31/07/2017 - 13:40

Finetuning the art of audience engagement

31/07/2017 - 13:40

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SPECIAL REPORT: An increasingly competitive funding environment has prompted several arts and cultural organisations to sharpen their focus on audience development as a means to boost sustainable income streams.

Finetuning the art of audience engagement
Bourby Webster has extended the reach of classical music to a non-traditional audience. Photos: Attila Csaszar

An increasingly competitive funding environment has prompted several arts and cultural organisations to sharpen their focus on audience development as a means to boost sustainable income streams.

The music of George Michael, Nirvana, Queen and INXS may not feature on the set list of many of the world’s top symphony orchestras.

Nor would a concertgoer expect to encounter a Doctor Who Dalek at a show celebrating the works of Mozart.

And what chances of a sit down for beer and a bratwurst in a Fremantle shed to celebrate an almost 200-year-old concerto written by Beethoven?

But this unlikely musical triplet is exactly what the Perth Symphony Orchestra has taken to the stage since it was established six years ago, to broaden the reach of classical music.

As a result, founder Bourby Webster said, it was often the case that more than 50 per cent of PSO’s audience was seeing a live orchestra for the first time.

“We set out to break the rules and challenge perceptions,” Ms Webster told Business News.

“PSO changes every facet of a concert; its start time, format, location – we play in crazy spaces like car parks, warehouses and go out to communities, so people don’t have to travel or visit traditional venues that may be slightly intimidating.”

The orchestra has doubled its revenue during the past 12 months and is now ranked 25th on the BNiQ Search Engine list of Western Australia’s arts and cultural institutions, up seven places since 2016.

It is a fitting reward for Ms Webster, who went without a salary in PSO’s early years, having put her house up as collateral after a series of unsuccessful funding submissions.

The rejections pushed Ms Webster to find a commercially viable way of solving the orchestra’s problems – increasing the number of ticketed performances each year, and forming corporate partnerships.

“If you’ve never heard classical before it’s like listening to Russian poetry, there is zero connection,” Ms Webster said.

“The arts’ job is to stretch and elevate, but sometimes you need to throw people a lifeline.

“Metallica can be that lifeline, and by playing Mozart with that then people might see Mozart differently.”

The strategy has proven successful, particularly with PSO’s series of free outdoor concerts launched last year, where Melville, Rockingham and Armadale councils were surprised to find thousands in attendance, and local community members performing alongside PSO.

“It’s so important to engage the community, build capacity and generate enthusiasm,” Ms Webster said.

“We have to put ourselves in the shoes of the future audience.”

Another not-for-profit organisation to have developed its audience is Artrage, which has produced Perth’s Fringe World Festival since 2011.

This year’s Fringe season delivered $10 million worth of ticket sales, which was the biggest box office earner of any arts event in WA.

While the festival had a solid repeat customer base, with 86 per cent of 2017 attendees having visited Fringe before, 59 per cent of accounts on its website were created by new customers.

Artrage chief executive Marcus Canning said the event’s expansion had been driven by audience growth across all age groups and now had people purchasing from every domestic postcode in the metropolitan area.

“When we put the plan in place for Fringe we were unashamedly market-focused,” Mr Canning told Business News.

“There were many organisations in the WA arts ecology who were developing artists and their work, but very few who were getting serious with audience development.”

Mr Canning said Fringe had grown to not only be the largest annual event in WA in terms of engagement, but also the most diverse – from comedy and circus shows to experimental theatre.

And with an average ticket price of $31.52, he said, the festival had successfully engaged a non-traditional arts audience.

According to the Australia Council for the Arts’ 2016 National Arts Participation Survey, an increasing number of Western Australians believe the arts are too expensive (44 per cent) and are for people who are ‘elitist’ or ‘pretentious’ (40 per cent).

Art Gallery of WA director Stefano Carboni is determined to change perceptions through the creation of a contemporary culture program Culture Juice, which launched earlier this year with the opening of ’The Rise of Sneaker Culture’, a free exhibition that tracks the 150-year history of sneaker culture.

“The gallery has been perceived over the years as this ageing institution because of the traditional shows we do for our core audience, which inevitably is ageing as well,” Mr Carboni said.

“I wanted to start a series of projects, in addition to traditional shows, that could cater to a different audience without compromising on artistic quality.”

The opening of the sneaker show attracted more than 3,400 people, which Mr Carboni said was the best opening visitation at AGWA since the MoMA series in 2013.

“There were skateboards in the cloakroom,” he said.

“Different generations were walking around. I take a trip down memory lane with shoes from the 1970s and 1980s, the younger generation look at the Air Jordans.”

Stefano Carboni set out to change perceptions of AGWA by introducing Culture Juice, a contemporary program that launched with a sneaker exhibition in May.

Mr Carboni said more than 45,000 people had visited the gallery during the past two months, and he expected numbers to continue to increase.

“If we’re not creative and attract different audiences we’re going to become irrelevant, it’s the same concept for any business,” he said.

Craig Whitehead devised a similar strategy when he took over the reins as chief executive of the WA Symphony Orchestra in 2008, when programming only appealed to a narrow section of the community. 

Mr Whitehead amplified community engagement with the orchestra’s hospital and education program, alongside increasing shows of other genres such as swing and jazz, as well as WASO’s movie score series, accompanying films such as Lord of the Rings and Indiana Jones.

Mr Whitehead said more than half of the 5,000 audience members at the first LOTR concert in 2013 were attending a WASO concert for the first time.

This year the company introduced the Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone score to its repertoire and, after selling out all three performances in May, will perform the second film in November.

“The diversification of our portfolio has been helpful; where some projects are struggling, other projects like Harry Potter have been able to provide some uplift for the company in revenue,” Mr Whitehead said.

“We understand classical music won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, so we created programs that were relevant to a broader audience.

“The flow-on effect from that is greater (brand) awareness and support from the community, philanthropists and corporate sector, which plays into revenue growth.”

WASO sold out all three performances of its 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone' concert earlier this year. Photo: WASO

Spare Parts Puppet Theatre artistic director Philip Mitchell has also targeted audience development to generate new markets for national and international tours.

Mr Mitchell said he was currently developing an interactive show in partnership with the WA Maritime Museum to commemorate the ANZAC centenary next year. He said audiences would be immersed in a ‘choose your own adventure’ show and take a journey, starting with an enactment of the Christmas Truce through to various sections of the museum, including a silent disco, ending with a performance set in 2018.

The organisation was also working on a show with WASO, and Mr Mitchell said that, in addition to the benefits of being able to pool resources, share costs and audiences, it also increased the avenues for earning income.

“It becomes a new market,” he said.

“We’re not just touring to theatres, but museums and orchestras, providing an Australian product.

“The more we learn about economic viability the more important it is to leverage money through the creation of good quality work.”

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