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Nicholas Serota: Here’s how the Arts Council can help you understand your audience better

Jul 5, 2018

by Nicholas Serota - Jul 5, 2018

Running a theatre can be a lonely business. This is true for both executive directors and artistic directors; and even working as a pair, you can be out on your own.

It’s a balancing act. You have to fill seats and do work of genuine creative ambition. You have to build an audience and nurture the relationships that go with that, hoping you can encourage some of those who begin by buying tickets to become more active as partners, perhaps even giving you financial support.

It is a big ask, and it’s becoming more of a challenge for theatres across the country. You may feel a little less lonely in London where there are plenty of neighbouring theatres going through the same trials and you can share experiences, but in a small town or rural area you might be the sole cultural focal point of the community.

The crucial starting point has to be building a relationship with the audience and the community. This means knowing what they think about you and the work you do. In the commercial entertainment industry, from music labels such as Universal to broadcasters such as the BBC, understanding who your audience is and what they think about your work is a given for success. Everyone running arts organisations, museums, galleries and theatres also wants to know more about their audiences.

But how to go about it? Beyond counting attendances and scrolling through social media after the curtain has come down, we need to do more and better research. In an age when so much is known about every aspect of our lives and tastes as consumers, artistic leaders should be able to use the power of technology to give their audiences a voice and develop a better picture of what they do and don’t like.

This is the impetus behind the new initiative Impact and Insight Toolkit, which the Arts Council is announcing today (July 5). Crucially, this idea didn’t originate with the Arts Council but was instead put to us by a group of cultural organisations in Manchester. They had seen a system used in Australia that gave users a better level of insight about their work. It seemed to have been very effective, and they asked if we could run a pilot programme in England.

We ran a number of test projects and pilots that have gone well with organisations saying they found it insightful to receive peer-group comments and input from their audiences. The process of testing has given us time to learn, evaluate and improve. We found, for example, that the initiative posed unique challenges for organisations working with children and young people, and people with disabilities, and so we commissioned research in this area and used findings to inform our requirements.

The initiative will be used by organisations receiving more than £250,000 funding from the Arts Council. They will be encouraged to tailor the programme to meet their needs and will report on the data produced from April 2019. However, all national portfolio organisations will be invited to take part, collect information, and shape the range of cultural insights that will be produced.

I know there have been some misconceptions about the initiative. For example, some people may fear that if an audience doesn’t like a particular production, the Arts Council will cut the producer’s grant.

This is not how it works. The feedback produced by this system will be useful to individual organisations to help shape their programming, but we are interested in aggregating the information, across a range of organisations and theatres, to generate key insights across the spectrum of activities carried out by cultural organisations.

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