Blog Post

A powerful case for change

07.09.17

Anne Torreggiani, Chief Executive of The Audience Agency on asking the right questions and using the right kinds of evidence

Creative Barking & Dagenham. DAGFEST. Photo Dabuju Media

I’m emphatically on the record saying that Creative People and Places (CPP) will be most important thing that happens to audience development in our working lifetime. Which is not to say that CPP has invented excellent community-led arts practice, rather that it builds on a noble tradition, putting this work front and centre, at scale and with an ambition to change cultural practice and policy for ever. At least that’s what I fervently hope! CPP is already showing the wider cultural sector an alternative world-view through the lens of bold and authentic experiment. While many wring their hands about the continued dominance of elite audiences and talk well-meaningly about the need to be more relevant and involving, CPP Places are just getting on with it.

And it’s working. At The Audience Agency, we are working in one way or another with most Places on understanding the impact they are having on their communities, often in quite nuanced and qualitative ways. At the national level, however, Arts Council England have charged us to carry out a purely quantitative meta-analysis of all CPP participants and audiences. Consistently, this shows that CPP reverses many of the patterns we see for mainstream cultural institutions, with the population groups we usually think of as less arts-engaged being over-represented. Using Audience Spectrum profiling shows us that those most likely to be regular arts audiences live in large urban centres with a rich cultural offer, have tertiary education and comfortable lifestyles. CPP audiences would normally be isolated from the existing infrastructure, and are far more representative of the demographic diversity of their Places. Take a look – and see how this is working for East Durham Creates.

Robust, quantitative evidence like this is vital if we are to change hearts and minds about the social and creative value of a more democratic approach to planning and co-devising a community’s arts experience. Heart-warming stories of lives transformed, however true and eloquent they are, won’t be enough. Sitting alongside such qualitative evaluation of impact on individuals’ lives, rigorous quantitative data makes a powerful case for change.

But I think we could and should go further. Because individual Places are rightly focused on local impact, learning and adapting as they go, there has been less coherent formative analysis at the national level. Looking over three years of national audience data, I believe that we need hard evidence that it’s not what (or where) you do – but the way that you do it that matters. We cannot let the top-line conclusion of the CPP experiment be that if you simply make quality arts available at the hyper-local level, it will make a difference. We need to quantify in an unequivocal way why audience/ participant-focus matters. To show how the quality of involvement, local decision-making and co-creation are responsible for such radically divergent audience profiles and community experiences.

Without this, the truly radical step-change that CPP promotes will be harder to achieve. CPP is a crucible in which cultural professionals are honing new skill sets and sensibilities, in which funders and an unusually wide range of other stakeholders are learning about sharing power and resources. I see a future in which this experience changes the behaviour of tomorrow’s cultural leaders, policy-makers and funders to the advantage of our communities. We need to nail the lessons learned and make a crystal clear case by asking the right questions and using the right kinds of evidence. Wooliness and being too hooked up on demonstrating success could threaten to dilute this legacy.

There are a number of methods by which we could explore quantitatively the link between audience-focus and real community engagement, and I’ll be talking to ACE and others about taking the analysis to this next level. But nothing about us without us is for us; this is not something The Audience Agency could or should try to do without the full involvement of CPP people and places. If you’re interested in working with us on developing this kind of insight from the national data do please get in touch.

Anne Torreggiani, The Audience Agency

Image: Creative Barking & Dagenham. DAGFEST. Photo Dabuju Media