Our mantra for audience development has long been that it’s not just what you do, but where you do it. Because Audience Finder data gives us such a comprehensive view of audiences for subsidised arts and culture across the country, it tells us more starkly than ever before that where you live is either the biggest barrier or a leg-up to enjoying the benefits of state investment in culture.

We have looked in vain for what some have described as the ‘Twickenham effect’ – that people will generally travel far further for large-scale events. With the exception of a few festival events, which generally draw significant pilgrim audiences of super-informed 'metroculturals', catchments remain defiantly fixed, with the vast majority of audiences not willing to travel more than 45 minutes from home.

There are significant variations from this tendency. The less culturally informed and engaged you are, the shorter the distance you will be willing to travel, which is why programmes like Coasters, Creative People & Places and Cinegi all form an important lifeline.

We find invisible but apparently indelible ‘catchments of the imagination’. Although the travel time from Sheffield to Leeds or Manchester is about the same, audiences are less than half as likely to cross the psychological barrier of the Pennines. There are many such variances and clear patterns are starting to emerge for planning and investment at both a local and policy level, though we need to develop the habit of looking for them as part of our everyday practice.

Community knowledge

It’s not just about distance: different places demand different kinds of experiences. We don’t need Audience Finder to tell us that preferences for arts and heritage vary between communities. Nevertheless, in combination with Audience Spectrum, Audience Finder has made it significantly easier to quantify and map those differences. Yet some cultural organisations continue to programme in a ‘community-blind’ way, without particular reference to the people in the places where they operate.

This is less of a problem where their community is uniformly privileged (and looks, thinks and chooses like arts-insiders), but a great challenge in places with less engaged or socially diverse communities.

The good news is that all this seems to be changing. Through our work we see more cultural organisations investing in understanding who their audiences really are and what makes them tick. They aren’t just relying on their existing audience feedback loop, but combining quantitative and qualitative insights to develop a creative and dynamic dialogue with their wider communities. Ever more popular models include working in local partnerships, involving local artists and volunteers, and developing long-term participation or community decision-making programmes.

This approach can and does have a profound effect on the scope and value of public engagement. A few years ago, we did some data analysis to find out which audiences of producing performance venues were the most representative of their place. Interestingly, the top three (Birmingham’s The Drum, Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse and Watford Palace Theatre) all had long-standing, far-reaching community involvement strategies woven into the way they worked.

Social purpose

Increasingly, this kind of approach is about far more than boosting footfall. It is designed to fulfil an organisation’s core social purpose. It would be nonsense to say that placemaking is a new function for cultural institutions – think Epidavros in ancient Greece, the Coliseum in Rome or any industrial-age statement museum.

But we are perhaps witnessing a move towards a less grandstanding idea of culture’s role in placemaking – neither Victorian civic-branding nor the developer-led gentrification of a culture quarter. Instead, many cultural organisations and initiatives are taking a lead in a more generous form of placemaking, creatively informed and driven by a pluralistic civic purpose.

Recently, place-shaping projects have dominated our work, from feasibility studies to place-based collaborations and the formative evaluation of projects in Creative People and Places, the cultural tourism programme Cultural Destinations, competitive place-based initiatives such as the UK City of Culture, the Great Place Scheme and London Borough of Culture. These are all complex projects with multiple stakeholders, demanding agendas and ambitious lists of potential outcomes – from better transport and improved health to cohesive and effective communities.

Despite the tendency to over-inflate the potential benefits, many of these initiatives are making a real impact. At their best, and like many pioneering cultural organisations, they show that putting a creative process at the heart brings something unique to placemaking, especially where cultural practitioners are taking the lead.

Vital creative process

Members of our extended team recently came together to compare notes on the best cultural place-shaping work we’ve been involved with. Our criteria were initiatives that had meaningfully involved local people in decision-making and made real change.

Our conclusion is that the creative processes that cultural practitioners are skilled and confident in using are what make all the difference. It is the creative process itself that helps to create an authentic sense of meaning and togetherness, and distinguishes the contribution of culture from what a leisure or shopping centre could deliver.

We identified six aspects:

  1. Social-civic purpose: Placemaking is not for all organisations or agencies. A strong social-civic purpose is essential and can really help to ensure a values-led (rather than profit-only) approach. London Borough of Culture set a new bar in imagining how public policy and strategy could be transformed through the catalyst of the arts.
  2. Creative curatorial approach: This approach, second nature in many arts organisations, is key to keeping multi-agency projects fresh, original and distinctive. Cultural organisations have wide networks of artists and cultural practitioners and know how to manage them effectively. This feeds projects and stops them becoming formulaic. We see this across all the Creative People and Places we work with.
  3. Shared cultural language: Some cultural organisations have developed a particular form of multi-lingualism which enables dynamic, responsive and creative partnership-working. The Great Place scheme uses this form of cultural Esperanto, especially between community, commercial and public players. This means it is able to work towards making hard economic impacts, like improving skills, attracting investment and increasing employment.
  4. Human-centred design: Many cultural practitioners, often from a community arts or museum background, draw more or less consciously on social design traditions that genuinely involve local people in co-creation. Cultural practitioners tend to be confident and skilled in this way of working, enabling participants to explore a wide range of possibilities in imaginative and insightful ways.
  5. Co-operation and participation: A growing body of evidence demonstrates that, when delivered in the right way, creative participation projects are particularly successful in brokering interaction, co-operation and meaningful dialogue between participants. These are very particular aspects of wellbeing in which cultural practice has a special role to play.
  6. Local pride: Research suggests that quality cultural experiences – in the widest sense from high art to street-food – say more about a place than its physical, commercial or political infrastructure. They have the power to tell a place’s story and create a sense of pride, ownership and meaning that other dimensions of place simply do not.

If you don’t think of yourself or your organisations as a place-shaper, it’s worth thinking again. You probably have something unique and valuable to offer your community. And they might have the power to shape you in return.

Written by Anne Torreggiani, CEO of The Audience Agency.

First published in Arts Professional, 12 June 2019.
This article, sponsored and contributed by The Audience Agency, is part of a series sharing insights into the audiences for arts and culture.