Joining forces to build audiences

by Jini Stolk

What happens when an arts community comes together to learn how to build audiences? What we’ve seen during Creative Trust’s groundbreaking three-year Audiences Project is new skills that are immediately put into practice in the work place; more compelling communications between performing arts companies and their audiences; an increasingly effective use of social media; a deeper reliance on research to inform practice; and steady or growing audiences during an economic downturn.

The Audiences Project, which is the most in-depth and multifaceted community audience development initiative in Canada, is coming to a close at the end of May. It has raised the bar in Toronto and, we hope, served as an inspiration to others beyond our borders. And it looks like it is only the beginning of a commitment to open sharing and collaboration in an area often viewed as competitive.

The Audiences Project’s intensive learning process – which was made possible by the generosity of the Ontario Arts Council, TD Financial, the Canada Council, the Ministry of Tourism and Culture and others – has had many high points.

More than 50 companies participated in important research like the Audience Engagement Survey and the Performing Arts Education Overview which helped them rethink assumptions and change how they work. Twenty companies were helped to upgrade their database and box office systems. A first time Arts Access project began to open our stages to blind and deaf theatre-goers. A Diversifying Audiences project helped companies open their doors to the amazing diversity of people from every part of the world living in Toronto.

Through the Audiences Project Toronto’s performing arts community also took its place in the current vigorous international exploration of why people attend the arts; what impact it has on their lives and communities; and how we as arts professionals can enrich their experiences, increase their engagement and participation, and forcefully communicate the value of the arts to society.

For Creative Trust the Audiences Project was a key component of sustainability, but also an experiment and pilot project which could encourage other communities to collaborate around expanding audiences. And we’re keenly aware that audience development, audience engagement, access and inclusion, arts education, and technology in the arts are all rapidly changing areas which require career-long learning, which doesn’t currently exist.

I’m hoping that in Toronto and elsewhere in Ontario and Canada we will embrace the challenges of audience development through learning and collaboration in an ongoing way.

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