Audience diversity the focus of new research project

An ambitious new project aims to better understand why the sector’s stated goal of increasing audience diversity has had limited success to date.
A blurred photo of a theatre audience.

Despite arts organisations across the country regularly saying they’re keen to diversify their audiences, reality often lags behind the rhetoric.

Looking around the room in theatres, concert halls and art galleries, it’s apparent that audiences at many arts events remain predominantly Anglo-Australian – in marked contrast to the Australian population as a whole.

A new project led by researchers at Deakin University, in collaboration with an industry advisory group, aims to unpick this sticky problem.

‘One hundred percent of the people that you speak to in the arts say that cultural democracy – the values around cultural democracy – are really important to them,’ explains Professor Hilary Glow from the Arts and Cultural Management Program at Deakin Business School.

‘In answer to the question, “Who do you make work for?” people will say, “I make work for everyone – for anyone.” But when you say, “Well, what are you doing to ensure that outcome?” the answers start to narrow considerably,’ she said.

Institutional barriers to diversity

Glow wonders if there are internal barriers within companies that prevent individual arts leaders and arts workers from creating lasting change.

‘I think it’s safe to say that while people feel personally and philosophically committed to the idea of cultural democracy, once they get inside their organisations, our hunch is that there are things in the organisation that are stopping people from realising these personal philosophical goals,’ she explained.

‘So in summary, our curiosity is about: what is it about arts organisations that either inhibit or drive real change around audiences?’ Glow said.

The research project, which is inviting more than 1,300 arts organisations to participate, is guided by an industry advisory group chaired by Indigenous playwright, director and artistic director Wesley Enoch AM.

Describing the project as ‘an opportunity to shine a light on the things that are working well,’ Enoch continued: ‘Often we think of cultural diversity as a big stick to smack people over the head with rather than a great opportunity to grow who we are as a company, or as an art form, or even an arts centre.

‘So there’s an opportunity here for this particular project to focus on the positives about what works and how it can work better,’ he explained.

Enoch noted that artists and arts workers across the country agree that diversifying arts audiences is important.

‘But sometimes we go, “Oh, we can’t afford it” or “We don’t have all the money to do that,” or “It’s too risky to do that,” when in fact, we see the exact opposite. We see markets grow with audiences that have been neglected or ignored. And as I often say, “A starved audience is a hungry audience that needs to be fed,”’ he told ArtsHub.

Read: Chinese-speaking students a largely untapped arts audience, says new report

Glow stressed that a sector-wide approach to the problem was necessary. ‘For too long the focus has been on trying to “fix” audiences, but organisational practice can tend to privilege some audiences over others,’ she explained.

‘Our research shows that sustainably solving this issue requires holistic organisational change, not individual initiatives.’

She also stressed the importance of rethinking the question of diversity in the arts.

‘As long as we keep thinking about this as being a compliance issue, we’re not actually having the conversations we need to have … [and] having difficult conversations is something that arts organisations can tend to avoid for a whole lot of reasons, one of which being they’re just too busy trying to deliver on their orchestra program, their theatre program, their dance program.

‘But I think this is the moment for that difficult conversation,’ Glow explained.

‘And that’s what this project is trying to do – it’s trying to encourage people to not think about pursuing diverse audiences as a question of compliance, of reporting to government, any of that stuff. It’s actually about thinking about diversity in a new way: about who we are, who we do this work for, how we have conversations with people, and in fact, what is our invitation, our invitation to the broader world?’

Broad participation

The audience diversity project is supported by funding from the Australia Council for the Arts and the Ian Potter Foundation, with all state and territory arts agencies participating.

Every Australian visual and performing arts organisation funded by government is being invited to contribute to the project, with Glow noting they hoped to hear from a range of perspectives, skill levels and people across the sector.

‘One of the interesting things about our survey is that we are asking organisations to get everyone in the organisation to participate,’ she said.

‘So this isn’t just about finding out what artistic directors think about this issue. This is a survey where, if people say “Yes, we’ll participate,” we’re encouraging them to give it to people in production areas and to the board, so that we get a sense of what the whole of the organisation is thinking and doing. How does the whole of the organisation understand the task of audience diversity?’

Findings from the research project will inform the development of toolkits and frameworks for action to provide practical resources that will help arts organisations make meaningful changes that expand their audience in a sustainable way.

Enoch noted that some organisations are already working in this way, but said the Deakin project will ensure such successes can be shared more broadly and easily with the sector.

‘I think this project will be providing some evidence and some tools that people can actually engage with … and instead of that happening in isolation it will bring those resources together so that people can share them and learn,’ he said.

‘I’m hoping that by being confronted by the evidence, by the different things being put on the table, that people will go, “Yes, I now know I can have confidence to take this risk if I haven’t done it already.” Because that’s when we’ll see big structural changes – change that won’t slide backwards.’

Learn more about the Leading Change: Audience Diversification in the Arts project.

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