Posted on:Thursday 10th March, 2022
Performers at the National Centre for Circus Arts
The third in a series of essays reflecting on the Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation’s experiences in the arts
The Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation (‘R&V’) has always sought to expand audiences for the arts and has given much thought to how this is best achieved. It has been operating during a period of unprecedented technological change in the way audiences are communicated with, and in how their information is gathered and used. However, whatever technology is used, the starting point is always information capture. And the overall objective is changing the perception of arts organisations and encouraging greater participation.
Before I founded R&V I was for 11 years the CEO of a its sister organisation, Poet in the City. In that capacity I delivered as many as 50 live events per year. The audiences for this programme of events were effectively developed from scratch. When Poet in the City was launched as a separate arts organisation in 2003 its audience consisted of about 200 names and postal addresses on two sheets of paper. No email addresses, and no telephone numbers. And it soon became clear that as many as 20 per cent of the addresses were out of date. Over the next 10 years we were at the forefront of a complete revolution in the way that customer data is collected and used, opening up unimagined possibilities for developing new audiences and for cross-selling arts content. By 2014 the list of names had been transformed into an active online database of over 10,000 poetry fans, mainly communicated with by electronic means, and fuelled by social media. Constantly updated and maintained, this membership database by then allowed the organisation to attract audiences of over 5,000 people a year, many of them new to poetry. Someone was once overheard saying (somewhat cattily) that the success of Poet in the City was ‘merely down to good database management’. Obviously, an arts organisation also needs to programme popular events. But in terms of audience development their analysis is essentially correct.
When R&V was launched as a separate arts organisation in 2014 it replicated this model, using a series of over a dozen screenings of its launch film (House of Knives), sponsored by Pernod Absinthe, to rapidly create a database of over 2,000 contacts, the starting point for its development of audiences for its programme of live events. Whether names and contacts are collected in person or via the internet or social media the key principle remains the same. The ability of an arts organisation to grow new audiences depends on the patient collection and use of customer information, building on and broadening relationships and continuously extending the reach of the organisation and its events. In this sense audience development is a pure numbers game. It used to be a matter of patiently collecting and processing feedback forms. Social media and online data capture has greatly assisted this process, such that audience development is now mainly driven by information capture online. Even before I launched R&V in 2014 as many as half of the members of a given audience were hearing about the event via social media, mainly Facebook or Twitter. What is clear, and what should be taken as read, is that the collection of data and its careful management is essential to the development of new audiences in a digital age.
The advantages and dangers of data
It is regarded as axiomatic that attention is everything online, and that this is achieved through rich content. This appears to be very good news for the arts. Not only is an arts organisation in the business of generating rich content, but this content is potentially ‘ever-green’, continuing to attract audiences long after its date of creation. ‘Content is King’ and drives conversion to membership, donations, sales or whatever online. The considerable success of R&V and its sister organisation in developing new audiences for the arts arguably comes from exactly this formula, creating and presenting rich content, attracting audiences, capturing their data, and then harvesting that data to grow the audience base further. However, I believe that there is a problem with the commercial model for audience development online, something which makes it a mixed blessing for an arts organisation genuinely seeking to attract new audiences for the arts. That is the innate conservatism of the assumptions often make about arts audiences.
According to this commercial approach the potential audience for an arts organisation inspired by two French Decadent poets is (by definition) extremely limited. The internet is not regarded as a tool for developing new audiences so much as a tool for aggregating efficiently all existing fans of French 19th century poetry. By this measure R&V would be regarded as having a strong but very small niche audience, and the object would be to relentless target, re-target and mobilise this audience. Instead of growing new audiences for the arts using inspiration from the poets the commercial strategy would be to efficiently target every last person who already has an existing interest in the poets. Don’t get me wrong. The internet does indeed offer an unprecedented platform for bringing together all the existing fans of a niche subject, for aggregating them and thereby creating opportunities to monetise this audience by selling them stuff. But its starting assumption is that you must be attracted to this subject matter in the first place. It does not really comprehend the use of content to ‘move the market’ and create new audiences for the arts that never previously existed. I believe that this represents too narrow a definition of the arts audience.
