Inspiration

What outcomes for culture on referral programmes?

Culture on referral (or art on prescription) programmes have been gaining increased popularity in the cultural and health sector as a way of addressing health and wellbeing needs.

The Centre for Cultural Value in the UK has done an assessment of published literature on culture on referral to understand what evidence there is for the value of such programmes.

They conclude that “Overall, while there is promising evidence that there is a positive role for culture on referral programmes in improving wellbeing outcomes, there is a need to understand the specific value of culture on referral programmes compared to other group-based activities. There is also a need to understand the role of specific cultural on referral programmes, such as dance or visual participatory arts, and which of these programmes is most appropriate for differing health and wellbeing needs.”

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Are museums good for your mental health?

Some might say it depends whether you are a visitor or staff ;)… On a more serious note, “Mental wellness has become one of the most pressing issues of our time,” and we know that the benefits of museums go far beyond having an enjoyable day out. They provide knowledge, inspiration, and social benefits. Do they also improve mental health? This article cites some examples of museums actively working to improve mental health within local communities with good results.
And here is another example, V&A Dundee in Scotland working with visitors with dementia.

Image: Ian Dooley on Unsplash

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5 opportunities for 2021

Reflecting on the rollercoaster year of 2020, I thought about the trends and developments I observed in recent months and what the opportunities and challenges might be to ‘build back better’ in relation to audiences.

Here are my top 5:

  • Thinking hyper local: The limitations of travel brought the importance of local audiences to the fore and ‘buying local’ has become popular. How can we really value the local audience and build and deepen these relationships?
  • Designing for inclusion: In 2020 we heard heightened calls for equity, supporting underserved communities, racial justice and indigenising museums. How can we accelerate the move from talk to action in these areas and be really clear who our organisations are for?
  • Art and wellbeing: Health and wellbeing have been much discussed and art has made many contributions to help us process difficult events, learn, teach and entertain us. How can we continue to make significant contributions to people’s wellbeing? And how can we capture and communicate the outcomes so art gets considered in similar terms to health and education?
  • Phygital: The world has embraced (and is slightly tiring of) digital. How can we be more choiceful with digital content? What are ways to make it sustainable in monetary terms? And how do we maintain meaningful physical encounters not just with art but with and between audiences?
  • Human-centred and agile: Traditional audience development approaches have not necessarily delivered the diversity in audiences we wish for. How can human-centred design be a better, more practical and more agile alternative to developing audiences?

Do any of these resonate? What are your observations, questions, expectations for the year ahead?

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Embrace your competition: Brooklyn Museum and Netflix

With an ever increasing offer of things to do in our leisure time, and now even more so directly from our sofas, the real competition is no longer other arts organisations.

Brooklyn Museum has embraced this thought with a collaboration with Netflix. “The Queen and the Crown” is a 3D immersive virtual exhibition of costumes featured in two Netflix series (The Queen’s Gambit and season four of The Crown) on a digital exhibition floor, aiming to make the museum more relevant to digital-native audiences.

Image: Brooklyn Museum

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What will people pay for? Education, education, education

One of the big questions for cultural organisations in light of the financial effects of Covid and the multitude of free online content offered last year is what people would pay for. A key answer seems to be education. This article observed that organisations are seeing surprising levels of success around workshops, participatory, and learning-focused activity delivered online. 
Some intriguing examples are mentioned: 

  • Performing arts companies are seeing success with tutorials. English National Ballet’s Active Ballet, for instance, is a library of training and classes available on subscription. 
  • English National Ballet also taps into the new habit of ‘on-demand’ viewing by offering a video-on-demand platform for ballet performances and training available to rent. 
  • In the museum world, V&A Academy offers courses from art history to learning practical skills such as sewing, to exploring contemporary design discourse in forums with curators, researchers, designers and makers as well as professional development courses. Online or offline they are all paid for. 

The start of the new year is always a good time to tap into people’s desire to learn and do new things, so now might be a good time for trialling some of these ideas. 

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Image: English National Ballet ballet.org.uk

Building community connection in retail

Arts organisations are focusing more on local audiences in light of current travel restrictions. The competitive retail sector is also discovering small and local.

This community orientated project by Nike in China is trying to turn brand fans into engaged and loyal communities. Using Nike ‘member’ (app users) insights and real-time sporting moments from Nike-backed events in the local area, the new store concept is “giving local fans access to weekly sports activities, in-store workshops and events such as weekly basketball games and football matches, hosted by Nike-affiliated athletes, experts and influencers based in the city.”

