Engaging audiences: a community challenge

We had more in mind when we launched Creative Trust’s groundbreaking Engaging Audiences Project (highlights of which included the Audience Engagement Survey and one-on-one audience interviews), than helping our members intensify the impact of their audiences’ experience, leading to more frequent and satisfying attendance.

We also wanted to explore how we could work together to increase opportunities for Toronto residents to experience the emotional, spiritual, social and intellectual stimulation of the arts.

This was in some ways the most exciting of the things we learned under the inspiring guidance of international audience engagement expert Alan Brown.

First and foremost: attendance patterns, which are often multi disciplinary and frequently omnivorous strongly support a collaborative approach to audience development. Whether a company offers program notes online, YouTube videos of dances, or an intimate discussion with the artists at the bar after a show, it’s contributing to the artistic engagement of its audiences. Facilitating new experiences, with your own company or others, is clearly a good strategic investment in Toronto’s cultural development.

During our seminars, Creative Trust members discussed how to move out of a competitive spirit into a more collaborative one.  Our interdependence with each other was summed up by one company manager’s observation, “We’re depending on a loyalty on the part of our audiences that only exists in our minds.”

Andy McKim of Theatre Passe Muraille (“Andy’s Picks”) and Laurence Cherney of Soundstreams (“Lawrence’s Picks”) have been pioneers in understanding that everyone gains when they recommend other people’s shows.

Creative Trust has been using collaboration and shared learning to help performing arts companies remain sustainable during a time of significant political and social change. We are now looking at ways to help make Toronto a truly creative city, where the transformational power of the arts is understood, deeply valued and – most importantly – available to everyone.

How might this work?

Through the Audiences Project we are learning about the strong relationship between life-long involvement and childhood participation in the arts. It’s clear that future audiences depend on our community’s ability to provide arts education and arts training in the schools.

We are learning that price is important, and that we have to continue to fight hard to ensure that arts experiences are affordable and accessible. One participant in our face-to-face audience interviews said that she “learned to love arts galleries in England, where they are free.” How many people are excluded from artistic experience in Toronto because of price?

We are also learning that more often than we imagined, people make the decision to go or not go to a show based on the venue. What does this mean in a town where our smaller performing spaces are almost universally in need of repair and renovation?

For some people, the chance to have a brief, pleasant interaction with a performer after the show may be the highlight of their night. How can we provide a fully engaging artistic experience when many of our creative venues don’t have much of a lobby and can’t offer any place to sit down to drink and chat?

How do we partner with governments and community builders to make the most of the powerful role of the arts in social bonding?

Creative Trust is planning in our next phase to delve into diversifying audiences by building bonds of mutual interests and true partnership within communities; to use the results of our upcoming Performing Arts Education Overview to raise the level of understanding and practice in this crucial area; and to ensure access to the arts through audio described performances for Blind/low vision audiences, and American Sign Language interpreted performances for Deaf/hard of hearing attenders.  More information about our programs can be found here and information about how you can help or be involved, is available at here.

Jini Stolk

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