Report from Arts & Audiences conference

The Arts and Audiences conference in Helsinki, 2013, gathered representatives from cultural institutions and a few researchers. The recurring theme was that cultural institutions are facing significant challenges, as the Nordic countries have changed considerably over the last two decades: the Nordic countries have become more multicultural, engagement with culture has become more diverse and segmented, and there is an increased expectation of active engagement.

Text: Erling Björgvinsson

Arts & Audiences Photographer: Alejandro Lorenzo

Arts & Audiences. Fotograf: Alejandro Lorenzo.

Most of the 240 participants came from Nordic large or mid-size cultural institutions or art festivals and very few from free art institutions or organizations. Most of the participants worked with outreach, education, communication, but a few directors were also present.

Challenges and Opportunities
The recurring themes at the conference were that the cultural institutions are facing significant challenges, as the Nordic countries have changed considerably over the last two decades. The Nordic countries have become more multicultural, the engagement with culture has become more diverse and segmented, and there is an increased expectation of active engagement.

Although many cultural institutions work actively with rethinking what they offer and how they organize their work, they tend to reach only the well-educated and affluent middle class. The repertoire or the programming to a very small extent reflects that the Nordic countries have become multicultural or, for that matter, that we live in a globalized world with increased interaction between cultures.

It was generally agreed that audience development is an outdated term and that audience engagement is more productive. Engagement suggests that the institutions need to move away from thinking in terms of educating the audience towards relationship building where mutual learning occurs. The turn toward engagement demands, in turn, that not only the outreach, marketing, communication and educational segments of the institutions work with the issue, but that it becomes part of the artistic productions. Audience engagement thus demands that engagement initiatives also need to involve directors, curators and artists.

This is more easily said than done as many well-meaning engagement projects, especially those working with “marginal groups”, tend to be about or for the so called marginal, rather than together with them; thus reproducing existing categories, stereotypes, and power relations. Who is marginal is contested: the institutions – from the perspective of certain citizen groups – are marginal rather than the other way around.

Organizations that explicitly address ethnic diversity and intersectionality present at the conference were Intercult, an organization currently engaged in Corners of Europe and the Center for Kunst and Interkultur.

What I missed was a deepened discussion around citizenship, participation, and engagement. It is easy to think that we all agree on what these terms mean, both in theory and in practice, but what we put into them and how we practice them differs considerably.

Inspiring projects
Several inspiring projects were presented at the conference. It was interesting to note that most of the projects that addressed audience engagement through artistic co-productions with non-professionals where done either by small cultural institutions or by free art groups or independent artist, at times collaborating with larger institutions.

The Mood Project
John Deak from the New York Philharmonic presented the Mood Project, a collaboration between the Sibelius Academy and New York Philharmonics, which in turn is part of the Very Young Composers program, a program where Public School Children compose and orchestrate music for the New York Philharmonics. At the conference, a small ensemble performed three pieces that were responses – composed by children between the age of 9 to 13 – to a work by Tiensuu. Read more about the Mood Project.

I København Har Jeg Hjemme
I København Har Jeg Hjemme is a collaborative storytelling production run by Musikteatern in Copenhagen in collaboration with several cultural centers and artists. Seven caravans, housing two artists each, are now placed in different parts of the city with the aim of establishing dialog and collect colloquial stories from the citizens. The stories, that are recorded and published online, become multifaceted recordings and memory repositories of contemporary Copenhagen. Running such an organizationally and geographically dispersed production, although highly rewarding, is challenging. Read more about I København Har Jeg Hjemme.

Paper Anchor & Past In My Eyes
The choreographer and dancer Hanna Brotherus presented how she had co-created two dance performances together with non-professionals. The productions increased the participants’ reflexivity as well as interest in dance. Paper Anchor was a dance performance developed and performed together with refugees living in refugee centers. Past In My Eyes, a dance performance dealing with personal memories of from childhood up until to war times, was co-developed and performed together with 63-85 year old Finns. Read more about Paper Anchor & Past In My Eyes.

Hilde Östegaard from Nikolaj Kunsthal presented their ArtReach project and their current outreach project SKIS. ArtReach tried out what it meant for them to:

  • Work with groups that rarely attend Nikolaj Kunsthal.
  • Engage young citizens in processes of aesthetic and social transformation.
  • How the walls of Nikolaj Kunsthal could be expanded by moving the production out to three areas of the city.
  • What it implies to run a project that cuts across professional and organizational borders where an art institution works with cultural centers and libraries and where curators, pedagogues, artists and citizens collaborate.

The art group Parfyme, together with Sundby library and Kvarterhuset, did Most People Don’t Know Shit About Amager where they collected local stories from Amager citizens. Ydre Nørrebro Kultur Bureau (YNKB) and Morten Bencke together with the Blågården library and the cultural center Stöberiet did Den Faelles Kökkenhave where they worked on making an urban garden for Stöberiet. Kenneth Balfellt and the consultancy and analysis company Hausenberg, together with youngster in Vesterbro, did GrApp you Identity did an artwork where youngsters, with other ethnic background than Danish, researched their ethnic background and constructed stories partially based on the research.

ArtReach turned out to be challenging as it blurred established professional borders, for example between curating and education. Two of the art groups found it difficult to establish contact with the citizens, as they imposed their vision rather than creating grounds for open co-creation. It was also difficult to find time for reflection and learning along the way.

Editor’s note: Björgvinsson gave a presentation at the Arts and Audiences conference, a presentation that is linked to in this post.