tell us and the impact of culture on a child’s education.
Yet the social context in which the performing arts are presented seems at odds with the very nature of the art itself. Whether this is a new opera at a country house, or a new sound installation in a club, at both the audience will encounter new ideas and imaginings. This accessibility can seem at odds with the uniformity of dress code, arrival etiquette, and conventions around refreshments – poles apart in these two examples – all of which contribute to the sense of a closed club.
We have a situation where the 93 per cent is considered a special case, ring-fenced through audience development initiatives and subsidised schemes that use arts investment as a first-aid kit. Could bringing the seven per cent and 93 per cent closer together open some interesting new possibilities? At Spitalfields Music we decided to experiment. Each year, we produce two festivals: our 17-day Summer Festival, this year taking place 8-23 June, and our 10-day Winter Festival in December. We also run a pioneering learning and participation programme that involves 30,000 people in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, one of the UK’s most deprived areas.
We recently won an RPS Music Award for Audiences and Engagement for our Buy One, Donate One fund, which cost nothing to set up. As buyers purchase tickets for one of our festivals, we simply ask if they would like to donate the value of a further ticket and we pass this ticket on to a first-time attendee who lives in Tower Hamlets. Buyers can choose the value of the extra ticket, from £5 upwards – and most opt for a higher figure. On the face of it, this ‘buy two but only get one’ proposition seems thankless, yet our audiences have embraced it. To date, we have distributed over 1200 tickets (equivalent in value to around £24,000 (€29,723)), to first-time attendees who are treated in exactly the same way as our existing audiences. Donors do not know who received the seat and no attention is drawn to any difference between those who have a free seat and those who have paid for their seats.
First-time attendees will continue to have access to free tickets for as long as the existing audience carries on donating. And the existing audience knows this. The atmosphere in a concert with this kind of mix has a very different kind of electricity from a group of knowledgeable people who already anticipate a stunning performance. We act as a very light intermediary by simply opening the door to people’s natural generosity and their desire to share their love of brilliant music.
We are helped in encouraging new audiences by the specifics of London’s East End. There are no formal concert halls in our area, so our festivals are programmed in unusual and often quirky venues which are not primarily known as concert venues: a disused Victorian warehouse, the local Huguenot houses, local art galleries, libraries, the farm, the market place, to name a few. Many of these places are part of the local community and known to audiences as nothing to do with the arts. So the trappings and associations of a dedicated building do not come into play. Of course, specific circumstances factor in the success, or otherwise, of initiatives such as ours. Perhaps all arts organisations should ask themselves if it is time to stop acting as the product and instead take on the role of facilitator – how can we help arts audiences, old and new, help each other?
I wonder if arts organisations are getting in the way of mixed audiences by being too heavy handed. It’s possible that we ‘over-scheme’ things by segmenting the audience down and targeting very specific groups – and by these very actions we draw further attention to what is lacking.
Abigail Pogson is chief executive of Spitalfields Music