The arts connection

26 June 2014

Image of Hilary Glow

Arts participation is moving to a new frontier where audiences and artists communicate, connect, and create in new ways. It's in this space that Deakin's Arts Participation Incubator is nurturing "next generation thinking".

Ask ten different people their definition of arts participation and you'll probably get ten different – but entirely correct – answers.

Associate Professor Dr Hilary Glow, Director of Deakin's Arts and Entertainment Management program has one simple answer: it falls across a spectrum.

'At one end is the person who buys a ticket, sits through a performance and then goes home. At the other end is the person who wants to be completely engaged and actually participate in the making of the work,' she explains.

The faculty's arts and entertainment management programs emphasise management, marketing and finance with industry-specific projects that are highly relevant for those who work in this booming sector.

Sitting within the discipline of arts management and the study of arts and cultural policy, Dr Glow's research interests focus on the participation and engagement of arts audiences and the role of policy and public funding.

Her research has now led to an innovative project – the Arts Participation Incubator (API) –that's linking academia, cultural organisations, communities and policy-makers.

Launched in 2012, and backed by a reference group of industry practitioners, the API explores the shift towards more hands-on relationships between arts organisations and their communities.

'In the 21st century, people expect communication, creativity and connectivity to be two-way … and these expectations need to be addressed more effectively by arts organisations,' says Dr Glow. 

Importantly, it's providing insight and incentives into the future shape and direction of arts participation.

Dr Glow says that, over the past decade, there has been a significant shift in the way arts organisations interact with their communities.

'Because of the digital age and the popularity of social media, audiences are now connecting, commenting and creating in ways that were previously unimaginable.'

There's also been a swing towards inclusivity, she adds.

'Participation in the arts is often seen as an exclusive activity for special groups of people. But that's changing and we need to look at ways to make all sectors of the community feel like the arts is for them and by them. ' 

But why is arts participation important?

Dr Glow says there's a significant body of evidence that points to many positives.

'There is a sense of personal fulfilment when people express their creativity, and there are other benefits such as social cohesion, community building, lifelong learning, and an enhanced sense of tolerance, curiosity and emotional engagement.'

With its industry links and distinctive events and activities, the API is exploring a range of issues including cultural democracy, audience engagement, governance and change management, and crowd sourcing and social financing.

'We've latched onto something big,' she says. 'All our events sell out fast and there's also been demand from sectors outside the arts'. 

Dr Glow's interest in establishing the API was inspired by a 2010 UK study leave trip where she discovered significant research – and practice – in arts participation.

'Some outstanding arts organisations in the UK are listening to their audiences and responding to their communities. For example, the Southbank Centre in London has opened itself up to the public in ways that are unprecedented for a grand flagship cultural centre,' she says.

Situated on the banks of the Thames, the Southbank Centre is recognised for its presentation of orchestral music, ballet and opera. Recently however, it has developed programs that invite families, local community groups and non-arts attenders to share a sense of ownership.

'In the summer, families bring along beach chairs and sit in the foyers and the terraces, creating a relaxed experience in a cultural venue traditionally assumed to be a 'sanctified' space for the exclusive use of the cognoscenti,' she explains.

Dr Glow says she wants the API to be a space where assumptions are tested and questions are asked.

'Who is participating in the arts? And, importantly, who isn't? What do we need to do to expand arts audiences and deepen their experiences once they are in the door?'

Audience participation, she adds, covers a broad range of activities.

'Literary festivals are hugely popular but there's also choirs, book clubs, dance lessons, YouTube clips, curating images on Pinterest and blogs. Some arts organisations are developing programs to respond to this increased level of active arts engagement. Contemporary audiences "make and do"– they just don't sit quietly and listen,' she explains.

Increasingly, arts companies also now present opportunities for the audience to meet the director and performers in discussion forums while museums co-curate exhibitions with local communities and galleries provide hands-on art-making experiences.

With evaluation a key component of the 'participation and inclusion agenda', the API is also providing evaluation for other organisations on issues of social impact, racism and cultural diversity in the arts.

'While research will emerge from the API, it isn't necessarily a conventional research centre –it's an active learning hub. We've received very positive feedback from cultural organisations and artists who love the fact that a university is providing intellectual and evidence-based leadership in this space.'

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