Audience research: where are we?

Audiences are the lifeblood of a sustainable performing arts sector. Yet despite the vital role that audiences play across the globe in supporting and giving meaning to the performing arts, audience research remains sporadic and compromised by methodological insecurity and claims of positive bias (Johanson and Glow, 2015). Although increasing policy focus is being placed on audience development,[1] core audiences are rarely engaged with by many artists and arts organisations beyond the live performance itself, and even then the relationship is often predominantly transactional.

Audience researchers face an epistemological problem in that audience research stems from diverse academic fields and sub-disciplines, including Arts Marketing, Arts Management, Cultural Studies, Cultural Policy, Theatre Studies, Performance Studies, Dramaturgy, Dance Studies, Museum Studies/Museology, Musicology, Opera Studies, Critical Theory, Semiotics, Media Studies, Psychology, Anthropology and Human Geography, none of which embraces it as a core focus. Because of this, audience issues, and the audience project and voice, are often marginalised. Indeed, as highlighted in the Statement of Aims of a respected journal: “audience research […] is of enormous potential importance and value, yet at present it is in many respects under-developed and under-recognised” (Participations, 2015).

This network aims to address this problem by surfacing and critically interrogating emerging methods of audience engagement that have the potential to capture the impact of the audience experience in a rigorous way; minimise positive bias; and shed fresh light on questions of cultural value. By discussing, interrogating, demonstrating and combining a range of innovative methods and approaches that are often considered oppositional, this network aims to revitalise thinking around cultural engagement at a time when audience behaviour and expectations are visibly changing as the current generation of ‘prosumers’ matures and as drivers such as big data, co-creation, participation, digital engagement and live streaming continue to impact on the arts.

Meanwhile, there is a growing need for audience research to adopt an international approach because the relationship between cultural production and consumption is itself increasingly international. At the same time, it is important to explore and acknowledge cross-cultural differences in audience engagement.

Dr Ben Walmsley, 13 April 2017

[1] For example, the EU’s current Audience Development Study, which is led by Culture Action Europe is exploring how to place audiences at the centre of cultural organisations.