With the growth of online shopping stores need to offer more relevant experiences and connect with digital. To me this concept also highlights how competition for people’s leisure time is growing in many places. We are often concerned with competition in our own field (the other cultural organisations around us) and forget that we are competing for people’s time, which they can spend in many different ways.

Image: Nike Rise, Guangzhou on Stylus.com

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6 ways to work more democratically

The success of organisations that are connecting more inclusively with audiences, such as Fun Palaces, Creative People & Places, 64 Million Artists in the UK and Of/By/For in the US, seems to be warming up the debate about cultural democracy.

In light of evidence that 20% of the population consume 80% of state supported culture, this article discusses the role for mainstream cultural institutions in this and suggests 6 things organisations can do to work more democratically and move towards a more participatory and citizen-led future.

Photo by Marcos Luiz Photograph on Unsplash

How can arts organisations assist community recovery?

As part of its audience research around Covid, an Australian study asked audiences an interesting question: What role can arts and culture organisations play in your community, to assist with recovery from the pandemic?

Six themes emerged:

  • Place: Arts and culture helping to reanimate public places.
  • Connect: Reconnecting people with others.
  • Escapism: “Safe places which can create an escape from what is happening outside in the real world and inside in the mental health world.”
  • Heal: Arts and culture helping to heal and to process difficult events.
  • Transform: “…provide community forums for meeting people, sharing resources and stories. They can encourage participation in current affairs and culture.”
  • Remodel: Offering learning opportunities and sharing skills, resources and experiences. And people felt that it’s not just about arts and culture organisations helping communities recover, but also vice versa, e.g. the public helping artists.

You can explore the data and a selection of insightful quotes from participants on Visions for Culture.

The local audience is the central audience

As museums have slowly been reopening, their strategies are evolving to smaller and more local. While some institutions are going ahead with planning blockbuster shows, others are pivoting to more modular programming: smaller, nimbler shows devised to directly engage the communities in their immediate surroundings.


The local audience is really the central audience, says Max Hollein, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art about Museums Without Tourists, it’s an audience that has grown up with the institution and comes to you again and again. They have a much closer connection, because they enjoy and notice constant changes within the institution.

Photo by Changqing Lu on Unsplash

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100 years of art “as the food and meaning of life”

Despite the challenges of the coronavirus, the Salzburg Festival went ahead in August, celebrating its 100th anniversary. Shortened and with a carefully managed health and safety plan, 76,000 visitors were welcomed to 110 performances in 8 venues throughout August – an amazing achievement in current times. 


The Salzburg Festival is a leading classical music and theatre festival founded just after the First World War in a time of depression. Their founder “Max Reinhardt was convinced that only the arts could reconcile the people, even peoples, whom war had driven into battle against one another. – Art not as decoration, but as the food and meaning of life.” It looks like the current times are putting this conviction to the test. 


The Festival’s final report summarises their approach to running the festival in 2020. 

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An R factor for museums

The R factor is an often quoted measure for the way the Coronavirus is spread. Sandro Debono, a European museum thinker and culture consultant, proposes a museum R factor consisting of 3 elements: Resilience, Relevance and Revenue.

“Without the resilience to weather the storm and relevance as the reason to exist and operate within a given community, revenue streams will remain strained.”

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Covid-19 and NZ: What does it mean for us?

We know things have changed for people as a result of Covid-19. But which things? And by how much? What will it mean for the attitudes and behaviours of everyday people? Which habits have been disrupted? Which have been created? What are short-term reactions? And what may change long-term in the way we think and act? The 2020 Vision Project seeks to answer these questions by following 30 New Zealanders during and post lockdown.

The wave 2 report Finding our new sense of normal deducts 9 findings. For arts organisations, I can see an opportunity in the first three findings: “Normal but not normal”, “Focusing closer to home” and “Buying Local”. The sector talks about community a lot, now is the time to foster (or build) the connection with the local community and to help people maintain new habits that might include engaging with art in new ways. That report was before the second lockdown in Auckland. Most people I spoke to found the second one harder, here are insights in the wave 3 report Making the most of the situation.

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Design-thinking: a way forward for audience development?

In recent years, the arts have invested in audience research and in many successful projects to engage audiences. However, there is still not the consistent and long-term growth in audience breadth and diversity that is needed.

