The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Thinking

What can qual offer the Arts?

Arts venues have long used research to evaluate their programmes" success, but qual is now coming into its own as the following three articles show not just in terms of programming and curating but also in the context of shaping creative content and the way in which artists of all types are used

Programming in the arts generally involves balancing various different strands to create a high quality cultural offer with diverse appeal. The programmer also needs to demonstrate artistic leadership, combining artistic risks with protecting market share within a rapidly expanding leisure and cultural marketplace. It's a tough job!

Publicly funded venues are also publicly accountable and have to satisfy a range of specific funding criteria. Funding bodies tend to use quant to measure programme success, looking at sales (bums on seats), inclusivity (reaching minority and hard to reach groups) and social equity (attracting the right social mix).

In contrast, evaluating the qualitative impact of artistic programmes on audiences is only of secondary interest. Insufficient attention is paid to creating programmes of work informed by the needs, perceptions or experiences of a venue's existing and potential attenders.

Yet, given that households are feeling the pinch and funding for the performing arts is under increasing threat, programmers would be advised to rethink radically their relationship with audiences, becoming more attuned to their needs.

Thanks to recent shifts in thinking within such bodies as Arts Council England and Scottish Arts Council, there's greater awareness that people need to engage with audiences in a more meaningful way to understand their relationship with the arts.

Some outstanding work has been done using qual to create models which explore big themes such as "the drivers of cultural consumption" or "why people value the arts". That's great if you are interested in the big picture, less so if you're trying to pull together a successful programme for the people of Halifax!

It's like limiting supermarket research to "why people go to supermarkets" without exploring elements such as product refinement in relation to local need.

So, what role does qual play in informing the programming of performing arts venues around the country? As yet, to be honest, there is no established role, although very slowly, more venues are looking to it to inform their thinking and practice.

Let me give a few examples from personal experience. Two regional theatres wanted to delve into the leisure habits of black and minority ethnic communities in Leicester and Huddersfield. They sought to understand more about their specific cultural needs and the degree to which programming at their local theatres meets those needs.

A national touring dance company, meanwhile, decided to use qual to identify the degree to which audiences attend their work out of venue loyalty or the specific appeal of their brand and/or repertoire. And, finally, reconvened groups are being used in a current project to explore the motivations, expectations and attitudes of advance bookers to a yearly contemporary music festival in November. This will also explore their subsequent experiences of the festival to inform future programme and communications strategies. This is all encouraging stuff, but there simply isn't enough of this kind of research being commissioned.

If performing arts venues want to thrive as a cultural business they need to win the trust and loyalty of their audiences. A wealth of opportunity exists for qual to help arts venues achieve their potential on both counts. Whether this potential is realised depends largely on the degree to which policy makers and funders acknowledge, truly value and support the contribution that it can make and take steps to embed it within arts management culture.

 

Lisa Baxter
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2008