We Need Audiences, Audiences Need Us

Monica Urian de Sousa, responsible for the ‘audience development’ priority within the Creative Europe Programme, on the European Commission’s vision of audience development.

The approach of Creative Europe, EU’s programme for the cultural and creative sectors

In this article, I will explain the European Commission’s vision of audience development and why audience development is a new priority in the Creative Europe programme. The article includes a discussion on trends in European cultural policy which accompany the work on this priority. It also refers to civil society’s expectations of the European Commission, as well as open the way for a fruitful and continuous dialogue on this topic, which should be envisaged in a long term perspective.

We are in the process of a fast-paced paradigm shift in the European cultural world. Never before has the cultural offer been so rich – both in terms of quality and quantity, often despite cultural budget cuts that have affected many countries. Digital technologies have made it easier for a huge number of people from all across the globe not only to access culture, but also to create, share, curate and distribute cultural content as they wish. A large part of society is eager to be engaged in all areas of life – from democratic participation to crowd-funding, from environmental campaigns to social economy.

Moreover, the disappearance of borders inside the EU and the existing funding schemes at European level encourage – at least to a certain extent – the mobility of artists and works of art, thus the diversity of European culture can travel both physically and digitally much more easily than before. At the same time, competition from other leisure activities is fierce, both online and offline.

On another level, the rise of terrorism and extremism of all sorts, the democratic deficit manifested through apathy towards (or discontent with) political processes, as well as ever-growing poverty and social inequalities are questioning our model of society. And the list of challenges and opportunities goes on and on, making our epoch an uncertain and complex one, full of contradictions.

The issues at stake are not only social and economic, but also (and sometimes more importantly) symbolic and cultural. In this context, we are convinced that cultural participation has benefits for individuals at various levels (in terms of personal development, identity-building, creativity, and well-being), but also as a bridge-builder between people and between communities. It is thus relevant for us – both the European Commission, a public funder for arts and culture, and the cultural institutions themselves – to ask ourselves: how are Europeans navigating through this situation? How do they appreciate the enormous cultural wealth that this continent has to offer, which is seen from abroad with admiration and sometimes even with envy? What are the roles and the responsibilities of artists and cultural institutions in this landscape of permanent transformation? Culture can certainly offer many answers to these burning questions, but which is the most effective way to embrace it so that these answers are heard by the people who need them most? How can we consciously build a new society in which culture has a central role to play for individuals and for communities?

Cultural Participation in Europe

As a principle, ensuring that people enjoy richer, more fulfilling lives by taking part in cultural activities – a fundamental human right in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – is a priority of the European Com-mission. This concern is shared by many other national, regional and local authorities, as well as by cultural institutions and artists worldwide.

Since both policy-making and cultural management should be based on a sound picture of reality, and have clear, measurable goals in order to succeed, it is essential to start by analysing Europeans’ behaviour relating to arts and culture.

The Eurobarometer survey on cultural access and participation, undertaken in 2013 (comparable to the Eurobarometer survey on European cultural values in 2007), is probably the only survey that captures the reality of all the 28 EU Member States in one snapshot, according to consistent criteria and analysis.

The latest results were extremely worrying for a certain number of countries (particularly – but not only – in Southern and Eastern Europe). Overall we can see that cultural participation has declined in Europe over the last five years, across all traditional forms of arts and culture (except cinema), both actively (amateur arts), and passively (audience membership). The two main reasons for not participating are lack of interest and lack of time. If we combine these data in an index of cultural practice, taking into account frequency of participation in various cultural activities, the picture that we get shows that a large proportion of Europeans either have no access at all or only rarely have access to any type of culture. Socio-demographic factors are still predicting participation in culture to a large extent, with people in more deprived circumstances (in terms of income and education level) participating to a much lesser extent than people with a higher education profile and higher incomes. In some cases these groups are not participating at all.

Furthermore, only small minorities of Europeans participate in cultural activities from another country (let alone in another country). Thus, European cultural diversity remains inaccessible for a large part of the population. National surveys have confirmed the same trend, signifying, to a certain extent, the failure of policies relating to access to culture/democratisation of culture implemented in many European countries.

Undoubtedly, the situation is too complex to be understood by statistics alone, as representative as they may be. The decrease in public funding for culture, the lack of artistic education curricula in schools, and the economic and financial crisis are just some of the causes that contribute to this seemingly helpless situation. The Directorate-General for Education and Culture in the European Commission has on several occasions advocated an increase in budgets dedicated to culture and education (particularly in times of crisis, when some of the national budgets for these areas were cut), and has highlighted the need to include artistic education in school curricula.

In any case, these phenomena pose a major problem in terms of the failure to use public funding in a redistributive way. Moreover, the role of culture as an agent for social transformation is being seriously undermined.

Nevertheless, we believe that there exists a space where cultural organisations can act directly, doing what it is within their power to improve cultural participation, a space where the European Commission can offer its support. This “space” is audience development.


Monica Urian de Sousa, European Commission

Read the full article in the Culture.Shift Workbook