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25th May, 2017

Going to things together: Audiences, Sociability and Enriching Cultural Experience



Stefania Donini, Guildhall School of Music & Drama

How can cultural providers enhance their offering to facilitate the benefits that people get from encountering each other, and – in the process – deepen and widen their audience engagement?As part of the Inside Out festival, curated and produced by TCCE (The Culture Capital Exchange), the workshop ‘Going to things Together’ set out to offer insights around this question. It was chaired by Professor John Sloboda (Guildhall School of Music and Drama) with guest discussants Annette Richardson (Learning and Participation Manager at Somerset House Trust), Peter Stepman (Founder of Meetups: Buffs London, Buffs LA, Curzon [Cinema] Cult) and Rachel Dickson (Head of Curatorial Services at Ben Uri Gallery and Museum). Among the attendees were people from various background, from cinema to the visual arts, to community music and classical music.

Welcomed by Evelyn Wilson (The Culture Capital Exchange), John Sloboda introduced four provocations, two from the consumer end and two from the provider end, that kick-started a discussion about sociability and the experience of going to cultural events with others. John started by posing the questions ‘Are cultural events inherently social? How can sociability enhance cultural experience?’. In his understanding, events are inherently social and cultural experiences are usually enriched through interaction with others. John explained that classical music is his main “thing”, but points out that the typical classical concert is not very sociable, because the “rules of behaviour” in many classical venues are somewhat inhibitory.

When he first arrived in London in 2008, as a single person wanting to go to Jazz gigs and having no obvious companions among his social circle, John joined Meetup, an organization that ‘brings people together in thousands of cities to do more of what they want to do in life’. As John adds, Meetup exists to guarantee that if you go to a cultural event, you will be part of a “gang” that goes together and socialises around the event. Having created a reference group of jazz enthusiasts through Meetup, John then decided to go on to sample a wide range of Meetup groups focused on different interests and cultural forms and got the idea to do a small piece of research on the Meetup experience (see: http://www.johnsloboda.co.uk/#post42) . As he said, such a phenomenon is under-researched and there are not many publications available. The aim of John’s research was to provide information that might be useful to providers, particularly of live classical music, on effective ways of putting cultural consumers in productive contact with each other.

He shared some headline conclusions from the research:

– Many people, particularly in large cities, don’t find it easy to connect and reach out to other people culturally. This seems particularly true of single people in middle age and beyond, or of newcomers to the city.

– The cultural event provides a safe and clear focus for people to meet each other in a cordial and non-threatening way.

– Interesting companions can even rescue an unsatisfactory event because you can discuss it with them. Talking about it is part of the experience, and discussing one’s mutual interests, tastes and reactions, can in itself greatly enhance the cultural experience, and add value to it.

– Having a network of informed individuals becomes a means of being informed about interesting cultural opportunities which otherwise one would just not know about.

– Sensitive and thoughtful facilitation of audience interaction is key, therefore welcoming and making introductions matter, as well as ensuring that a few individuals don’t dominate the discussion. Firmness regarding inappropriate behavior is a necessary requirement – meetup like many other open groups, can be exploited by pick up artists.

– Peerness is appreciated, and people can be put off when a facilitator’s primary manifest aim seems to be making money or enhancing their reputation rather than creating a warm and mutually supportive environment people they can benefit from.

These points made by John identify an appetite for more social interaction around cultural events. So, the question that John raised at the end of his provocation is whether cultural providers are doing all they can to ensure that consumers also encounter each other in productive ways: What is good practice, what are traps, and in particular, is there excellent practice in classical music contexts which might help stem the inexorable decline in classical concert attendance? John said that his interest is more broadly in effective ways of putting cultural consumers in productive contact with each other, and how this improves both the cultural experience and their lives more generally. Sharing a similar understanding of sociability, and blurring the lines between the consumer and provider end, Peter Stepman has developed his knowledge and experience as Founder, organiser and host of many successful Meetup groups such as Buffs London, Buffs LA, Curzon [Cinema] Cult. Particularly, Buffs London, cinema meetups for gay men, has reached 2000 members, with two, three events a week.