The fan base for two 19th century French poets is extremely small, but the potential fan base for an arts brand that uses their inspiration to create new rich content is potentially very large. It is the latter than R&V wishes to target, not the former. It is also clear that the story you tell about yourself and your brand online must be compelling and consistent, and should not alienate the audiences you are seeking. Nor is it simply a matter of creating high quality arts content and just putting it out there. The internet is full of excellent arts content attracting very few clicks. A systematic attempt must be made to make use of existing content, converting it for as many platforms and deliverables as possible. How an arts organisation can broaden out its appeal beyond the existing fan base for the arts is the subject of the remainder of this essay.
An arts organisation may also benefit from profiling its users and measuring page views, trying to make people stay longer and read more. Profiling your fans can help you to discover what kinds of people are visiting, and cater better to their outlook and needs. Online targeting can certainly focus on particular groups, themes or trends. There are certainly times when something trending on social media may be relevant to the arts or vice versa. It might be useful to ‘piggyback’ current fashions or internet memes. However, an arts organisation should not be compromising the complexity and quality of its content just to reach out to individuals who are currently disengaged. This is not a model encouraging innovation or qualitative audience development. I also know from experience that reaching out using an internet meme or association usually achieves very little. At best it looks ephemeral, at worst entirely contrived. I would argue that genuine audience development in the arts is precisely about challenging this logic, and finding ways of serving up opera, contemporary ballet, classical chamber music or other arts forms perceived as ‘elite’ in a bold and generous way to people who would never knowingly be tempted by them. An arts organisation needs to proselytize and to convert a sceptical and uncommitted audience, not seek to pander to that audience’s existing preconceptions of the arts. I believe that it is all about levels of engagement, and about persuading people to pass from passive consumption to active participation.
Do we have the wrong audience?
There is a constant anxiety amongst arts organisations, especially those in receipt of public and grant funding, about the nature of existing arts audiences, which are widely regarded as too old, too middle class and not sufficiently diverse. Research tends to confirm that consumption of the arts reflects education and income and that so-called ‘cold spots’ for the arts coincide with areas of social and economic deprivation. Arts funding is sometimes dependent on reaching out to such communities, or at least demonstrating that you are making great efforts to do so. R&V is deeply committed to developing new audiences for the arts. However, I have always felt uncomfortable at the idea that those who already consume the arts are somehow ‘the wrong audience’. It is also peculiar that the make-up of the audience seems to be regarded as more important than the absolute number of people attending, or the amount of income achieved from ticket income.
R&V has always attempted to attract new audiences whilst not alienating its existing base of support. It has done so on a rather different philosophical basis, in which the arts are treated not like products to be consumed but as wonderful human pleasures to be shared and cherished, a fundamental aspect of what it means to be a human being in society. This approach has subtly informed everything that R&V has done in terms of audience development.
When reduced to its absurdist level the quest to develop new audiences for the arts may appear like an attempt to push water uphill. As some arts organisations have discovered, not even giving away tickets can persuade disengaged members of the public to attend an arts event which they feel is not for them. Why should they? People must be attracted to and attend arts events of their own volition. Without wishing to minimise the importance of income levels in the consumption of the arts, I do not believe that it is only (or even primarily) a question of an inability to afford tickets to the theatre or the opera (both of which are arguably well beyond the pockets of all those on median incomes or below). For those determined to access high-quality arts content there is an awful lot of it out there, some of it being offered completely free of charge. In the quest for greater inclusion, we sometimes forget that the best and most reliable metric to measure the popularity of live arts content is the number of ticket sales. Some people certainly can’t afford the opera, but most can afford to spend the £5 or £10 which it often costs to attend a smaller arts event. R&V’s ticket prices are circa £20 per head for a concert or circa £10 a head for a smaller salon-style event, arguably representing excellent value for money as compared to the price of a cinema ticket or a takeaway pizza. The reality is surely that people pay for the things that they value and many people either do not value the arts or (more accurately) do not think that the arts are for them.
