The Audience Agency's intern, Massimo Finistrella, and participants in the Connect pilot programme.
The Audience Agency's intern, Massimo Finistrella, and participants in the Connect pilot programme.

I doubt I’m alone in being grateful to someone who encouraged me to take a risk on getting a job in the cultural sector. For me, it was the house manager of a civic theatre who gave up a whole afternoon to show me around and talk about the pros and cons. He listened to what I had to say and gave me some insightful personalised advice.

Without it, I’m not sure that I would have believed it was a career for the likes of me or known how to get started. Moreover, he was incredibly helpful in introducing me to other people through whom I eventually got my first job. I didn’t know then just how generous he was in the giving of his time and bothering to take me seriously, but I’ve reflected on it many times since.

Playing the long game

It’s one of the reasons The Audience Agency is committed to offering internships and placements, hosting between one and three at any given time. Because of the nature of our work in research and consultancy, and our links with higher education, our current policy is to prioritise internships for postgraduates on cultural management courses, as well as those on technology courses and visiting international practitioners.

Internships are always geared towards the learning needs of students and we work hard to do a high quotient of mentoring while students are with us, plus as-and-when support afterwards.

It is a given, however, that cultural management interns are a net drain on resources and part of our sectoral responsibility. Hosting them is, if anything, part of a long game strategy to promote next practice in audience engagement. Well-meaning university liaison officers who sell the benefits of having additional capacity are a source of some frustration, as they pocket sometimes eye-watering fees while leaving us to invest time, energy (and importantly per diems) in their students’ learning.

Poor workplace introduction

It turns out that informal insight and personal support are just what most students of cultural management value the most. In our recent European study of their expectations and needs, students said the number one reason for choosing their course was to find out how the sector really works and to build a professional network.

While they were looking for technical skills and tools, their primary expectations were to ‘be initiated’, to learn the language of the cultural sector and to find a place for themselves in it. Most were disappointed with their courses as an introduction to the workplace. Of the five countries taking part in the study, the UK is the only one where it is common for students to complete a placement or internship as part of their studies, but even the UK students interviewed felt that their expectations had not been met.

The study was the first phase of an EU-funded Erasmus programme to create an innovative approach to teaching and continuing professional development (CPD) in audience engagement. On the basis of this research, we and the Institute for Creative and Cultural Entrepreneurship (ICCE) at Goldsmiths, University of London devised a new twin-track programme involving postgraduates working collaboratively with practitioners on developing the next best practice in audience development. The aim of the programme is to bridge the gap between teaching in the academic world and CPD in the cultural sector.

Professional initiation

In response to the research, we realised that we needed to put a heavy emphasis on the idea of ‘professional initiation’, building on ICCE’s reputation for incubating creative leaders. Key to the programme design is a series of collaborative, participatory workshops for students and practitioners together, a mentoring programme and, perhaps most significantly, a more dynamic and structured approach to internships.

The pilot Connect: Design Thinking for Audience Development has paired Goldsmiths postgraduates with cultural professionals, working together to develop engagement experiments using human-centred design techniques. The testing out of the emerging prototype ideas in the practitioner’s host organisation has been the central focus of each internship. This model has also been piloted in Poland, Spain, Italy and Denmark.

Thriving partnerships

The programme concentrates on introducing elements of human-centred design into audience development, in particular on involving audiences in the iterative design of new experiences and visitor journeys.

What has been a revelation is the value of the twin-track aspect of the programme. The exchange between practitioners and a younger generation of agile-minded, digitally native postgraduates has been an inspiration, as pairings have developed a really creative partnership. There are many reasons for this but key is that in this learning environment where ‘design thinking’ is king, there is genuine equality of ideas and an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect.

Changing the game

It has made me rethink how we value and manage our interns. Although we’ve never asked them only to make the tea, we have often failed to properly value them as a source of new ideas and fresh thinking, or to treat them as potential agents of change. It’s been an eye-opener and my frustration with those liaison officers now seems misplaced.

Moreover, our Connect interns are reporting a far more productive and rewarding experience than we’ve been offering to our interns, an experience echoed by participants in the other four international projects.

So, bearing all of this in mind, here are five things we’re changing in our own internal internship policy:

  • Value interns as a source of new ideas and perspectives, playing to their specialist areas of research and their passions.
  • Do an early interview to map that opportunity and understand areas of most potential mutual value, then drawing up a light-touch ‘give-and-gain’ agreement on this basis.
  • Focus the internship around a creative ‘design thinking’ experiment, following human-centred design principles.
  • Introduce interns to at least three people relevant to their interests, so they can begin building a new professional network beyond the placement itself.
  • Carry out an exit interview to make sure the organisation benefits from that new perspective and can continue developing a mutually beneficial internship practice.

Written by Anne Torreggiani, CEO at The Audience Agency.

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