Why did he create Buffs? Peter explains that he wanted to meet people who shared his same interests, having identified a need for social experiences especially in people in their 40s. He also sees a need for social communities for gay men, because, he pointed out, there are lots of issues with online addiction. In his view, online spaces see a lot of bullying and rejection, so the main aim of Buffs is to give gay men an opportunity to go back to old-fashioned socialising. He identifies a need to re-learn how to be social off the internet. Having worked in technology innovation (for Nokia, among others) and as marketing manager for music groups, his research motivation started from an interest in how we create relationships online. He points to a wealth of existing theories about how digital technology has affected social culture. He decided to use his meetup practice to test some of these theories. Digital media, in his opinion, have negative effects on our abilities to socialize. As a result, we forget how to be social with others: this, in Peter’s view, is a problem that affects people across generations. The solution is that a common experience can create a common ground and meetups offer this opportunity: the film is a reason to go and meet others, a non-threatening invite. The emotional side of it is that it offers opportunities to meet new people: usually, Peter explained, before and after the events there is a 20 minute socialising period.

He clarified that there is a need for a Meetup host and the host needs to know what their role is: making sure no people are singled out, for example. This has a lot of effects on the members, despite being a very old fashion way of socializing – as Peter said, ‘it is new again!’. Peter called for venues to identify this same need and act upon it. He has started to run meetups internationally, for example one in LA to see whether same issues are present there, and found that there are many people who are waiting for an opportunity to get off the online apps. One issue he raised is that meetup is often based on volunteering whereas it could become more of a social enterprise. Peter pointed to opportunities to work with venues, whereby meetup organisers provide marketing channels to promote what the venues are selling (such as memberships). Alternatively, venues or companies could provide support to meetup groups through sponsorships. However, there is a delicate issue which is to avoid monetizing the activity of ‘making friends’. His belief is that there’s a lot of research to be done on Meetup, which he hopes will become a core area of focus, as Second Life was in the last decades and Facebook is at the moment.

Peter’s contribution was that of a cultural consumer who has become provider of a social experience that venues are not currently offering to their audiences: his presentation was followed by the next two guest speakers, talking from the perspective of venues, as cultural providers. Rachel Dickson is Head of Curatorial Services at Ben Uri Gallery and Museum, previously branded as an ‘art museum for everyone’ and now functioning under the banner of ‘Art Identity Migration’. Ben Uri is now located in St John’s Wood following a chequered 101 year history in various locations across London. She sees Ben Uri as quite different from large venues such as Tate or the Barbican Centre. As a small organisation, with a small team and a small physical space available, Rachel explained, Ben Uri considers social interaction as a key point in the gallery’s offer. Ben Uri cannot expect the same footfall of large venues, so Rachel explained that they try and make the gallery’s reputation beyond exhibition content through ‘big’ publications, digital presence and a special experience when people go to the gallery. Working on the idea that smallness can be their strength, Ben Uri has developed the key idea of personalising visitor experience and training hosts for that purpose. There are specific events across the gallery’s programming, from curatorial-related to initiatives promoting learning or wellbeing (with a dedicated member of staff), and ‘if you go to Ben Uri you go to see something specific… when you step through the door, we want to make that experience personal’. Unlike large venues, Rachel explained that Ben Uri aims to act not just as mere service provider: hosts will greet you very personally, give you information, as well as the possibility of being guided around the gallery. In order to expand the gallery’s remit beyond the small physical space, they start from a desire to create an area of difference through personalisation of experience. Another point that Rachel made is that an environment with few people encourages more interaction, which becomes a positive trigger because, she says, people feel comfortable talking to someone else about what they are sharing. Furthermore, members of the Front of House staff know what is involved in the exhibition, so they can talk about it, offering more than a ticket seller might at a large venue. They are trained and learn techniques to facilitate audience interaction in the space. However, hosts also need to develop a way of sensing tone and signals from visitors, to understand which kind of engagement people are looking for. Finally, she explained that you have to ring a bell to enter the gallery, which in some London galleries can create a barrier and a sense of intimidation, but as you go through that barrier at Ben Uri, hosts will welcome you and establish a personal connection: and that is key for Ben Uri.