In some cases projects might have been too safe and while catering better for traditional core audiences they did not necessarily reach other groups, in other cases they might not have been maintained long-term. Or organisations got stuck between insight and action.

New approaches to audience development seem to be needed. In other industries services are increasingly designed in a user-centred way and through an approach referred to as service design, human-centred design or design thinking.

Image by UX Indonesia on Unsplash

What is design thinking? It is a human-centred approach to problem-solving and to innovation. It helps teams understand people’s needs and motivations with empathy and supports experimentation to create innovative solutions.

A design thinking process can unlock the gap from insight to action by placing people at the heart of the challenge, by working in multi-disciplinary staff teams and by imagining and testing new solutions.

Key elements of the design thinking process are:
• bringing together quantitative and qualitative data to build empathy with different audiences, seeing the experience through their eyes
• reframing the challenge to open up to a broader range of solutions
• developing ideas, and
• experimenting and prototyping to test and learn.

I believe that applying this process or elements of this approach holds a lot of potential for the cultural sector. It can help to make more of the insight generated, it is practical and cost-effective and it embeds new ways of working. I am not alone as this article from the Audience Agency in the UK shows: “Time to ditch old-school approaches to audience development“.

I have recently become a certified design thinking facilitator. Please get in touch if you are interested to explore this approach for your organisation.

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Novel approach to pricing: Pay as you stay

A German Museum is experimenting with pricing.

In a blog post earlier this year I reported on a flexible pricing experiment at a German museum: Weserburg Museum für Moderne Kunst in Bremen tried a “pay-as-you-stay” model, charging 1 Euro per 10 minutes of a visit. 

Results exceeded expectations with visit numbers increasing while income remained relatively steady. Their second test round in March was interrupted by Covid-19, so to get a clearer understanding of the effects, they will implement ‘pay as you stay’ again and think it might be a good way to get visitors. “If it proves a feasible pricing model, both financially and with regard to accessibility and visitor satisfaction, we will keep it in place. If not, we’ll be comfortable with this finding, too, and try something else. But try we will.” says Tom Schloessler, managing director of the museum.

Here is a more comprehensive report of the results of the experiment.

Pricing announcement in March 2020

Visitors – what, who and how?

Zoom recording of recent Museums Aotearoa presentations

Last week I participated in Museums Aotearoa’s zui on visitors: What do today’s museum and gallery visitors expect, who are they, and how can we make their visit memorable?

We were 4 presenters, who shared different perspectives on the theme:

Angie Judge, CEO at Dexibit, discussed how and which data analytics can be particularly useful to understand the development of visitation post-lockdown. She recommended 3 metrics:
– % of normal visits on a rolling 7-day average compared to previous year,
– impact assessment of lost visitation and revenue, and
– growth week on week on a 7-day rolling average.
This recovery index could then be benchmarked locally and internationally. Interested organisations can join to get access to a free dashboard.

Gayle Beck, Head of Audiences & Insight at Te Papa shared research on how visitation has been developing at Te Papa as well as insights on audience expectations and behaviour.
Generally visitors are feeling safe and she reported that visitation is growing continuously, in particular on weekends. Te Papa benchmarks versus domestic visits in the previous year, given the borders are closed. However, Te Papa still found a sizeable amount of international visitors (on long-term travel or stranded in NZ), who are keen to see more of the country and visit its attractions.
Gayle shared research on the main reasons why people visited in recent weeks:
– it’s part of locals’ lives
– to spend time with friends & family
– to use the open spaces and cafe as safe places to relax and escape home
– it’s a must-see attraction.

Adrian Kingston, Digital Channels Manager at Te Papa shared the Audience Impact Model.
This is an impressive framework to help the organisation assess the value and impact of what it offers, going far beyond numbers through the door. It is a 5-step model (Attention – Reaction – Connection – Insight – Action) and, importantly, is based on success from a visitor rather then from an organisation point-of-view.

Sabine Doolin, Insight Unlocked. I shared my Manifesto for Audience Focus.
It is often said these days that we should not just go back to normal but to create a new normal. But what does that actually mean? I suggest that a strong audience focus across the whole organisation should be our new normal. And that this time of change is an opportunity to change some of our approaches and to implement some changes to how we work in relation to visitors. I have summarised my thoughts in the Manifesto for Audience Focus. It was great to hear that this resonated with Gayle and her colleagues at Te Papa.

Click here to access the zoom recording.