Andrew Gerzso — Eine Wertegemeinschaft gründen – der Schlüssel zum Erfolg in der Kunst?

Organizations promoting the arts are faced with challenges – due to social, cultural and economic factors – that are unique to our time. One of the main challenges involves getting the attention and involvement of the public in the activities proposed by an arts organization. For this reason, the question of audience development has become crucial. This small essay attempts at sketching ways of addressing this important issue.

Why is audience development important?
The first reason – generally speaking – has to do with the fragmented and pluralistic nature of today’s society. When institutions reflected the mainstream of artistic activities of any kind (arts, music, theater etc.), it was enough that the institutions communicated about their activities with the confidence that the audience would follow. In other words, the old model which used to attract audiences – that consisted in putting together an attractive offer and doing sufficient publicity in order to inform their habitual audience – is now obsolete. There are no mainstreams anymore. Who can claim today that their activity is the reference point for their particular discipline? Today we witness a multiplicity of styles, aesthetics, professional practices and professional ethics in all the arts domains. This is not surprising given the size of current day populations and given the quantity of information available today through today’s technologies. A corollary of the fragmented nature of audiences is the volatile nature of how audiences go about choosing what it is they will go and see or hear in the end. Faced with choosing from a variety of different attractive offers, the decision is made frequently at the last moment. We all have experiences of audiences who sign up or reserve to attend an event, and who in the end do not show up. A contrario, an event will witness the attendance by people who had not initially foreseen their presence. Also, audiences tend more and more to cut across traditional disciplinary barriers instead of always staying within the same context.

The second reason has to do with the specific situation of contemporary music, which in spite of everything – let’s face it – has a difficult time attracting big audiences, or at least audiences comparable in size to the audiences attending classical music. Contemporary music continues to be considered – even by well-meaning educated audiences – as being difficult to approach and understand. Public organizations balk at supporting this music when they see the small size of the potential audience. On the other hand, besides the mass-media show business industry – whose main goal is making money and not promoting the arts and cultural values – it is also a fact that many artistic activities have relatively small regular audiences, which brings us back to the fragmented nature of the world we live in.

Some threads …
There are no magic formulas for audience development and each organization operates in a specific cultural and economic context. But when we look around and examine what others have done in this area, some threads appear that are interesting to examine, and to explore as a source of ideas that can be applied in a way that makes sense locally.

Attract the young
There is no question that this is a priority. If we cannot make the young aware of the importance of artistic endeavors in general, then they will be missing out on an important aspect of their education. The idea here is to enable young audiences to approach the “cultural” sphere for the first time by putting them in the situation of creating/producing a “work” either through composition or performance (or both). An important complementary aspect in this context is to develop the abilities of young audiences to present and explain their experiences in front of a general or “peer” public. This approach has been taken by IRCAM via the Ateliers de la Création project and the Ultima Festival via the Remake project.

Get leverage from amateurs
Amateur activity exists to varying degrees in Europe. It is well developed in the United Kingdom and under-developed in France, for example. Nonetheless, amateur groups can play a crucial role in audience development. If they are given the chance to learn works – even in a simplified form – they will be encouraged to attend performances confident that they possess the keys to understanding more complex works.

Bring pre-professional artists into the picture
The idea here is to train the next generations of young musicians by placing them in a stimulating atmosphere and environment where they can meet and work with internationally renowned professionals, get deeper insights into important challenges for their upcoming careers, and create networks with other contemporary  music enthusiasts. This approach has been taken by the Internationales Musikinstitut Darmstadt via the Young Contemporaries Program.

Understand by doing
Audiences today – young or old – are no longer satisfied simply with explanations about the work they are about to hear. If possible, they want to be involved in an activity that enables them to create – even in a reduced form – the work or some aspect of the work. We should not forget the famous scientific “Two-Cat” experiment. Two cats – one in a small cart, the other pulling the cart – are asked to go through a maze. At the end of the maze the cats are given a test to find out which of the two cats remembered the maze the best. They both saw and went through the same maze but the cat pulling the cart always remembers more about the maze than the cat that simply saw what was in the maze.

This aspect is well expressed by Lynn Conner, a professor at Colby College in the United States: “I believe what today’s potential arts audiences most want out of an arts event is the opportunity to co-author meaning. They don’t want the arts; they want the arts experience. They want the opportunity to participate in an intelligent and responsible way in telling the meaning of an arts event. Like their forebears in the amphitheaters of 5th-century Athens and the vaudeville palaces of 19th-centuryAmerica, they want a real forum – or several forums – for the interplay of ideas, experience, data and feeling that makes up the arts experience. They want to retrieve sovereignty over their arts-going by reclaiming the cultural right to formulate and exchange opinions that are valued in the community.” (1)

Use new media to change the traditional models
Andrew Taylor, director of the Bolz Center for Arts Administration in Madison, Wisconsin, has put together a framework for understanding social media and their effects inside and outside arts organizations,
Who creates and who produces? Old model: Artistic staff creates and hands to marketing. New model:, for example, where anybody creates, and, where there are no intermediaries.
Who curates and who critiques? Old model: Professionals curate and critique. New model:, for example, that will tell me when something is coming to town that I might like.
Who controls the message? Old model: Arts organizations created and edited their website, making it easy to create a consistent message. New model: the photo-sharing website Flickr, for example, where content is controlled by its users.
Where’s the useful boundary of the organization? Old model: All activity was organizationally focussed, building institutional capacity was aimed at doing what serves the organizational mission. New model: Kutiman at, which spans almost all boundaries between individual artist, creation, audience, and organization. (1)

Propose new formats and venues
All human activities tend towards habit and the repetition of well-known formulae. Modern concert going is no exception with its ritual of musician and conductor entrances, tuning, taking bows, exits etc. For example, the 15”/20” piece has become a “de facto” standard format for compositions today and is based on nothing other than a convenient duration. Proposing new formats and venues will refresh the cognitive habits of audiences and artists alike. Audiences will discover new ways to appreciate performances and artists will be pushed out of their comfort zones and will be obliged be creative in new ways. This is one of the main priorities of the Interfaces Project led by the Onassis Cultural Center.

Avoid the standard models of audiences
Traditional models of audiences frequently concentrate on age and educational criteria. Most audience questionnaires are based on these criteria. These should not be neglected, of course, but there are other audience types that cut across these traditional criteria such as audiences that are interested in anything that is “new” in some way or another; that involves cutting edge technology; that involves or expresses some form of social concern; that is cross-disciplinary; that takes place in an historical monument or in a new architectural design; that is related to nature or the environment, etc.

Create an audience development process
An interesting example of this idea is the way in which the New World Symphony in Miami Florida goes about attracting and cultivating audiences. It is an incremental process that begins by proposing to the public a short and inexpensive event and then progressively offers them more and more elaborate propositions while keeping track of the audience even when they leave the city in the hope that they will come to another event should they return to Miami. In other words, the process is not event oriented, but rather oriented towards building a deepening relation over time with the public.

Create a relationship with your community
The ambition of attracting ever more public – i.e. just “increasing the numbers” – is pointless and counter-productive since in the end we will inevitably drift away and be at odds with our values. Why? Because we will be always looking for that “clever” short term idea (based on what’s easy, what’s “a la mode”, what the politicians want today but will have inevitably forgotten tomorrow …) that will attract more audience instead of looking for actions that will promote and cultivate the values we share with the community in which we live. 
—Andrew Gerzso, 2017

(1) From Engaging Audiences, a Report on the Wallace Foundation Arts Grantee Conference in 2009.

 in Features