Unless you’ve taken part in one, you may suspect that large-scale European collaboration projects are just carriages on the gravy train that haunts Nigel Farage’s worst nightmares. But ask someone who has struggled through the red tape, bureaucracy and cultural misunderstanding and there’s a good chance they’ll tell you that it was worth the pain.

We are currently working on three large EU-funded collaborations, and as a result, on a range of other initiatives with our growing international network. Like colleagues in other cooperation projects, we know you have to work pretty hard for every Euro of funding, and it’s taken years for international collaboration to make any positive contribution to our bottom line. But that’s not the main gain. By far the most substantial value comes from the innovation international collaboration brings.

Shifting perspectives

When we began working on our first EU project, it is embarrassing to admit that we thought we had more to give than gain. We were happy to accept the received wisdom – that the Brits do cultural policy and management, and especially our particular field of audience development, better than anyone else in the world. We were in for a surprise.

It is true that the need for good, audience-focused engagement strategy and practice is universally acknowledged here and often (if not always) applied in a way that it is not across Europe. But we were amazed by the dedication and zeal of our first cohort of European trainees and trainers. Through them, we discovered excellent practice – great ideas forged by different traditions, driven by other necessities. It made us re-evaluate the models and techniques we take for granted.

Since that first project in 2014, our appetite for, and humility in, international collaboration have grown in equal measure. We now know that working in this way breathes new life into our work and we have been inspired to find new solutions to old problems.

Innovative leaps forward

Patrick Towell, our Innovation Director and Executive Director of Golant Media Ventures*, defines innovation in his report for Arts Council England on resilience as requiring: “a sustained impact, a change in business models, in methods, in operations, in how things are done going forwards. Part of innovation is the need to capture tacit knowledge, to make new approaches repeatable and shareable, and to embed this novelty within a context of sustainability and resilience…”.

We often arrive at such innovation by seeing things anew, through fresh eyes, in a different context and by bursting our bubble. Working collaboratively brings many of these benefits in and of itself, but doing so in the European or international arena has the double advantage of providing multiple perspectives and considering the extremes of diverse situations.

Moreover, it’s meant we can experiment in a safe and supportive environment beyond the glare of working on home turf. As a result, we have made major leaps forward – radically different training and change facilitation, new ideas for engaging audiences, alternative research methods and new narratives.

Cooperation in practice

Three projects in collaboration and cooperation with Creative Europe and Erasmus have shown us what is possible.

  • The Asset Project, for example, sees us working with partners in five European cities on a collaborative inter-city research framework that explores the changing habits, tastes and opinions of theatre audiences. The tools and techniques are straightforward but using them in different contexts has led to gold-dust insights.
  • To give you an idea, Helsinki has an ageing theatre audience, with an average age of 60+. Prague, on the other hand, boasts a much younger audience, with high proportions of 25 to 34-year-olds. What is the difference? It turns out that in Prague numerous initiatives over the period of a decade have been dedicated to encouraging attendance in young people. Their new perspective on a known problem is generating all sorts of solutions.
  • As our partnerships have advanced, they have become more ambitious. In the Erasmus-funded Connect programme, we experimented with a new action research-based model for professional and postgraduate career development, introducing design thinking into engagement practice. The ideas sprang from our understanding of the different ways in which audience development is taught across Europe, both in the sector and in universities. Together, we’ve developed a successful new hybrid which will be rolled out in all five participating countries.
  • Adeste+, a large-scale Creative Europe project, builds on these ideas, taking them into a new dimension, exploring how human-centred design techniques can help transform whole organisations in order to grow loyal and more inclusive audiences. Together, we are creating a blueprint for experience design that makes it easy for organisations to listen and adapt to the different needs of their communities.

So, just as international collaboration between arts festivals plays an inspirational role in challenging and reshaping creative practice, cooperation is having a similar effect on our ideas about public engagement and leadership. Last year, our European network collaborated on the Warsaw Forum on Cultural Democracy, the first in what we anticipate as a series of international symposia bringing thinkers, policy-makers and practitioners together to reimagine the role.

An unexpected consequence of these programmes is the emergence of an informal international alliance of alumni, many of whom have formed networks in their own countries. As pioneers, these change-makers take courage, support and validation from the international framework.

Beyond the bubble

Working in Europe and internationally has also made us more resilient. More open to change, better able to exploit our assets and ready for new markets. The export of our training, research and Audience Finder services now brings much-needed additional revenue, while new partnerships, such as the one with Dutch company Peppered, mean we can bring new services to the UK. None of this would have been possible without the relationships and sensibilities international collaboration has brought.

So, despite the inevitable challenges Brexit will bring, we remain committed to finding ways to collaborate with our European and international peers.

Written by Anne Torreggiani, CEO of The Audience Agency, and Jonathan Goodacre, Senior Consultant, International.

First published in Arts Professional, 11 July 2019.
This article, sponsored and contributed by The Audience Agency, is part of a series sharing insights into the audiences for arts and culture.

*Golant Media Ventures is now known as Golant Innovation.