Culture.Shift Forum Report

An overview of the talks and debates during the Culture.Shift forum by Meta Štular, Culturemaker Institute

On the 6th and the 7th of December 2014, the Culture Shift conference took place in the Toneelhuis in Antwerp. Organized by the Theatron Network, the forum sparked discussions between Europe’s leading creative directors, experts in change management and audience engagement, and European creative leaders. 38 participants from eleven countries discussed good practices, strategies and tools needed to face important cultural and societal changes related to recent economical crisis and digital shift.

Inspiring Creative Leadership

The first part of the conference was dedicated to the presentation of best practice examples. Artistic directors of leading European performing arts organisations shared their leadership approach and strategies. They explained the logic behind their decisions, the challenges they have faced, the ways they have involved their teams and their communities, and what was the impact of their approach. Lars Seeberg, director the Theatron network, and the founder of see@rt, presented the objective of the conference – to find out how the theatre in Europe can survive and prospect in a situation when national subsidies are becoming increasingly modest. In his welcome speech he evocated the 4P approach – programming, partnership, personal and public outreach[i] and stressed that theatres should engage in continuous effort in order to follow their mission.

A. Storytelling and openness

Jerry Aerts, General and Artistic Manager of the international arts campus deSingel, presented the challenge of fulfilling the 36000 m2 of space with content and audience. In pursuing this objective, they decided to connect grandeur and adventure. They wished to broaden their audiences and to do that they have employed different strategies. On one hand they have broadened the impact of the events by several accompanying activities aiming at specific audiences, and by engaging many partners from different fields. On the other hand, they have deepened the communication with the audiences by using the storytelling principle. He explained that this important principle is a two way process which enables in depth communication and underlines the importance of never closing the environments and leaving every activity wide open to the community. In order to get good stories, an organization should give people the possibility to tell stories about it in their own way. He presented a good example of media partnership consisting of professionals coaching young reporters. Those are youngsters who make short clips about the DeSingel events and are sharing them with their friends on social media. Thus, young audiences are reached in the most appropriate way – by their peers. Those are DeSingel ambassadors as well as youngsters who are fond of deSingel programming and who recommend the events to their friends at school by creating special school-specific advertisements and marketing approaches.

B. Non-commercial alongside commercial

In the beginning of the speech Alistair Spalding, Chief Executive and Artistic Director of Sadler’s Wells, pointed out that, since its beginnings, the house sold water alongside performances. The business model of his institution was always based on combining commercial and artistic offers. With the goal of broadening the audiences of Sadler’s Wells, they have focused on two objectives: to make a strong identity of a dance house and to make associate artists the centre of the new creative policies. By following those objectives, Sadler’s Wells has doubled the audiences in last ten years. The speaker underlined that this shift was made possible by the fact that they also sell commercial performances along the artistic ones.

Another important fact is that the theatre applied direct marketing strategies to the artistic performances at Sadler’s Wells. This also coincided with a digital shift, allowing the replacement of written promotional material by more attractive and direct video clips. To reach different communities and to broaden the audiences they have diversified their programming. They have introduced other festivals in the theatre programme, opened the doors to non-professional practices, and have introduced a ticketing system, which encourages spectators to buy a ticket for a performance they would not necessary go to see.

All these new practices have also resulted in crossover of audiences. To conclude, Alistair Spalding underlined the following key words: clear identity, direct marketing, and high art alongside commercial performances.

The benefits of audience-centric approach

After the presentations of best practices, the participants focused on the following questions: Do you really need to engage your audiences in the creative process? How can this be done without compromising the artistic vision? Moderated by Benita Lipps, Coordinator of the Theatron Network and Director of the DaVinci Institute, a vivid debate took place, showing that the leaders of European theatres face complex challenges demanding dynamic, inclusive, and site-specific responses.

A. Digital shift and new ways to communicate

Lars Seeberg underlined that it is impossible to take any interest of audiences for granted. Cultural professionals have to be better in explaining what kind of experience one can get in a theatre compared to the variety of internet, TV and other digital content.

