Going Audience-Centric

This text by Benita Lipps offers a definition of strategic audience development and provides a number of insights why performing arts organisations can no longer ignore it.

1) What is Strategic Audience Development?

As Theatron Director Lars Seeberg pointed out in his welcome message: strategic audience development is not just about ‘bums on seats’, sexy marketing campaigns or affordable ticket prices. It’s a top-level decision that can change the way performing arts organisations produce, perform and operate. While this certainly sounds important – and possibly a little intimidating – it doesn’t really help us understand how to go about embedding strategic audience development in performing arts organisations.

Anglo-Saxon models have dominated the public discussion on audiences, yet there are as many definitions as there are approaches to audience development in Europe – one of the beauties and beasts of this culturally rich continent. In order to embrace and explore this wealth of ideas, models and experiences, we need to agree on a common starting point. Within the Theatron Network, we are in the process of developing a joint understanding – a consensus of what strategic audience development means for our members. It is this understanding that the Culture.Shift Workbook aims to present, discuss and develop.

For the purpose of this debate, we therefore propose the following definition:

Strategic audience development is the active and deliberate process of creating meaningful, long-term connections between people and an arts organisation. Strategic audience development goes beyond increasing visitor numbers, aiming to build community ownership, participation, relationships with, and support for the organisation, its programme and its people.

As a top-level activity, strategic audience development is anchored in the organisation’s identity, goals and priorities – having an impact on both creative and operational decision-making.

Strategic audience development includes three dimensions[i]:

  • “broadening” audiences (attracting more audience members like those currently attending),
  • “deepening” audiences (enriching the experience of participants), and
  • “diversifying” audiences (bringing new groups into the fold).

Strategic audience development takes the efforts of the entire organisation, including but not limited to:

  • different ways of developing, (co-)producing, curating and distributing content,
  • new approaches to research, marketing and promotion, and
  • tailored educational and outreach offerings to communicate ideas, engage communities, empower participants and co-create new aesthetics.

There are two important assumptions embedded in this definition that will inform the Culture.Shift debate and consequently the contributions in this publication:

Firstly, strategic audience development starts with the leadership. It is not the task of a single person or department, but a mind-set that has to be embraced by the entire organisation – first and foremost its creative leaders.

Secondly, strategic audience development treats audiences as partners. Rather than viewing audience members as silent and passive consumers, it treats them as able stakeholders, willing and proficient to co-author aesthetic meaning.

2) Strategic Audience Development: A Forgotten Tradition?

While this approach to audiences may sound challenging – or even revolutionary – to some, it is in fact rooted in the very history of the performing arts: In the birth place of theatre – classical Athens – the audience was considered a key stakeholder and sovereign entity in terms of measuring and evaluating performances.

Those attending the drama competition at the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens in 425 B.C.E. (the year that Oedipus Rex competed) saw plays commissioned and produced through civic mandate and performed mostly by amateur members of the community. At the end of the three-day competition, the audience was invited to vote for the best play through a panel of elected judges. As Lynne Conner explains: “It would be folly to assume that 15,000 or so audience members sat quietly all day, […] Instead, Athenians disagreed with playwrights and with each other over the aesthetic, social, and political issues embedded in the tragedies. The historical record shows that they were extremely vocal in their opinions during the performance and afterward in the on-going civic debate that followed.”[ii]

This tradition continues well into modern times: Whether we are looking at Greek festivals, Roman amphitheatres or the Elizabethan public theatres of Shakespeare’s days, audiences always played a loud and proactive part in the experience. Indeed – as Conner points out – until the end of the nineteenth century, Western audiences of all economic classes and from a wide variety of places were expected to participate actively before, during, and after a performance.

Only with the emergence of stage lighting – moving the audience into complete darkness – and the ‘sacralisation of the arts’[iii] in the late 19th century was audience expression actively discouraged – effectively eliminating the auditorium as a political public space. It seems that one and a half centuries later, audiences are demanding to be put back in the light.

3) The Need for Strategic Audience Development

Why have audience demands and expectations changed in the last decades? And why is it becoming increasingly important for performing arts organisations to listen to their audiences? It seems like a range of factors are coming together to create an entirely different socio-economical environment for the performing arts in Europe. Together, these factors make it harder for performing arts organisations to attract audiences, public support and funding. In addition, they have changed leisure time and the way people prefer to spend it.