Partnerships and cross-arts collaborations
R&V approach has been to broaden out its offer using partnerships. Given that the specialist interest in French 19th century poetry is so niche its programming has found other points of attraction in order to attract wider audiences. R&V’s brand has been presented not as a niche brand but as a catch-all for rich creative content primarily inspired by a certain tradition in the arts, namely the Decadent Movement. Through a series of eclectic events R&V’s audiences have understood it to be a vehicle for all sorts of storytelling about literature, fine art, music, fashion, history, creativity, and the part played by culture in society. Nearly every event or activity has been programmed in partnership with another organisation or organisations. As well as often being prestigious associations for R&V, attesting the quality of the content being presented, these partnerships also play an essential role in developing new audiences. For instance, when R&V collaborates with National Opera Studio or the London College of Fashion it adds incrementally to its own audiences. People who discover R&V through music may come back for the poetry or the theatre. This audience sharing helps to grow the overall audience for the arts too, encouraging people to be curious and make new discoveries. For me the very best partnerships are those which attract audiences from outside the arts. Holding an annual event with a non-arts charity, for instance, or helping a corporate sponsor to deliver its corporate social responsibility objectives can result in an auditorium full of people who do not regularly attend an arts event, or who are new to the kind of content that you are presenting, but who are ready and willing to be persuaded. In a similar way, celebrity can occasionally be used to help unlock new audiences. For instance, I recall a memorable event at the British Library where Krister Hendriksson, the actor who played the eponymous detective in the series Wallander, was used to generate a full house for poetry by the Nobel prize-winning Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, otherwise virtually unknown in the UK. Of course, as I have suggested, this kind of audience development might be characterised as churning, merely shifting audiences around between different arts organisation and art forms, casting the net slightly wider amongst the chattering classes. Any converts to R&V are surely still likely to be older, white and middle class?
However, in my experience, partnership is also one of the surest ways to programme in a way that is inclusive and diverse. If an organisation wishes to draw on African, Asian or Latin American cultural heritages, for example, there are plenty of great arts partners for them to work with. And in the larger UK cities there are plenty of community networks which can be accessed to attract a diverse live audience. One of my fondest memories is a celebration of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, a Pakistani poet, held in hall 1 at Kings Place. Programmed for me by an event manager of British Asian heritage, the event drew on extensive networks amongst British Asians in North and West London and managed to fill this prestigious 420 seat venue on a rather miserable Monday evening in January. Work with the right partners and diversity suddenly feels easy to achieve. And the organisation’s audience statistics become demonstrably more inclusive. Best of all, the arts organisation is able to cultivate cross-cultural exchange. Before you know it white British audiences are experiencing the marvels of Sufi music, and British Pakistanis are being welcomed to events about Keats. I was strongly influenced in my practice by the Canadian approach to celebrating diversity, characterised as a cultural mosaic. I continue to regard this celebration of one cultural tradition to others as being a great model in a tolerant and pluralistic society. Again, it is an approach powered by curiosity. How can you know whether you like Pakistani Ghazals sung and performed until they are explained and presented to you by an enthusiastic advocate?
Attracting the under-25s
The biggest problem of all is arguably the inability of many arts organisations to attract the under-25s. Look at most audiences for live arts events, other than pop music, and you will see a sea of grey-haired people. They are the ones with the time and the income to buy tickets. And often they are the ones with the residual interest in more traditional content such as opera, ballet or literature. Attempts to create more youth-orientated content, for instance for performance poetry, sometimes misfire. The core audiences for this art form too are by no means always young. Anyway, surely the aim should be to rejuvenate all interesting art forms, not to create arts ghettoes for next generation audiences who will grow older in their turn? But how can this be achieved? The approach which I developed successfully at Poet in the City and which I have sought to replicate at R&V is much more practical.
What I did was to create a new audiences strand explicitly aimed at younger audiences, something reflected in the design of the marketing materials for those events. More importantly, the events in this strand were programmed by younger event managers and producers, ensuring that the look and feel were accessible for a younger demographic. This was quickly reflected in the age profile of the audience. What I tried hard to avoid was any difference in the quality or complexity in this strand. Yes – the new audiences strand did feature more spoken word and performance poetry. But the difference was not really in the content, but in the presentation and the packaging. At R&V I have also seen my objective in the same way. Although this has also involved a strand (Rock for Rimbaud) consciously aimed at younger audiences, R&V has also sought to present rich content such as French chamber music in such a way as to appeal to younger as well as older audiences.
If progress has been more difficult to achieve than R&V hoped it is because the process of developing new audiences for the arts is slow and painstaking and depends on the pump being primed, both in terms of investment in live arts events and in terms of the venues committed to developing new arts audiences in their spaces. For instance, much of my success in building new audiences at Poet in the City was because of the important role that organisation played in developing new audiences from scratch at Kings Place, then a new arts venue. And R&V’s attempts to continue this successful effort after 2014 was damaged by the complete withdrawal of Arts Council England from the organisation in 2016, which limited the charity’s ability to maintain a large-scale events programme and therefore the number of opportunities to develop a volunteer community. It is from this community that younger arts producers are typically drawn, and the development of a youth strand maintained. In the case of Poet in the City I am delighted to say that the new audiences initiative has been consolidated into a properly funded programme for young arts producers. Nurturing the next generation of arts producers and curators is bound to help ensure that arts content reaches out to younger audiences, regardless of the nature of the art form.
