Arts sector project tackles ‘sticky’ problem of audience diversification

An ambitious new project aims to survey hundreds of people working in Australia’s arts organizations, to better understand why the sector’s stated goal of increasing audience diversity has so far seen limited success.

The project – led by researchers at Deakin University in collaboration with an industry advisory group – is one of the first large scale initiatives working across the Australia’s arts sector to investigate the challenge of audience diversity.

Professor Hilary Glow, from the Arts and Cultural Management Program at Deakin Business School:

Every Australian visual and performing arts organisation funded by government was invited to participate – more than 1300 of them.

Arts activities in Australia receive a lot of public funding. But audiences for many arts activities continue to represent only a fraction of the public. Audiences are often white, middle-aged, urban, non-disabled and middle-class.

When the current head of the Australia Council Adrian Collette was appointed CEO in 2019, he said that the Australian arts must reflect us, ‘not just some of us’. This idea that the arts should be for everyone, not just an elite, has been an issue of pressing concern for arts organizations across Australia and also for the governments and philanthropists that fund them.

All Australians should have access to arts activities they enjoy. Although people who work in the arts sector believe this, many organizations have had limited success in attracting diverse audiences. It seems to be a sticky problem.

For too long the focus has been on trying to ‘fix’ audiences, but organisational practice can tend to privilege some audiences over others.

Our research shows that sustainably solving this issue requires holistic organisational change, not individual initiatives.

The audience diversity project is supported by funding from the Australia Council for the Arts and the Ian Potter Foundation, with all state and territory arts agencies participating.

Mr Enoch:

The project is guided by an industry advisory group, chaired by Indigenous playwright and artistic director Wesley Enoch AM. it was critical Australian arts reflected the community in all its diversity.

The role of the arts to shape cultures is seriously compromised if there are groups who believe they can’t see themselves represented or can’t participate in meaningful ways.

This research is about the future we are all striving to achieve where the clearly apparent cultural diversity of our nation is represented through the inclusive and cosmopolitan nature of our arts.

Professor Glow:

The team wanted to hear the views and experiences of people working across the industry at all levels.

We’ve found arts organizations can be leaders, adaptors or avoiders of the change needed to engage new audiences.

By working closely with industry on this project, we hope to help arts organizations identify the key barriers and supports to facilitate change that improves audience diversity.

Findings from the survey will inform the development of toolkits and frameworks for action to provide practical resources that will help arts organizations make meaningful changes that expand their audience in a sustainable way.

Professor Glow:

We understand there is a bit of survey fatigue, especially with a recent focus on the sector’s pandemic recovery, but this is the first time the sector has had the opportunity to have a conversation about this important topic.

Increasing audience diversity would have huge benefits for the arts sector, as well as the community. It would enable arts organizations to deliver value to more people, improve financial sustainability by increasing box office income, and support the telling of new and distinctive stories that better represent Australian diversity.


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