Erwin Jans, Dramaturg and Responsible for audience development at Toneelhuis, was of the opinion that the situation is similar all over Europe. Public space of today is much more influenced by visuals or by advertisement. Public space is becoming virtual; therefore we need a new definition of it. He pointed out that the art community had failed to explain why art has changed so much. They expected that audiences would follow, which did not happen. In his experience, creating environments where audiences get closer to the artists is rewarding for both.

Jerry Aerts described how deSingel is today partly a database and partly an arts organization. They have more than 300 videos, innumerable forum comments, and amateur photos from students… He remains convinced that today theatres have to add new content but they especially have to find new ways to communicate about that content. The major concern should be how to get into society in much more various ways than just announcing a new performance.

B. Blurring the limits and new ways of collaboration

In Toneelhuis, they are opening the theatre to new audiences with direct approach via open rehearsals. Erwin Jans explained how this experience further involves some of the amateurs in professional performances. In this way, the limits between professionals and amateurs are being blurred. He evocated the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, who said that Olympic point of view was not possible any more, since one is always in the midst of something. Therefore, we have to let ourselves be intoxicated by the world. We should try things and see what comes out of them. Artists are nowadays in search of new ways of collaboration; they are searching for new audiences in open public spaces. He underlined that public space plays an important role in creative commons.

Jerry Aerts concluded that the most important task of theatres these days is the creation of a community that believes in something common.

C. Lack of subsidies and market constraints

Erwin Jans was of the opinion that, since there are many constraints from the market or from the funders, the concept of autonomy in the arts is also changing and should be redefined.

Alistair Spalding explained how the situation in the United Kingdom is different from the rest of Europe. The British were more ready for the recent shift since they did not get the notion of a citizen paying for the arts from his taxes. The tradition of commercial theatre has existed since Shakespeare.

Jerry Aerts gave an example of how the specific dance and theatre scene developed in Flanders in the 1980’s out of a lack of national subsidies. Given a difficult financial situation, the companies had to search for funding internationally. Suddenly, they became a part of an international repertoire. With this success, national interest and subsidies started to rise. With the current shift, Flanders organizations have the advantage of having succeeded the generation of artists and companies who made it. Their artists gave them pride and self-confidence to become more entrepreneurial.

Meta Štular, founder of Culturemaker Institute, asked the panelists to elaborate on the lack of public subsidies. In her opinion public subsidies represent public interest and translate public values. She reasoned that we are getting too easily used to the situation of making culture without public subsidies and that it seems as if we are preparing to accept the idea of the market principles penetrating the world of arts.

D. New theatre network and knowledge exchange

In Lars Seeberg’s opinion it completely makes sense to make a new theatre network today. The proof is that in two years of the Theatron project, the repertory and the outreach of two Danish theatres have changed. He hoped that the Flanders model would be copied – smaller companies in small countries should reach out to international audiences. He explained his belief that theatres have to focus on what they are really good at. They have to try to create different channels towards audiences adapted to digital age.

Alistair Spalding did not think it was so easy to learn from other examples. He underlined that we all have to work in our own contexts. It is not possible to apply the same practice to different circumstances.

Leading Creative Transformation

The second day of the conference focused on concrete plans for implementation. The leadership experts shared insights on the skills, tools, methods and processes needed in order to become an even more effective creative leader. They underlined that a successful changes should start with the right questions and with the right choice of people. Everybody should be involved – from administrators and artists to funders and communities.

A. Asking the right questions

Graham Devlin, Cultural Strategist & Former Deputy Secretary General, Arts Council of England, stipulated that first questions to the participants should be why one wishes to transform something. He explained that there are different drivers behind the transformation and he listed them: societal and economical changes, diversification of leisure options, the phenomenon of social networks, climate change in relation to touring, systemic change moving from the age of oil to the age of information. Therefore, it is very important to identify the reasons for which an organisation wishes to change. Given the scale of changes in last few years, cultural organizations have become more creative in adapting to changes. He stipulated that in this process, art organizations have to be art-centred and audience-focused. He continued by presenting another set of questions that cultural organisations should ask when considering change. Is the mission of your organization right? Who do you want to reach? What message do you wish to get over? Who are your potential allies? How can your partners support you? Who are your competitors? At the same time one should not forget that culture is not a business as any other – it has social and civic dimension. Last but not least, it is important to choose the right people who are leading the change: one person who has competency for strategic planning should be present; everybody who is responsible for implementation should be involved in the process as well as the organisation’s board.

