At the European Union’s recent Culture in Motion conference (16 to 17 October 2012) 800 senior cultural practitioners from around Europe came together to consider audience development and public engagement. The EU Culture Directorate is launching a new funding stream for its culture programme in 2015 which explicitly identifies audience development as a key priority for the first time.

Delegates spent two days in Brussels exploring good practice from all corners of Europe: stories of organisations, institutions and artists that have determined to put audiences at the centre of their thinking and their work and have been successful. There was some inevitable debate about the imagined dangers of dumbing down and whether putting audiences first when planning and delivering work is a dangerous and fatally compromised position.

But the consensus seemed to be that it is the institutions, and the larger ones at that, which tend to be distrustful of meeting audience wants and aspirations. Artists have no such hang-ups – they feed creatively off the interactions and collisions with their publics, and mostly see no contradiction between staying true to themselves, delivering excellence, and at the same time managing to delight, inspire and energise all kinds of ordinary people in extraordinary ways.

One of the most striking aspects of the gathering was the simple realisation that it is probably buildings which most get in the way of public engagement with culture. Out on the streets, in unexpected places and at odd times of day, fantastic art has the power to interrupt people’s routines and create moments of illumination, meaning and life-enhancing shared experience. Crossing the thresholds of theatres, galleries and libraries is sometimes a daunting experience, and for many people tinged with long-time associations and memories that are not always pleasing or fulfilling. Cultural buildings are solid and enduring, representing tradition, routine and accepted (and usually dominant) values.

Against routine

A recurring theme through the case studies was the impulse of creativity and art to go against routine, disrupt the familiar, to break into new realities and meanings, sometimes forcibly. Public engagement, as much as artistic creativity, is about thinking out of the box (both the white cube gallery or the black performance space). Most people agreed that the ‘enemy’ to both engagement and creativity is routine.

Is it not our job as artists, producers or curators to spend our lives dreaming up ways of surprising and delighting people, offering new experiences, disrupting their indifference, apathy or boredom? As human beings we are hard-wired to respond and react to the new. It’s a survival thing – we are both attracted and frightened. So we need to surprise and sometimes shock. But we need to hold people’s hands at the same time.

Some phrases were memorable: “We need to talk to our audiences at eye level”; “People become a stereotype of themselves if you box them in by putting them in boxes”; “I don’t like the word audiences – it separates people from the art and they become passive consumers”; “Our job is to join the public in a conversation”; “Asking questions rather than giving answers.” The inspiring stories were those where the artists and institutions had the courage to throw away the rule book and mash it up, to ditch their preconceptions and assumptions and pledge themselves to take the lead from their public. To go where the audience wants to go, leaning forward to listen to them, often with startlingly positive results.

Amid all the talk of artistic quality and creative excellence, most people agreed that what drives artists are precisely the same things that drive audiences: powerful, profound, beautiful, sometimes shocking experiences, things that soothe the soul and mind, beautiful interesting objects and ideas, brilliantly crafted narratives or blindingly original images. There is no conflict – we all want those things. And it was agreed that we all might have a passion for art, creativity and culture, but we also need to kindle a passion for our audiences, their support, engagement and participation.

Rich Hadley is coordinator and a founding member of Audiences Europe Network (AEN), as well as an independent consultant/trainer specialising in positive psychology, cultural marketing and organisational change. www.audienceseurope.net

This article was originally published on Arts Professional (AP) here. It is reproduced as part of a copy sharing partnership between a-n and AP.