What will post-pandemic audiences look like?

In the first of our new webinar series, presented in partnership with Creative Victoria, Patternmakers’ Tandi Palmer Williams discussed the latest data obtained from the Audience Outlook Monitor.

As the country begins to emerge from shutdown, a sizeable percentage of arts audiences – 23% – say they expect to attend arts events less than previously, an indicator which is consistent around the country.

‘It doesn’t necessarily relate to the current rates of transmission but it’s about people’s outlook long term and the fact that some audiences feel that they simply won’t be back at the same level of frequency as they were in the past long term,’ said Tandi Palmer Williams, Managing Director of Patternmakers.

Speaking with ArtsHub’s Richard Watts in the first of four webinars presented in partnership with Creative Victoria, Palmer Williams said the sector can also expect to see a reduction in ticket sales, subscriptions, and overall participation.

Given that ‘42% of audiences have reported some loss of household income of some kind already, and 18% say they expect to spend less when they return to events … [and] 27% of members and subscribers are not yet sure if they’re going to renew,’ arts organisations need to be prepared for such eventualities, she explained.

On a brighter note, 90% of audiences surveyed were ‘at least moderately committed to supporting arts organisations’ at the present time.

‘So whilst the picture around attendance and spending is quite challenging, it’s likely to be volatile, we are seeing a kind of groundswell of support and new levels of understanding in the community about the need to support artists and cultural organisations, so thinking about how we can harness that at this time is really key,’ Palmer Williams said.  

Audiences’ commitment to supporting local artists and organisations was also a key point raised in the discussion.

‘I think it’s wise in the short and medium term to be thinking small, thinking local, and thinking about experimenting on a small scale.’

Palmer Williams urged artists and arts organisations to be optimistic as well as innovative in their thinking about audiences.

‘I think this is probably one of the most exciting periods for audience development of our time, and that people will still put their hands in their pockets right now, even if they’ve been financially affected. We know that very strongly engaged audiences, even if they’ve been financially affected, are still making donations. So yes. The world is our oyster, I think. Let’s stay positive about that, be looking at new models for funding things and finding a way,’ she said.

The second Recovery Roadmap Webinar, Reaching new audiences in a time of crisis, takes place on Wednesday 9 September at 1pm AEST. Tickets are free but bookings are essential.


RUTH GORMLEY: Good afternoon, everyone. Although we are currently in different locations, I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the lands on which we live and work. I pay my respect to their Elders past and present and to any members who may be here today. I’m Ruth Gormley, the Senior Manager, Strategic Marketing at Creative Victoria. I want to welcome you all to this first in the Recovery Roadmap Webinars: ‘What will post pandemic audiences look like?’.

Creative Victoria is very proud to be working with ArtsHub to create this webinar series to share information that can help arts and cultural organisations in their thinking and planning as we move through and out of the pandemic shutdowns.

Some housekeeping. This webinar is being live captioned. If you want to see the captions, just follow the link in the chat. You will need to be using Google Chrome for this to work. We are recording this session, so any questions you ask will be on record and the recorded webinar will be available through ArtsHub and the Creative Exchange Page on the Creative Victoria website. We will be sending out a survey following the webinar, so please fill that in to let us know how we have gone and what you would like to see covered in future. I hope you enjoy the webinar and find it illuminating and useful. I now pass over to Richard Watts, who will be moderating today’s discussion.

RICHARD WATTS: Thank you, Ruth. Hello and welcome to the first of our Recovery Roadmap Webinars. I am Richard Watts, National Performing Arts Editor at ArtsHub, and I am speaking to you today on Wurundjeri Country. Our guest is Tandi Palmer Williams, Managing Director of Patternmakers and an expert in connecting audiences with culture, creative and community causes. Tandi joins us from Gurringai Country in New South Wales.

So, as we emerge from the pandemic, audiences will be returning to theatres, galleries will be reopening, but will audiences still want to experience things in the same way? That’s what we are going to discuss today.

Some very quick housekeeping before I hand things over to Tandi. Please mute your microphones if you have not already, and if you want to share the conversation on social media, we’re using the hashtag #RecoveryRoadmapWebinars. Tandi, over to you.