Having started with a similarly small team, Annette Richardson talked about her experience of setting up the Learning and Participation programme at Somerset House over the last decade. Witnessing changes in the physical spaces of the building, she has contributed to the consequent shift of the audience offer, which, as she explains, now sees a strong focus on interaction and engagement and an increasing interest in artist-led practice. Her team has currently five permanent members of staff including herself, alongside a group of learning facilitators who assist in running events, as the sheer volume of events would otherwise become unmanageable for the core staff. Facilitators include students, or practicing artists and musicians; Annette said that for the Learning and Participation events, they try to match the focus of the event with staff members who are already engaged in specific activities, so they can have an enthusiastic conversation with attendees. In case of large events, usually a core member of the team is present. The Learning and Participation department organises festival events and symposia, usually linked to exhibitions, often with artist-led interactions. Annette offered two examples of workshop-led events that made her rethink the role of audience engagement as crucial to the success of such activities. The first example was the ‘White Elephant’ event organized as part of the exhibition ‘Maison Martin Margiela at 20’ in 2010, the second fashion exhibition staged by Somerset House. Given that Maison Martin Margiela is a very experimental fashion house, straddling the boundaries between art, design and fashion, the idea from the Learning and Participation team was, rather than accompanying the exhibition with straightforward talks, to embrace the spirit of the fashion house by incorporating practices of experimentation and recycling. In discussion with the curator, they decided to adopt the aesthetics and spirit of experimentation of the fashion house and create an evening where attendees could experience the various facets of the brand. The request to participants was to bring something white that they could donate or recycle (such as vintage gloves to create new items). Everyone at the party was also wearing white, and all the music had a white theme curated through the evening, along with white cocktails.

Lecturers and students from Ravensbourne University were invited to support the 100 attendees, providing material such as second-hand garments, and also some other items that could ‘push people out of their comfort zone’. The attempt, Annette said, was to democratise the event, whilst also providing extensive staff support. She recalled that a lot of people came in groups, such as London College of Fashion students who got involved in making things. The exhibition got a lot of press coverage and was documented through a blog, therefore people could see online reportage and people recommending the next event. People who went to the second ‘White Elephant’ event were not fashion student but a more general audience, probably encouraged by the fact that it was described as a friendly atmosphere. Annette insists on the point that face-to- face interaction is key, that enthusiastic people working on events can make a great difference, and that audience seemed to be interested in the learning experience as much as the outcomes. In 2016, Somerset House won the bid to be part of the Museums at Night initiative funded by Culture24. Somerset House invited artists to submit proposals taking the theme of democratizing the audience and decided to commission Welsh artist Bedwyr Williams. Very well known for his participatory events, the artist proposed to host a druidic open mic night taking place in the Dead House, a rarely used venue available at Somerset House which contains alcoves. The event was a druidic style comedy night with stand-up comedians and back theme of pagan rituals. Providing druidic robes for 100 attendees, everyone was dressed the same and this created a sense of excitement, Annette told the meeting. The room was decorated with mobile fairylights as pagan creatures, creating a very memorable sense of occasion. Aware of the role of social media on people’s enjoyment, there were ‘social zones’ where people could have a ‘pagan documentation’ for social media use. The Learning and Participation team liaised with the artist to deliver an event where people could opt whether to actively participate as comedians. The comedy stage was organized as a safe space that wouldn’t be documented, recognising the need for some spaces to be social-media- free. Concluding her contribution, Annette pointed to the important aspect of experiencing activities from the side of participants, for those involved in curating and programming for public engagement. As well as the consumer becoming organiser, it seems that a reverse shift is needed for professional curators and programmers, who can learn a lot from observing and taking part to events as consumers and participants.