On the one hand, these factors endanger the financial viability of performing arts organisations. Balancing less income with raising overheads and production costs increasing with technological demands, needs for additional services and expensive infrastructures is a severe challenge for many. On the other hand, it questions their role within society, the very reason for their existence.

In the following paragraphs, we will look at some of these, and how they are expressed in the trends and numbers in Europe:

  • Changing Demographics

Due to an overall ageing Western population, core audiences are greying (or worse –dying) and young people are looking elsewhere for entertainment and engagement. Unsurprisingly, European 15-24 year-olds are most likely to give “lack of interest” as a reason for not seeing (more) ballet, dance performances or opera in the last 12 months: 60% of 15-24 year-olds stating this reason, compared with 48% or less in the other age groups, who are more likely to give ‘lack of time’ or costs as a reason for non-attendance.[iv] A bigger surprise may be that it is the older Europeans who go to the theatre least often: 25% of those aged 55 and over having done so at least once in the last year compared to 32% of 15-24 year-olds.[v] If there is a ‘silver tsunami’[vi] hitting Europe, performing arts houses are certainly not benefitting from it.

Globalisation and migration are changing the socio-cultural makeup of entire cities, creating new challenges concerning audience diversity and inclusion. Since the 1990s, migration has been the most important factor influencing the size of the population in Europe – much more than natural population growth.[vii] 50.8 million European residents were born outside their country of residence on 2015 – almost two-thirds of these in non-European countries.[viii] 2012 saw 3.4 million people immigrating to EU-27 countries – approximately half of those from non-European countries. [ix] Migrants are forming a group growing both in size and prominence that cannot – and should not – be ignored. While they are contributing a wealth of cultural experience, practices and preferences to an ever-diversifying society, it also means that performing arts organisation can no longer rely on a single coherent community and core audience.

  • Competition for Leisure Time

Whether it is television, digital services, sports events, gaming or commercial events, people have more choices than ever when it comes to spending their free time. It is no surprise that all cultural activities are experiencing increased competition for the public’s attention. Indeed, in Europe today, the most common ‘cultural activity’ is watching or listening to a cultural programme on TV or radio: 72% of Europeans have done so at least once in the last twelve months. Unfortunately, this shift has happened at the expense of the performing arts: the least popular activity is going to see a ballet, dance performance or opera, with just 18% participation.[x]

  • Technological Advances

The digital revolution has created a myriad of new cultural products, channels and services. These are not only competing with traditional cultural offerings, but have changed the modes of consumption. The interactive possibilities of web 2.0 and 3.0 have created a new generation of ‘prosumers’, who are no longer happy to sit quietly in the dark, but demand to be actively engaged.

Communication technology also reduces the ‘pull of place’ – making it less important to be somewhere physically or to seek entertainment nearby. Over half of Europeans now use the Internet for cultural purposes, 30% doing so at least once a week.[xi] On the one hand, this ‘shift to virtual’ increases competition of local performing art houses, on the other hand, it provides an opportunity for building new ‘remote’ audiences using digital channels.

  • Economic Recession

The economic recession of 2008-2009 led to significant subsidy cuts in all areas that benefit from public funding, including the arts. In addition, people have had less disposable income or less free time at their disposal, making the attendance of cultural events more of a challenge. Unsurprisingly, expense seems a major obstacle to going to the theatre in those European countries that suffered most from the recession with Greeks (40%), Hungarians (37%) and Bulgarian (27%) citing costs as the key obstacle to cultural participation. However, it would be too easy to simply blame the recession and hope for better days. Theatres won’t be able to attract audiences simply by lowering ticket prices: most Europeans give ‘lack of interest’ as the main reason for not going to the theatre (the first answer given in 21 Member States).[xii]

  • Waning Arts Exposure & Arts Education

Several studies have shown a solid correlation between adult arts engagement and childhood exposure to the arts.[xiii] Yet in most European countries, the number of people who actively perform cultural activities in their spare time – such as learning an instrument or joining a theatre club – is decreasing. In addition, school curricula have been tightened and refocused on the ‘core skills’ required to compete in today’s economy.

Theatre and dance are particularly affected: Of the 38% of EU citizens who were actively engaged in an artistic activity in the last year, the most popular activity was dancing (35%), followed by photography or filming (32%) and singing (29%). However, acting on the stage or in a film is a minority activity, involving just 7% of those actively engaged in artistic activities.[xiv]

Interestingly, there are a significant differences within Europe – with active participation in the arts decreasing drastically when moving from North-West to South-East Europe: 74% of Danes, 68% of Swedish, and 51% of the French indicated of being actively involved in cultural activities in the last year – compared to 14% of Bulgarians, 20% of Italians, 21% of Hungarians and 26% of Greeks and Romanians.[xv] These differences are mirrored in the attendance figures in these countries to a large extent.