TANDI PALMER WILLIAMS: Thank you, Richard. And hello, everyone. It’s a real pleasure to be joining you today to talk about this question that’s on all of our minds, and that is, what will audiences look like when they return? So I love a good question that’s really clear. But this is a really tricky one because literally nobody knows, right?

This is unprecedented times, as we have all heard over and over again. There’s a real level of uncertainty unlike anything we have ever seen before and it seems like there is new information every day.

So, look, it’s a process that’s unfolding and the best we can do at the moment is look at the data that we’ve got available, and the data I’m going to be sharing with you today mainly comes from the Audience Outlook Monitor, which many of you would know already. It’s a cross sector collaborative study that involves over 150 arts and cultural organisations around Australia.

It’s been supported by a range of different arts and culture funders, including the Australia Council, Creative Victoria and other state arts agencies around the country, and what that has given us is an insight into how audiences feel about reattending again.

We have had over 30,000 people participate in the study so far, telling us things like what they have attended recently, if they have left their homes and been out, how they feel about attending in future and how they’re likely to make those decisions and what they’re likely to spend their money on.

We’re also looking at what they’re participating in online and capturing a whole lot of qualitative data about how they’re going to make decisions about the future as well. So that’s the main source I’m going to be drawing upon, and at the end of this, I’ll point you in the direction of some further resources so you can do your own investigations. But at the moment, basically I’ll just need the host to allow me to share my screen because I’m going to show a few slides for us to talk through, if that’s alright.

So basically what we’re doing today is going to have look at three different things from the Audience Outlook Monitor. We’re going to take a look at three different jurisdictions where people have been attending and we’re going to have a look at the rates at which they’ve been attending, to give us a sense of to what extent audiences are going to return, how soon.

We’re then going to look to the medium term and have a look at some of the indicators around confidence in the market in terms of attendance and spending. And then there’s a third element which we’re going to talk about today which we haven’t shared in any forum yet so far. We asked audiences about their post pandemic needs and interests, and we’ll talk a little bit about some of the themes coming out of that as well.

So in a moment you’ll be able to see my slides and I’m going to dive right in and show you basically three jurisdictions. So what we’ve done with the Audience Outlook Monitor is collect data from audiences every two months, so the most recent data collection that we have is from July 2020, so almost two months ago now, and in Victoria that was the time basically the outbreak had been happening a few weeks previously, but the State had just gone back into stage 3 shutdown.

I’m going to also show you two other states at the same time, so New South Wales, where there was a level of community transmission and the strategy has been around suppression, as we have all heard, and then I’ll also show you WA on the screen, where they’re looking at really local illumination. They hadn’t had any community transmission at all recently.

And what you can see on screen is basically the proportion who attended recently, so in Victoria where it was newly locked down, people had had about three weeks to start reattending some museums and galleries, say, that were open; in New South Wales, similarly museums and galleries were open as well as cinemas. In WA, people were starting to attend performances in certain settings.

So you can see that as the virus  the rates of community transmission have dropped to zero, that attendance starts to rebuild, and the proportion that have attended where there is still some level of community transmission in New South Wales is about a quarter. So that’s a quarter of past attendees who have in the two weeks before data collection re-attended at least one arts and cultural event of some kind.

In WA, where there was no community transmission, that was a third. What we see is that the longer there is without community transmission, the more confidence starts to rebuild and the more likely we’ll see bigger proportions of the audience return.

So there’s a bunch of different indicators on screen which you can have a look at. The one that I’ll point out is basically the proportion who cannot foresee going out until there is no risk. It’s the third last line in the table that I’m sharing. What you’ll see is that 16% of the market in Victoria say they won’t be back until there is no risk.

In New South Wales that dropped to 11% where we’ve got very low rates of transmission, and WA 7%. So that gives you a sense of the people that, the proportion of the market that simply won’t tolerate any risk at all and prefer to stay home to be on the safe side.

Now, when we look out a little bit further, I want to share a few indicators with you and, look, I’ll be honest, it’s not good news. I think this is a really challenging time and we’re in for some challenges, even in Victoria as we look to go out of shutdown. I think it’s still going to be a really challenging period for all of us in the sector.