In my experience it is never desirable or necessary to ‘dumb down’ arts content in order to reach a wider audience. This is perhaps one of the most common misconceptions about new audiences. All that is achieved is to diminish the overall appeal of the arts content. It is deeply patronising to the audience and rarely converts individuals to a love of the art form concerned. At best it dilutes the content into a form that is bland and undemanding and which satisfies no one. In my experience people really appreciate both excellence and complexity in the arts. What you can’t do is to throw them straight into a performance of The Marriage of Figaro at Covent Garden and expect them to get it instantly. This kind of rich content needs to be contextualised and explained, and introduced in a more measured way. In the case of opera, the experience of hearing a young opera singer performing an aria in a small venue can be incredibly powerful. Their skill and the beauty and power of the human voice in a confined space have an almost palpable impact, and can open the minds of individuals to larger experiences of that art form. This is why exposing school children to young singers is so important. The object is to broaden experience and encourage curiosity. If you succeed in that the individual will beat a path to opera all by themselves. There is no such thing as ‘young arts’ and ‘old arts’, only arts and a generous open offer to experience them. Young people do not yet know what they like, and are open to new things. At the moment much arts programming is quite unnecessarily sending the message that whole rafts of the arts are not for them.
Overcoming intractable obstacles of class and culture
Maybe the assiduous development of new audience strands and young producers can shift the age profile of audiences, but aren’t you usually just attracting a bunch of middle-class kids? What about the more intractable obstacles of class and culture? Forget about ethnic diversity for a moment, how should an arts organisation reach out to marginalised white working-class communities, apparently fiercely resistant to elite art forms? The idea of presenting opera in sink estates still feels optimistic, doesn’t it? Again, how can arts organisations adopt a ‘shotgun’ approach to people who just don’t want the stuff you are selling to them, and who see your attempt to persuade them as in itself elitist and potentially insulting? I always think of the heart-breaking scenes in the film Educating Rita where the main character effectively has to choose between her working-class roots and her new-found love of literature and the arts.
R&V is clear about how it would like to bridge this cultural chasm, and it is an approach firmly grounded in the history of the Decadence Movement in the arts. One of the notable features of poets like Rimbaud and Verlaine was their desire to get away from elite models in the arts and to address new audiences with fresh subject matter. They were also almost obsessively interested in popular art forms such as carnival, puppetry, cabaret, dance and circus, which bridged the divide between so-called high art and low culture. And this accords very closely with my own experience in the arts too. It is not that working class communities do not like the arts. Far from it. It is that they feel a natural resentment against being told that they should like art forms perceived as alien and elite. Certain art forms have the ability to break through class and social divides and appeal to everyone. I am on the Board of the Museum of Army Music and I am familiar with the warm welcome that Army musicians receive from working class communities. This is not because their music is not difficult and complex. British Army musicians are amongst the best in the world. And it is not, despite what music snobs might say, that the brass band repertoire lacks sophistication. It is that, for social and cultural reasons, working class audiences are receptive to music and performance which they feel is ‘for them’.
A radically democratic approach?
R&V’s approach to audience development might be described as radically democratic. It is committed to excellence and innovation in the arts regardless of the art form concerned. As an organisation it is not snobbish about the arts and does not assume a hierarchy of different art forms. I for one see no reason why a person should not approach a love of the arts through brass band music or an end of the pier puppet show, through stand-up improvisation or Rap poetry. My hope is that this will in due course lead to a curiosity about other art forms and a healthy cross-fertilisation of ideas. For this reason, and in keeping with its Decadent roots, R&V has from the start been just an interested in Rock and Jazz music as in the classical chamber music repertoire, as keen to commission graphic novels and adult puppet shows as literary poetry collections and theatre. I would go so far as saying that it is in the popular art forms like circus and folk music that the human impulse towards the arts finds some of its most powerful expressions. The arts are essential for all human beings, so the audience development challenge should be re-framed as a question of how to bring artistic expression into the lives of everyone, in creating opportunities for everyone to participate, and in cultivating the life-long curiosity so important to a fulfilled life, well lived. Or, to put it another way, audience development requires different platforms for different audiences, and an open-minded attitude to content.