B. Being clear about the mission and the values

Sue Hoyle, Director of Clore Leadership Programme, was of the opinion that the values in the heart of organization should be incorporated in every action of the leader. Being a leader is not about status; it is about relationships and approach. Leaders are change makers – they need an appetite to create. They need to be audience-centric and attentional to the needs of others.

She underlined that audience-centric approach is about consistency, constancy, excellence, adaptability, courage to try new things, and trust with communities. The mission of the organization has to be clear – it has to identify what it does best. Misconceptions about the mission should be redressed through communication. The leader should be resilient, alert, with the capacity to make difficult decisions and to listen to their own instincts; he or she should not be fearful of the unknown and must have a strong personality. Furthermore, the leader has to be entrepreneurial, good with money and capable of fundraising. The leader has to advocate for culture in general, not just for his or her organization. Last but not least, leaders have to be brilliant communicators and negotiators; they need to know about the politics with big and small p. At the end she emphasised that successful organizations have to take responsibility for their communities.

C. Fighting against exclusion

Andrew Ormston, founder and Director of Drew Wylie Ltd, highlighted the fact that what we are fighting against today is a social and economic situation which is excluding many people. In search of new solutions, an audience-centric organization should start with the idea that culture is connected to the whole of society. He gave some examples, which illustrated how encouraging first contacts between artists and community could bring lasting collaborations. Additionally, cultural organizations have to take into account digital shift. Especially with young people, digital inclusion is extremely important. Therefore cultural programmes should aim to enable children and young people to achieve through the arts and creativity.

D. Being part of a larger agenda

Monica Urian de Sousa, Programme Manager at the European Commission – Directorate General Education and Culture – responsible for the ‘audience development’ priority within the Creative Europe Programme – Culture, welcomed the initiative of Theatron project. Before the European Commission set up the new Creative Europe programme, Theatron had focused on the relevant cultural challenges of today: how to reinvent theatres’ approach to audiences in the time of digital shift and other important societal changes that we are facing. She was of the opinion that it is all about people. People are hungry for social engagement. Accessible and inclusive culture are political priorities of diverse European Commission programmes like Creative Europe, Erasmus +, and others. However, cultural priorities are part of a larger agenda that focuses on economical growth, jobs and youth unemployment. In the future, the European Commission plans to make an expert group about audience development to further support this issue. The European Commission knows a lot about big cultural players but less about the small ones. Therefore the networking initiative of Theatron is even more precious. At the end Monica Urian de Sousa stipulated that it is extremely important to take the conversation on audiences and culture shift out of the room and share it with as many people as possible.

Creating roadmaps for change

The Sunday panel served as a wrap up of previous presentations and as a warm up to the workshops on several topics that were approached during the conference.

Sue Hoyle explained that in the process of change it is of key importance to talk to all kinds of people that are involved in culture. Monica Urian de Sousa proposed that there should be exchange programmes between the countries that have important experience in the field of audience’s programmes and those that lack such experience. Andrew Ormston added that we should follow the example of universities. They are more involved with their audiences since they have more commitment to the application of their work – at the end of the educational process the students have to get jobs. Lars Seeberg agreed that we should make bridges between cultural and educational systems. He explained that correlations in the European Commission programmes could mean potential revolution in both sectors. Monica Urian de Sousa found that this kind of bridging would need more lobbying by cultural sector. On the question from the audience on how the cultural sector can follow the political objectives for achievement of which it has no tools – such as economical or employment growth, she replied that there is no “or-or” option in current situation. Cultural sector has to adapt to a wider agenda.

After the panel, the participants of the conference split into four groups where they exchanged their experiences and ideas on the issues approached during the conference.


Meta Štular, Culturemaker Institute

Find out more in the Culture.Shift Workbook

[i] Dagan Klaić, Resetting the Stage: Public Theatre Between the Market and Democracy, first published in the UK in 2012 by Intellect Ltd, Bristol, UK,