The indicators that I want to share with you is that 23% of audiences expect to attend less than before long term, and this is an indicator that is quite stable around the country. It doesn’t necessarily relate to the current rates of transmission but it’s about people’s outlook long term and the fact that some audiences feel that they simply won’t be back at the same level of frequency as they were in the past long term. 42% of audiences have reported some loss of household income of some kind already, and 18% say they expect to spend less when they return to events.

Now, there’s also a proportion that expect to attend more, and most people expect to attend the same or more, so there’s lots to be positive about there, but I think it’s this indicator about spending less that we need to be aware of and plan for. 27% of members and subscribers are not yet sure if they’re going to renew.

We’ve got a really solid level of interest in digital participation and 36% of Victorian audiences want to have the choice of attending in person or online. Groups that are more likely to want that are people who live in regional or remote areas, people who have caring responsibilities or who live with a disability, people with young children at home. This is an area of the market that is here to stay.

And lastly, there is some good news that I want to share on this slide, and that is 90% of audiences feel at least moderately committed to supporting arts organisations in this time, so whilst the picture around attendance and spending is quite challenging, it’s likely to be volatile, we are seeing a kind of groundswell of support and new levels of understanding in the community about the need to support artists and cultural organisations, so thinking about how we can harness that at this time is really key.

Now, the last thing I want to share with you is that audiences overwhelmingly see arts and cultural organisations playing a role in the recovery from the pandemic. We asked people what role they saw in their community and the answers that we have heard back are quite phenomenal. Very diverse, very inspiring to be honest, I think. I will share some of the quotes with you today that are from Victorian audience members and these speak to some of the themes we’re observing across the national data set.

So one person said ‘giving people a sense of what is possible through the creative arts is so important and helping people make sense of their experience. I believe there will be a significant psychological impact through the pandemic as well as economic, so the arts has a role in helping people connect to their emotional state through performance and other art forms.’

Another person said, ‘people are reflecting a lot right now, realising that the model of consuming culture, paying for big events, is probably not as fulfilling as participating in your local community. I believe feeling part of something, sharing and learning is something people will look more after COVID.’

And this person said, ‘how about art installations in shop windows, buskers on balconies, bands on touring buses that stop periodically like ice cream vans or piped music on to the streets. A spaced out parade of giant puppets, musicians and street performers that wander residential streets, murals on public buses, a community yard bombing competition to decorate your own footpath, a callout to musicians to jam are from porches and footpaths, travelling library vans, improvised drive in movies. Science can save us hopefully but the arts give us a reason to live.’

You will notice in some of those quotes, themes around public events and public programming, freely accessible events that really are inclusive, as well as themes in terms of wellbeing, in terms of connection, transformation and social change really coming through very strongly. So they’re all things to kind of think about as we imagine the post pandemic world.

So, to summarise, what will audiences look like when they return? In the short term, I think we’ll see attendance beginning to grow where the virus is suppressed and becoming more confident when it’s eliminated locally. Part of the market won’t return when even a small level of risk remains. Those people are the ones who feel vulnerable health-wise. They’re more likely to be people who are older or who live with a disability or have someone in their household who does. Many people have been financially affected and will spend cautiously. We haven’t talked about ticket lead times in the time we’ve got today but there is a degree of kind of wait and see around the country right now.

So medium term, we need to plan for an era of volatility and behavioural change, so even if the health risks can be managed in Australia, we’re not, we’re less confident about what can be managed internationally and the economic outlook everywhere is concerning. So it’s an ideal time for us to be testing new models, finding solutions and harnessing support.

It’s less and less likely, in my opinion, that we’re going to see the pandemic suddenly kind of end, and life resumes as normal. I think more and more that we’re looking at a transition to a kind of new normal and we need to be really thinking about adaptation long term.

Audiences will look to artists and cultural organisations to help their communities recover. There’s a very strong awareness among our audience base and think about over 30,000 people have participated, very much seeing a strong role for arts and cultural organisations long term and there may be stronger interests in things like free events in public places which emphasise social connection and joy.

