Communicating with potential audiences is not only about sending messages, it's about building connections in a creative way

Organised by EDN and Dance House Lemesos, Common Ground: To Care was the first in a series of EDN gatherings to explore ideas, actions and best practice around the notion of “care” towards existing or potential audiences, and the dynamics of building long-term relationships between artists, dance organisations and audiences.

While it has always been important for arts organisations to communicate with potential audiences, now more than ever dancehouses and festivals are thinking laterally and creatively about what that means. Nowadays, it’s more than simply sending messages out using marketing and public relations tools; it’s about building connections in creative ways. This extends not only to people in the immediate vicinity but also, via digital means, to those who cannot join us in person, for whatever reason.

For each organisation, the priorities and level of activity will be different depending on local circumstances but, as we found over our two days of discussion, there is much to be shared.

A variety of ways to communicate with your audience

A diverse group learning from, developing and expanding with each other

The Atelier brought together representatives of ten dancehouses, from eight countries across Europe. They came from large cities and small; well-funded organisations and not; some with established dance audiences and others “pioneering”; some with long experience of audience development initiatives, others just starting out; some with substantial staff teams and others working virtually alone.

The group was extraordinarily diverse in terms of roles, experiences and contexts. Therefore, our goal was to assist in the deepening of each participant’s individual journey, i.e. for each of us to learn, to develop and to expand our own thinking, through what we heard and also through what we shared with others.

We began with a physical warm-up, led by Alexis Vassiliou, Director of Dance House Lemesos, which focused us and reminded us why we were all there: for dance. The group was small enough –approximately 12-15– that we were able to sit around one table to share, all together, our questions, dilemmas, realities, ideas and practices.

Learning through best practices, shared experiences and discussions

To care for and care about

In this short report, it is impossible to cover adequately the depth and range of our work over the two days. Suffice it to say that via a series of tasks, a rich exploration of the subject emerged. For example:

  • We shared examples of good practice that we had been involved in.
  • We “unpicked” the meanings of words we use: “audience” and “public”; “citizen” and “resident”; “diverse/remote audiences”; “engagement” and “active participation”.
  • We aired desires, frustrations, dilemmas and potential solutions.
  • We watched an inspiring film of an open and engaging conversation between a Cypriot dance artist and an audience member, clearly demonstrating that direct communication between artists and audiences can be of benefit to both.
  • We talked about the many different meanings of the word “care”, most of them positive but some of them potentially patronising.
  • One of our guest speakers, Maja Zimmerman (DE), offered us the idea of “holding space” in order that our audiences have room to formulate and express their own ideas and opinions about the work we do.
  • Olga Kolokytha (AT) spoke to us about the digital aspects of audience development.
  • Our third guest, Luisella Carnelli (IT) talked us through the European study on audience development in which she had been involved.

Innumerable questions were raised but with a subject of such complexity and range, few answers could be found in the time we had. However, many memorable points, words and phrases were revealed for us to reflect upon, some of which follow:

  • Audience development is a mindset, not a product or project.
  • It is something that must pervade the entire organisation and involve everyone.
  • For it to work, the approach we take must always be connected to our organisation’s core mission, aims and activities.
  • Successful audience development is a long-term strategy, a process. It is important to identify priorities and allow the time it takes – to create continuity of action and to be patient.
  • We aim to spark curiosity – to inspire people to become involved. People matter.
  • People will often have different perspectives, different views and various interpretations but when we share an experience, there is a common ground for communication.
  • We should aim to create a meaningful, open space so that people can make their own connections, or not.
  • Personal investment and effort are needed to involve the public in the work we do and the art we make. We need to be patient and give space to relationships.
  • Listening is vital in order to arrive at a balance in the relationships between artists, audiences and presenters. As well, it’s important to be listened to.
  • One participant wrote: “Making the decision to take care, in this sense, is a long-term process. For dance organisations, it is important to know the audience and to build a significant and trustful relationship”.
  • One thing is certain: audiences do not need to be taken care of but they do need to be cared for and cared about.

Scratching the surface and setting goals for the future

Future oriented Atelier

We finished with one final task. Participants took a couple of minutes to think of three actions they would undertake when going back to their organisations, as a result of these two days. Their responses were wide-ranging and revealing, some beautifully immediate, others more philosophical and long-term. A few examples follow:

  • “I want to meet everybody in the house, get in touch with the cleaning lady and organise a video camera to work with.”
  • “Take some time to process and reflect; consider more deeply the people I want to engage in my practice.”
  • “Find our “ambassadors” and make videos with them!”
  • “Think where I belong.”
  • “Gather the friends of the dancehouse from the mailing list to meet up. Make it open. Give more responsibility to the audience. Try something new.”
  • “Share impressions and experiences with the rest of the staff. Bring these ideas into my meetings with artists.”
  • “See how I can organise a meeting and talks with the audience, staff and artists at the end of our festival. Question some aspects of my projects and how to hear more from the participants. Then share with my colleagues.”

To be continued…
This was a fruitful meeting, involving a group of wonderfully thoughtful and dedicated professionals, who shared generously with each other. Although we discussed deeply, in two days we could only scratch the surface of the subject but it is clear that many inspiring ideas and much food for thought were generated.

Most of the group had not met before and, with luck, they now have a community of colleagues with whom they can discuss ideas, problems, techniques, dilemmas and victories, in future.

One of our guest speakers summed it up when she said:

“I’ve realised that there is a lot happening in institutions around this topic and everyone is passionate about their projects. I take curiosity with me about the future.”

A report written by Betsy Gregory for EDN, 2017. Picture: Pavlos Vryonides

Video documentation

Limassol I Cyprus