Don’t sweat, sparkle! The art and science of audience development for dance

By Caroline Greener, Communications Manager, Dance City, who will be facilitating an interactive workshop on the art and science of audience development in the arts at the CIPR Northern Conference next month. 

Audience Development in the Arts

I’ve been working since 2005 as an audience development specialist, supporting arts and cultural organisations to reach, understand, develop and hold onto audiences. Audience development has emerged as a specialist area of marketing for the arts and cultural sector over the last 20 years because traditional models and methods of marketing fall short when we start considering the holistic goals of many arts organisations, which are a mutable mix of financial, social, educational, experiential, reputational and artistic.

Finance & Creativity

Of course, we have financial goals, and these are increasingly crucial to survival in an era of austerity and funding cuts. At Dance City 27% of our income is subsidised by the Arts Council and our public subsidy has reduced year on year for the last ten years. We earn more than two thirds of our income through our classes and workshops, formal learning academy, café, corporate hires and theatre sales. Dance City is the biggest dance employer in the north of England, and we more than double our grant income in Gross Value Added to the north east economy.

However, as a charity, income is simply a means to an end. There is a financial imperative, but it doesn’t outweigh the artistic urge, or the urge to create social change, or any of our other urges!

Dance City’s social goals include involving specific communities; increasing less engaged audiences, overcoming barriers to arts attendance and participation, delivering instrumental impacts on communities, young people and our dancers, such as increased community cohesion, enhanced life chances and reduction in anti-social behaviour.

Educational/experiential goals include developing the range and depth of people’s engagement; the quality of their experiences, learning opportunities, instrumental outcomes such as creative behaviours, better critical thinking, self-awareness, social relations and employability.

Artistic goals include building audiences for specific types of work, gaining recognition, collaborative ventures, attracting and showcasing the best dance talent.

Selling Contemporary Dance

Contemporary dance is officially the hardest arts ticket to sell, according to the TGI index, with just 8% of the UK population having attended a contemporary dance performance in the past 12 months (lower even than Opera!). Yet Dance City presents the biggest programme of dance outside London in our beautiful intimate theatre, and saw a 12% rise in ticket sales last year. One attendee described us as “…a gem in a stony desert.” This has happened through planned, proactive and highly strategic audience development involving a collaborative approach to programming, marketing and education which aims to build trust and increase propensity to book more often and more ‘risky’ tickets.

Community, Education & Business

Our community classes are increasingly popular. We expanded our offer to 85 classes per week in 40 different dance styles last year and saw an incredible 27% increase in class attendances, to over 40,000. Having just opened two new studios at The Fire Station in Sunderland, we are amazed at the response. Our ‘Don’t sweat, sparkle!’ campaign encourages people to see dance as a viable alternative to the gym, and we are consciously moving into the health and wellbeing marketplace.

Our Learning Academy offers specialist dance training for gifted and talented young people through our Centre for Advanced Training (CAT), Level 3 (BTEC) Dance, BA (Hons) Professional Dance and MA Advanced Dance Performance and MA Advanced Professional Practice. It is by design a ‘perfect audience development funnel’ which allows us to potentially recruit and retain our formal learning students from the age of 10 right through to post-graduate level.

Whenever I talk about audience development to private sector peers and colleagues, there seems to be an interest in how these principles can map across into commercial business and create a point of difference in branding, product development and ways of collaborative working. I’ll be talking about audience development planning in my CIPR Northern Conference workshop; and supporting participants to try applying principles to their own clients, projects and organisations.

Caroline Greener, Communications Manager, Dance City will be facilitating an interactive workshop on the art and science of audience development in the arts at the CIPR Northern Conference on Friday 13 July 2018, in Newcastle (12pm breakout session). The conference PR: The art & science of engagement follows the CIPR AGM on the evening of Thursday 12 July at the same venue. Full day and half day tickets available here.


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