So some questions for you – we’re going to have time for some questions in a moment and a good discussion with Richard – but these are the questions that came to my mind: what does success look like in an era of suppressed spending and attendance? What are the new ways to enable connection and creativity for fragmented audiences? What people and partnerships will help us connect with audiences in person and online? And what work can be done now during the metaphorical winter to see us thrive in the summer that comes afterwards?

You can access more of the information from this study at the link that you see on screen, and there’s also a dashboard where you can dig into the data for your particular jurisdiction and explore things that are interesting to you. For instance, some of you might like to dig into the detail on regional audience members and if anyone is interested in that, we can talk about it in the questions. If I can be of assistance at any point, my contact details are on the screen here. You’re more than welcome to take a screen shot and give in touch with me if you have any questions coming out of today.

Lastly, this is the quote I want to leave you with before we throw to discussion, and that is “Creatives often lead in showing that there are a multitude of solutions when our normal ways are obstructed. They also provide mediums of connection and unity and encourage empowerment through participation and personal discovery”.

I find that really inspiring and I am looking forward to hearing what you made of the data we have gone through today and tackling some of your questions. Thank you, Richard.

RICHARD: Thank you, Tandi. So we’ve been sent through a large number of questions, as people were registering, which we will come to in a moment. And we may have an opportunity for one or two of the additional questions that are being asked as we go live. But just to respond to some of the data and the statistics that you’ve shown us, the fact that as you’ve said, 42% of people are reporting lost income and 18% expect to expend less, can you speak to that feeling that people … already believe they will be spending less money.

What are the ramifications of that for the sector? Are we looking at organisations having to lower price points, for example, in order to try to woo some of that 18% to spend more?

TANDI: Potentially. I think there’s still room for experimenting at all price points. The fact is that we’re going to see less on offer. So whilst some expect to attend more, many say they will spend at the same level or more, and they’re likely to have less choices to spend their money on, so I think there’s still room for us to be delivering at high price points, absolutely.

There is a degree of caution around making commitments and spending money far in advance, so people are buying tickets for events a month out, two months out, but there’s a sense of wait and see for events further beyond that, just at the risk of outbreaks, border closures, cultural tourism is likely to be affected for some time, but I think we should be brave about experimenting at all levels and not kind of dilute our offerings or only offer affordable things.

There will be a market who are still in full time paid employment at the same salary level and ready to spend. And we know that there is that really strong feeling of support and many people are digging into their own pockets to make donations, so we’ve seen quite a strong level of success around ‘pay what you can’ kind of offers or donate for something you’ve experienced online, and we’re seeing that level of donations. Some organisations have had the best year ever in terms of donations and fundraising, so it’s definitely not something to sneeze at.

Having said that, as the economic recession deepens, I think we’ll need to be looking in terms of our online offerings for audience-centric offers that really deliver value, and when we ask people what is worth paying for online, a lot of people will say they want to show their support for artists and organisations that they care about, so altruism is definitely a really strong motivator, and in terms of people making commitments and subscribing to platforms or signing up for 12 months or whatever it is, we see things like good value, flexibility, accessibility really coming out.

So the quality of our offerings online and what value we can deliver to an audience, I think it’s good to be doing the long-term planning around that and I think learning and education is obviously a really strong theme. We saw in the latest national arts participation survey out from the Australia Council last week that creative participation is one of the strongest trends of our time and certainly we’ve seen that in the pandemic, people wanting to skill up, learn new skills, rediscover old hobbies so I think tapping into that as a revenue stream is wise.

RICHARD: Great. Something else that, certainly one of the heartening elements of the slides you were presenting, the fact that there was a strong sense of local participation and the importance of participating locally. What can you extrapolate from that in terms of the way that organisations, large, small, medium and everything in between, can harness that sense of locality more effectively?

TANDI: Yes, so a couple of things to note there. I mean, obviously one of the trends in the dataset is that people are more comfortable to visit spaces and events that, A) have smaller numbers of people, but also less density, so density is obviously the key thing, and a lot of people still care about social distancing so I think short and medium term we need to still be thinking with that framework of social distancing and density and how we can manage that and put people at ease.

Certainly, when we look at types of venues in relation to location, people are more likely to feel comfortable at a community arts base as opposed to a stadium, for instance, for obvious reasons, and so I think in terms of thinking about audience comfort, that’s really important and we see people working from home a lot more, they’re not travelling as much as they used to, so there’s a focus on the local at the moment, particularly in, say, Victoria with the shutdown and even New South Wales where we’ve got significant community transmission.