Following the four provocations, the discussion is then opened up to the attendees, starting from considerations on our experiences as consumers, and then moving on to the side of providers: What are the key challenges? What would we do to change things? Among the observations from a consumer side, some key themes and questions emerged:

– Issues relating to feeling welcomed and part of the venue, as visitors often share a feeling of trepidation when entering a new venue so the person greeting and meeting them can play an important role as facilitator. Someone pointed to the positive effect of feeling that hosts in a venue are interested in what’s going on for visitors. Curators should consider the question: What is it like for someone coming on their own? A way of testing this could be a member of staff going to an event on their own, incognito, to work out how sociable it is, how are people negotiating the site. So, going to events in a participant/consumer mode can be very valuable for curators.

– It was also discussed whether there still is a social stigma around going places alone, some people are afraid of what other people think of them or hold assumptions that you go on your own because you don’t have friends. For this reason, the role of a host, for example in a Meetup, is to encourage members to be as sociable and welcoming as possible. There is a risk of cliques-forming so the role of the host is of a mediator: the question was raised of whether you can train ‘social hosts’ to be open and able to facilitate, or whether it is an instinctive skill.

– Another point of discussion was around how spaces impact on personal perceptions. Someone pointed to the idea of stepping outside the box of the normal venue, linking to the historical beginnings of classical music performances which would more often take place in private houses. So, for example, house concerts can be more welcoming, such as “Music at 22 Mansfield St” (organized and hosted by Elisabeth and Bob Boas). Someone also shared their personal experience of hosting self-organised classical concerts in a private flat, following a felt urgency to create a community of people who could meet in an informal, intimate space, and enjoy music. This raises a set of questions: does creating social experiences in private space run the risk of becoming an exclusive experience? How have cultural institutions developed in the modern era and do they serve the purpose to be spaces for socialising as well as for cultural consumption? Is this linked, particularly in London, to space availability and cost?

– Some people felt that cultural events are occasions to meet up with friends, often a way of pre-committing to see an exhibition/concert combined with the sociability aspect.

Some key observations from people thinking on the provider end are:

– There is a risk of becoming exclusive venues, due to limited capacity of a venue, ticket booking system, or by hosting groups of friends who already know each other. As a venue, there is a need to find a balance between democratising the event while also offering a special experience to audiences (possibly avoiding to either have ‘turn away’ people or risk a large ‘drop-out’ rate on free events).

– If cultural events are seen as occasions to meet people, as providers, there is a need to find bridges as there seems to be a defensive veil that doesn’t allow people to overcome a certain fear of strangers. A speculative proposal to test possible solutions could be the introduction of delimited shared-space areas, or open social areas, where people crossing the line are ‘declaring’ to be up for conversations and interactions with strangers.

– Someone raised the point that audience members come with different motivations and assumptions, and there might be a risk inherent in expecting a universal response or in thinking that everyone shares the premise that cultural events are inherently social. While some audience members might be going to a concert with specific experiences and expectations that don’t include sociability, there does seem to be a huge appetite to interact with others that is not met by venues. Someone shared the experience of hosting a post-performance discussion for young composers wanting audience feedback accompanied by a glass of wine, which attracted unpredicted large numbers of participants, who seemed not to want the event to end.

– Personalisation of audience experience seems to be an increasing area of focus for providers, with examples of sophisticated strategies being developed by physical retail providers to engage people and customise their offer at a personal level. There are various ways of experimenting around this, but a common concern for people, increasingly targeted through their social media identity in the online space, is to find spaces that resemble the ‘old’ independent bookshop, where you know the people in the shop and you look for a human interaction that goes beyond the barriers of mere service provision.

 

Stefania Donini, Guildhall School of Music & Drama

 

Find out more about TCCE’s 2017 Insideo Out Festival here


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