"Seats" - Photo by Flickr user Ryan Wiedmaier

Seats – photo by flickr user Ryan Wiedmaier

Build. Build. Build. So goes the unofficial mantra of arts marketers as arts organizations seek to maintain relevance in a changing society. Along with the parallel pursuit of financial stability, the goals have been clear: build demand for arts experiences to build and diversify audiences that build revenues. But the how in this seemingly linear formula – the pathways toward achieving these goals – remains less clear.

A 2016 report from the Australia Council for the Arts flips the usual script by drawing attention to the supply side of the equation. In “Showcasing Creativity: Programming and Presenting First Nations Performing Arts,” researchers Jackie Bailey and Hung-Yen Yang of BYP Group aim to understand the motivations – and the barriers – involved in presenting performances by Indigenous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities (the “First Nations” referenced in the title). In contrast to most previous examinations of audience development and diversification, this study focuses on the programs themselves, and the people curating them. How does the current performing arts landscape in Australia promote or prohibit inclusive cultural narratives? What does it take to establish a supportive, equitable infrastructure? What cultural factors get in the way?

“Showcasing Creativity” is the second study in a series of three that explore Indigenous performing arts in Australia from the perspective of audiences, the market (i.e., presenters and producers), and the creators, respectively. The sequence of studies alone suggests multiple nuanced paths toward building audiences. More notably, it contextualizes the notion of audience development by placing it within a broader framework for addressing cultural inequities in the Australian performing arts infrastructure. In other words, it paints a picture of audience development as one point of intervention among many.

Interest vs. Attendance

In a national arts participation survey from 2014, nearly two-thirds of Australians surveyed expressed interest in First Nations performing arts (i.e., works with Indigenous creative involvement, Indigenous cultural expressions, or content tied to Indigenous-related histories, groups, or politics). However, the survey revealed that only one in four actually attended First Nations arts events. Exploring this gap between interest and attendance, “Showcasing Creativity” analyzes data collected through a mixed-methods approach that includes a mapping of publicly available programs across 135 “mainstream” venues (defined as presenting works from various cultural backgrounds with no sole focus on Indigenous arts and no control or management solely by Indigenous people); a survey among 44 mainstream presenters, six Indigenous presenters, and 11 producers; and 40 interviews with presenters and producers, half conducted before the survey and the other half after.

“Showcasing Creativity” primarily focuses on shortfalls in programming and marketing that, if addressed, might improve and increase opportunities to present First Nations performing arts. An assessment of the landscape revealed a number of key findings.

  • Programming: Only 2% of approximately 6,000 works programmed in 2014-15 or 2015 (depending on a venue’s season) were First Nations performing arts. Moreover, a mere 12 presenters of the 135 included in the mapping were responsible for more than a third of this programming. Nearly half of Australian presenters did not program First Nations arts at all, and more than a third of works programmed were small in scale, with less than five performers. Five works, produced by companies with known brands, accounted for almost a third of total First Nations arts programming.
  • Marketing: Though audiences perceive First Nations arts as “traditional,” they are motivated to engage with contemporary works, which accounted for 84% of First Nations works presented in 2015. Only a third of presenters reported that their most recent First Nations program, on average, filled more than 75% of house capacity. Although a third of survey respondents reported that box office results failed to meet their expectations over the past two years, audience satisfaction for those who attended was high – suggesting that box office results might be attributed to limited reach in marketing, as opposed to likeability of works.

Presenters also cited several motivators for presenting First Nations arts, including opportunities to:

  • engage existing audiences with new and/or challenging content
  • build new audiences
  • support more Indigenous works
  • engage local Indigenous communities
  • demonstrate breadth in artistic excellence
  • meet strategic goals tied to community engagement or a broader reconciliation agenda

Perceived Barriers

What, then, comes between these motivators among decision makers and the actual implementation of programs? One such obstacle is financial risk, which can be prohibitive for some presenters and producers. Nearly half of survey respondents cited financial risk as a major obstacle, along with the price tags attached to available, brand-name works. This partially explains why presenters tend to opt for smaller, cheaper productions. Despite this perceived risk, the report highlights opportunities to grow attendance in metropolitan areas, where there are more risk-taking audiences, not to mention an existing concentration of First Nations performing arts programming.

Other perceived obstacles that are less tangible but equally significant include:

  • tokenism, as indicated by the third of mainstream presenters that programmed only one Indigenous work in 2015
  • concerns about the receptiveness of conservative audiences to the seriousness of themes in First Nations works
  • fear of wrongly selecting, presenting, and marketing Indigenous works in the absence of those with lived experiences and/or cultural knowledge that might otherwise inform decision-making
  • systemic racism, which manifests through discriminatory practices and programming decisions that favor dominant, Western cultural paradigms

Also worthy of note: although the majority of First Nations arts programming (59%) takes place in larger Australian cities, they represent only 2% of total performing arts in those cities. By contrast, these percentages are higher in remote and regional parts of Australia (7% and 3%, respectively), despite deep-seated racial tensions that may cause non-Indigenous audiences to be less receptive to such works. This section of “Showcasing Creativity”  offers a rich trove of qualitative data that paints a highly revealing picture of the race anxieties of Australian audiences and programmers alike. As one interviewee suggests, “Living in a very European community it is hard to get audiences to engage with Indigenous work. People see it as earnest, preachy and not fun.”

Multiple Pathways

What does all of this mean? Readers may recall Createquity’s August 2016 feature, “Making Sense of Cultural Equity,” which sifted through a number of visions that emerged throughout the decades-old history of cultural equity advocacy in the United States. The big takeaway was that the four distinct visions that were parsed out – diversity, prosperity, redistribution, and self-determination – were not mutually exclusive, as one often had implications for another, despite differences in desired outcomes.

It’s no coincidence, then, that “Showcasing Creativity” similarly suggests multiple pathways for addressing inequities in the Australian performing arts infrastructure. One such pathway is the development of alternative presenting opportunities – such as Blak Lines, a touring initiative highlighted in the report that presents contemporary First Nations dance and theatre through a consortium of venues across Australia. This type of initiative – most aligned with the diversity vision for cultural equity, addressing homogeneity within mainstream institutions – holds promise in its ability to develop relationships between presenters, audiences, and Indigenous artists and communities, while providing leeway for targeted, localized marketing.

Another pathway might be increased opportunities for Indigenous people to help maintain creative control and integrity of First Nations works. As an example of the self-determination vision – which centers communities’ ownership of cultural life – this would include greater opportunities to involve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in non-performer roles, where there is further underrepresentation. These include producer, technical, or administrative roles that often entail greater decision-making responsibilities.

There is also something to be said about how presenters find First Nations works. Nearly three-fourths of survey respondents indicated that prior relationships and peer networks with artists, producers, and community members are most important in this context. Similarly, in building capacity to deal with cultural sensitivities, peer-to-peer learning and long-term community engagement activities help to establish the meaningful relationships needed to foster in-depth, cross-cultural exchange. Ultimately, social networks and relationship building become central to addressing the intangible obstacles above.

“Showcasing Creativity” highlights the varying, simultaneous efforts needed to address cultural inequities, encouraging us to move away from any singular path and toward more coordination to effect and sustain infrastructure-wide change. The report’s section on barriers to programming First Nations work, in particular, offers a new and valuable contribution to the literature that is remarkable for its candor. As noted in this report, additional research about learning and training opportunities for technical and administrative roles might prove useful in understanding what barriers exist for Indigenous populations beyond performer roles. We would also love to see more research examining how these kinds of cross-cultural programming challenges play out in other national contexts.