So I think people are thinking about what’s happening locally and obviously the level of risk and investment that they need to make just in terms of transport and things like that is obviously more manageable at a local level.

One of the things that’s interesting to look at in the data set is that comfort levels in, say, regional or rural areas versus metropolitan areas, and we’ve actually got a brand new filter in the dashboard that you’re welcome to explore which segments the audience by their location as opposed to the location of the participating organisation, which we had in the past.  And what we can see is that regional audiences are more comfortable to visit some types of venues, but actually less comfortable to visit very large venues. And so it’s actually kind of interesting to think about, yes.

In regional areas, local participation is likely to kind of rebuild but still very large events are going to be challenging, no matter where you are. So I think it’s wise in the short and medium term to be thinking small, thinking local, and thinking about experimenting on a small scale before going bigger and bolder.

RICHARD: Now, in terms of the some of the questions that have come through from audience members when they were registering for today, one of the burning questions is: should we be thinking about ‘post pandemic’ or rather should we be thinking about ‘with COVID’?

TANDI: Oh. I mean, I think this is, as time has gone on, our understanding of how the pandemic is going to end is, it’s a lot more complex than we all thought a few months ago. When we first went into closure, I thought “oh, a few weeks or months, and then this will end and we’ll be back to normal”, and now what we’re seeing in the data and certainly my personal view is that it’s unclear when it’s going to end or how it’s going to end.

I think one of the insights we’ve got in this study is looking at US audiences and they’ve been doing some modelling around vaccine scenarios. And so what we’re seeing is that even if a vaccine arrives, it doesn’t necessarily give confidence to all parts of the community. So there’s still questions around level of effectiveness, availability, cost, uptake levels and in the US there are some really big questions around that right now, so people are actually, audiences are more likely to feel comfortable and confident under a scenario of long term use of face masks than they are about a vaccine right now.

So it’s quite interesting when you think about how is this going to end, where is this going to end? I think it’s wise for us to at least be planning for there not to be a clear end point and for us to be dealing with a kind of an era of uncertainty, volatility, where we may have outbreaks or be dealing with outbreaks from time to time and what that looks like in terms of concepts like social distancing. So I think we should be, we can expect to see social distancing around for quite some time.

Obviously, we all hope that it can be managed to give us more certainty around types of events and flexible events, but I think we should be planning with COVID, to be honest. Obviously, the thought of a post-pandemic era I think is really exciting and inspiring and I personally hope for a renaissance of some kind like we saw in the post-war period but I think that’s probably some way off unfortunately.

RICHARD: We’ll have to wait and see. In term of the way art is being experienced now, people are consuming art online. A lot of that work is free, not all of it. Some artists and companies have experimented successfully with paid models, but what is the outlook looking like for audiences paying for programs, paying for performance and exhibition, if they’ve got so used to the free model that’s being offered to them at the moment?

TANDI: I think that’s a valid question. I don’t think there is any single answer. Obviously, the economic outlook, as we talked about, is complicated. I think audiences, there’s an overwhelming appreciation of the need to support artists and organisations and we are seeing that in the success of some fundraising and donations campaigns. So I think, yes, it’s going to be challenging, I think.

We all need to be thinking about the products that we, and the campaigns and the offers that we ask and what is an artist-centric ask and what is an audience-centric ask and thinking about the right mix of those things. But certainly the appetite that has been unlocked, I think, we should be thinking positively about that.

I think this is probably one of the most exciting periods for audience development of our time, and that people will still put their hands in their pockets right now, even if they’ve been financially affected. We know that very strongly engaged audiences, even if they’ve been financially affected, are still making donations. So yes. The world is our oyster, I think. Let’s stay positive about that, be looking at new models for funding things and finding a way.

RICHARD: Now, we were officially supposed to be ending this – it was going to run for a clean half hour. We’re going to run a little bit over. Probably about 10 minutes over so we can fit in some questions that have come through live from the audience. But just before we do, one last question that came in as part of the pre-registrations. What sector of the audience do you think will be the most problematic in terms of working with in the future and bringing them back into the arts experience, and how do you suggest people work with that problem?

