collaboration, collectives, umbrella art projects – please remember your audiences!

The recession and the need for resilience in the arts has resulted in a huge number of art projects, many in cities, that present festival or events that represent collectives of smaller arts organisations. Cardiff Contemporary, Bristol Weekender, SVA SITE Festival to name but a few.

It makes sense for the organisations – it’s brilliant to go for audience sharing, resource sharing and marketing. It makes the money go further and has more impact. In terms of cultural tourism it is a winner. But is it?

I’ve always believed in sharing resources – after all, the first project I managed, The Dialogue Project involved many partners, arts and non-arts. It amplified what the project did and benefitted hugely from the support of the larger organisations. But in those days (2003) it was clear the project itself was by Independent Artists Network and supported by the others. And the audience knew that – it was clear, concise and the opening times in the guide was fixed between certain dates, certain times, a window of time – not spanning over a long period.

In terms of scale, there was enough to keep visitors busy for a full day – and on the days it was open those visitors could see all of it. It was geographically and physically possible to do so.

In short, the audiences were considered and their visits facilitated and supported by our printed maps and guides.

Twelve years later what has changed?

Certainly there is less money to go around. The key arts organisations can no longer afford to support the up-and-coming artist-led events the way they did. They can no longer pay artists to be invigilators either. It’s a real shame, but it is the way it is. We used lots of empty buildings in Bristol – at the time the enlightened Bristol City Council allowed us to do so for free, and relieved the owners of their business rates while we did so. No longer does that happen.

Thanks to constant diminishing of resources, more organisations are joining up with others, but sadly this means the audience has been somewhat abandoned, leaving them wandering aimlessly around the streets looking confused. Increasingly these multiple-organisation events/projects/festivals are presenting under a huge umbrella, and the audiences get stabbed in the eye by the spokes. They simply can’t see where they are going, interpret the complex guides, understand how to find these multiple-location gems.

The reasons are many-fold, but for me, navigating these events is key to the visitor experience. 

As someone who enjoys navigating new cities with a map in my hand – Liverpool for the Biennale, exploring Kassel for Documenta, or hotfooting around Venice, something is going badly wrong these days. And it is often the maps and the information I’m given

Some of these collective presentations are so damn complicated you need a degree in cartography to make any sense of them. They cover large lengths of time and wide distances of space – with some projects opening in one month, and others the next. They all open at different times, they often open for only some days a week. Not too much of a problem if you live locally – but what about people who come to see them from further afield? As producers and events organisers, we encourage new audiences and people from beyond our area – we have to, to justify getting grants. But we increasingly make it very hard for them to see the works – because they are hard to find if you are new to a city. It’s simple.

Often what is on a website cannot translate easily to paper. You can’t just click on a map, or use your sat nav on your phone. Big county-wide shows like Art South and ExLab were impossible to see in one day – the travel distances between each venue being so far that even in a Porsche you’d find it impossible to get around in a day!

So I have a plea – PLEASE can we (and I am guilty of this too) remember that we enjoy OUR audiences, and we ARE audiences ourselves.

Here are a few guidelines that might make life easier for audiences:

Audiences matter – be kind to them. Don’t frustrate them, make them tear their hair out.

Stick to your programme you publicised – you set it, so it’s not that difficult. Don’t tell me when I arrive to see something advertised to open at 4 that the artists are late “because they are coming from London”. I’m not impressed – I’m p***d off.

Align opening days and times. Make sure the distance between sites is manageable. Walkable.

If you have listings and include a map – put the symbols you mark the map with onto the listings too.

Provide postcodes for sat nav users

Check the facts in your print, and then check them again

Don’t presume every audience members knows your city – they don’t


Published by carolyn black

I'm an artist and also commission contemporary art in unusual locations. As a producer, I fundraise, curate, project manage and deliver projects. I'm also a writer and film-maker.

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