Outdoor Arts - above and beyond audience development

“Experiencing culture that is live and unique to a specific public space reminds us of the value of enjoying something together.”

Anyone who has experienced Outdoor Arts will know that this is not merely culture that happens to be taking place somewhere other than a conventional venue.

This is work that re-interprets the places where we live, engages with a public we don’t often see and combines styles and forms in exciting and unusual ways. Experiencing culture that is live and unique to a specific public space also reminds us of the value of enjoying something together. It is a celebration of the social, a recognition that communal experience is still a great cultural motivator. As the Audience Finder research demonstrates, this is an important part of the attraction of Outdoor Arts.

Of course, public gatherings in general have a profound impact on participants. Whether it’s at a football match, a royal wedding or taking part in a political demonstration, we take satisfaction from being in a crowd with a common focus. As an activity that changes our thinking, however, there is arguably more to artistic experiences, as they strive to re-invigorate the souls of spaces, taking us beyond our normal burger and beer social spheres.

We are witnessing this effect in some of the Strategic Touring Programmes that The Audience Agency has helped evaluate recently. These have gone beyond ‘audience development’ to look at the tangible impacts on places and people.

Coasters, for example, led by Seachange Arts and located in the coastal towns of England, is helping both locals and tourists to think about the area in a different way. A particularly interesting initiative uses the events to draw attention and interest towards the lesser known areas of the towns.

Global Streets, led by Greenwich + Docklands International Festival, transports another relevant and topical theme of our times to urban areas – that of the international. The outdoor arts sector in England has long had a strong association with international artists and festivals and this project emphasises the presentation of work from abroad. This Global Streets video gives a flavour of that focus and evidences another fundamental feature: that the population of England is international in its very nature.

According to recent Census data, 14% of the resident UK population was born abroad (around 9.2 million people) including 911,000 people from Poland. This doesn’t even take into account generations born of people who themselves have moved to this country from other parts of the world. In this context, a Polish company being presented in Hounslow is not therefore perceived by many of the local population as being from another community but from their own. The more pertinent question is why there is not more such work, meeting the interests of the diverse population of Britain.

The reasons why the UK voted to leave the EU are complex and go beyond the issues this country has with its place in the world (problematic though that is). However, ‘Brexit’ has brought into focus some interesting topics. Arts Professional recently produced an interesting analysis of the relationship between the arts and places that voted to leave the EU, using the Active Lives data. In 2016, YouGov and Demos reported that social isolation and the capacity to travel were stronger indicators of whether people voted to leave the EU than income. In the context of the points made above, this obviously has implications for Outdoor Arts.

It is important to be careful about the claims that are made for culture, as producing evidence of direct impact is tricky and it is easy through wishful thinking to make more of findings than ought to be deduced. Nevertheless, research into Outdoor Arts demonstrates its opportunity and potential to go beyond its undoubted capacity to be an agent of audience development, and to have a palpable influence on other aspects of our society.


Written by Jonathan Goodacre, Senior Consultant, International.
Published 30 July 2018.