TANDI: So there’s a couple of ways to look at that question. I mean, overwhelmingly in the data, we see that past attendance frequency is the strongest indicator of how soon someone will be back, how frequently, how much they will spend. So the occasional attendee is going to be the hardest to bring back if you want to think about it like that. So audience development isn’t getting any easier at the moment. We’re likely to see frequent attendees back first. Luckily, that does represent the biggest kind of volume of attendances but we’re going to have to work harder to bring in those occasional attendees and reach new people.

Other groups that we are going to find challenging on average, people who live with a disability are less likely to say they’ll be back in person, although that’s not to say all people who experience a disability will be that way, but they’re more likely than average to say that they’ll stay away, as do people who have a serious health vulnerability or in their household, and those tend to include people who are older as well. So they’re going to be tougher to bring back.

I think we need to be thinking about our virtual programs as part of access right now. It’s a way that we’re able to reach a larger audience than before in some areas, we’re able to reach geographically a broader range of areas that way and offer access to our programs for people who have all kinds of access challenges. So I would say virtual is the way to be thinking about that and really thinking about the mix of things that we do and how we can serve different audiences with different parts of our offering.

RICHARD: To pick up that question of the virtual experience, a question that’s come through just a short time ago, is there data of how people are viewing online streamed performances or events? Are they viewing them on their phone, tablet, computer or with the full sound and vision experience of a TV, for example?

TANDI: The most common way that people are engaging is on their mobile phone, seeing things that come up in social media. It’s less common but still really exciting to see what we call ‘the big screen experience’ at home, where someone might be using their smart TV to access a streamed experience, but I think there’s a real opportunity for us to be educating our audiences around how to get the best possible experience from streamed events or online offerings, and so it’s not always on our phone in the middle of the day where we might be swiping just to have a little browse.

So I think it’s good to be thinking about what’s the intention with different aspects of our content or our offering and then really helping to guide our audience to have the best experience with this. Why not use airplay to show it on your Apple TV or there is a whole range of different ways people can set themselves up. I think what we’ll be seeing, as many of us in the sector are thinking about our tech, our skills, our kit to raise the bar on the quality of what we’re doing online, I think audiences are also thinking that way in terms of upgrading their home systems and the more we can do to support, particularly older members of our audience to have a great experience – we know that older audiences are more likely to pay, to make donations and they’re more likely to pay more, so basically they’re a really important group revenue wise – and the more we can be doing to help them grow their confidence and experience what we’ve got on offer online, I think that’s well worth the investment.

RICHARD: Another question that came in recently in regard to higher price points for arts experiences. Is there concern about potentially locking out those who already have limited disposable income and alienating certain groups of the market?

TANDI: Oh, look, that’s a question always at any time, I think. Right now, there’s just potentially even more people who are under financial pressure, but that’s a question at any point, that’s a valid question to be asking.

I think depending on the size of your organisation, your funding situation, that you need to be making decisions about what you’re aiming for, who your target is for different parts of your offering, and from a marketing point of view, I think it is really good to have a target market for different offerings and not be trying to serve everyone with everything.

So I think my personal view is that you should segment and target and really aim to serve your chosen segment really well. Obviously, larger organisations can have a portfolio approach where they have freely accessible things and certain paid offers, or you might decide that it’s important for you in your mission that you’re going to make everything available for free and if you’re able to do that, then that’s fantastic. So obviously price points, target markets and accessibility are really, really complex questions at any time.

RICHARD: I’m getting the signal that we will need to wrap up in a moment. So thank you very much for your time. We will have the transcript of this conversation and the video up on ArtsHub by the end of the week, and a reminder that next week at the same time, which was 1pm Australian Eastern Standard Time, our webinar number 2 will be looking at reaching new audiences in a time of crisis with guests from Yarra Valley Writers Festival and the La Trobe Regional Gallery. Thank you for your time, and we will see you next week.

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on Three Triple R FM, and serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management. Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Living Legend in 2017. In 2020 he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize. Most recently, Richard was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Green Room Awards Association in June 2021. Follow him on Twitter: @richardthewatts