  • Change in political attitude

It has also been argued that the performing arts in Europe are facing a change in the political attitude to culture in general and cultural subsidies in particular. [xvi] The broad political consensus in Europe that quality art institutions deserve public subsidy for the public benefit they create has been slowly eroding since the economic recession. Instead, the performing arts are increasingly required to satisfy the type of (financial) performance indicators that are used when evaluating socio-economic investments. This shift is changing the funding conditions from artistic excellence to economic performance and contributions to solve societal challenges. Attracting (the right) audiences and serving one’s community thus becomes increasingly important when applying for public funding.

  • New Aesthetics & models of (co-)production

In addition to facing the external challenges to their existence, many performing arts organisations have an intrinsic, internal need to develop their audiences. It is a need that is as essential as it is straightforward “theatre without an audience is [simply] impossible”.[xvii]

Developing new relationships with audiences brings more than money – it brings new creative challenges and aesthetic opportunities for the performing arts: To quote the findings of the ‘Arts for All: Connecting to New Audiences’ conference[xviii]: “Along with the rest of society, arts groups are questioning some of their most fundamental assumptions about how cultural participation works: what motivates people to engage in certain leisure activities, what forms of creative expression capture the public’s attention, how people learn about cultural events and how they fit art into more crowded lives.” Incorporating demographic diversity, utilising technological advances and collaborating across cultural and national borders can inspire and enrich cultural productions – as we will see in many contributions of this publication.

4) A Case for Strategic Audience Development

Society is changing and the performing arts – as both a mirror of and creative laboratory for society – has no choice but to change with it if it wishes to remain relevant. In the words of Dragan Klaic: “A ready-made audience does not exist. It needs to be continuously discovered, developed and fostered. Without a continuous educational engagement and demonstrated work on interculturalisation and inclusiveness, no performing art deserves public subsidy.”[xix]

To maintain the strong, healthy cultural life that Europe is known for and that our communities deserve, performing arts organisations need to get better at building demand, appreciation and passion for the arts. Strategic audience development – when rooted at the very core of the organisation and implemented through a broad range of activities including programming, outreach, communication, education and management – can help performing arts organisations to redefine their role and regain social and cultural relevance. This requires a shift in both thinking and doing – in philosophy and practice: a ‘Culture.Shift’.

Is it worth the effort? The publishers of this publication – the Theatron Network members – would answer this with a whole-hearted ‘yes’.

Benita Lipps

Benita Lipps


Find out more in the Culture.Shift Workbook



[i] the 3 dimensions are taken from the Wallace Foundation’s publication ‘Building Arts Organizations that Build Audiences’ (2012)
[ii] Lynne Connor: In and Out of the Dark. In Engaging Art: The Next Great Transformation of America’s Cultural Life, co-edited by Steven Tepper and Bill Ivey (2008)
[iii] Lawrence Levine: Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America
[iv] Special Eurobarometer 399 (2013): Cultural Access and Participation, p. 34
[v] ibid., p. 21
[vi] term coined by Dragan Klaic in ‚Resetting the Stage’ (2012)
[vii] European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (2010): Demographic change and work in Europe, p.5
[viii] numbers for 2013 from Eurostat (2014): Migration and migrant population statistics
[ix] ibid.
[x] Eurobarometer 399 (2013): Cultural Access and Participation, p. 5
[xi] ibid., p. 6
[xii] ibid., p.27
[xiii] see: Bob Harlow: The Road to Results (2014) and Eurobarometer 399 (2013): Cultural Access and Participation, p.54
[xiv] Eurobarometer 399 (2013): Cultural Access and Participation, p.51
[xv] ibid., p.50
[xvi] Dragan Klaic (2012): Resetting the Stage
[xvii] „..doch wie Theater ohne Publikum nicht möglich ist“ – Friedrich Dürrenmatt: Theaterprobleme. In: Horst Turk (1992) Theater und Drama, p.172
[xviii] The Wallace Foundation (2008): Arts for All. Connecting to New Audiences)
[xix] Dragan Klaic (2012): Resetting the Stage