Fascinating to see the findings of the Europe-wide study on audience development and its recommendation that theatres and others seeking to build audiences should look to schools in The Stage this week. As the Arts Council’s bridge organisation for the SW, we work with schools and cultural organisations exploring opportunities for collaboration, partnerships and new ways of working.
Of course, introducing children and young people to amazing riches of the arts and culture is vital to their development as rounded, confident, compassionate citizens and yes, as the Jesuits knew, engaging the young often builds lifelong habits that will secure audiences of the future. More immediately, the creative industries are one of the fastest growing sectors of our economy and many young people find their way to fulfilling careers.
For all these reasons, it would seem like a no-brainer to focus on links between the cultural sector and schools and there are lots of brilliant examples where it is happening, but it is also a minefield.
There is a tendency to see schools as uniform institutions, easily marshalled and once they make a decision to attend a performance, easily able to do so. In reality, most schools are big, complex institutions under huge pressure to meet ever changing performance standards. Cultural organisations have their own drivers, a similarly heady mix of economic drivers, artistic ambition and delivering outcomes.
All too often, assumptions are made on all sides, not least that organisations – schools and cultural organisations – will behave as single entities. Actually, every organisation is a collection of individuals and in a school context, this is usually hundreds if not thousands of individuals.
Where we’re seeing real innovation is when the cultural sector works with the whole school ecology, building a wide range of links and relationships that might be individual connections with young people; relationships through parents or the community; young people or community led events; and even cultural organisations being based in a school building.
Creating these relationships takes time, relies on excellent communication, particularly properly listening to each other’s actual needs and wishes and will not necessarily lead to a specific outcome, for instance, “schools” buying more seats for a performance, but it can and does build on going relationships between the cultural sector and those who are part of school families.
Let’s champion these relationships and step away from the idea that schools can solve audience development issues.