Audience Development Expert Agata Etmanowicz: “Understanding the Value of Process is the Challenging Part“

Agata Etmanowicz, vice president of Impact Foundation based in Warsaw, Poland, visited Kaunas on January 23rd to take part in the inaugural audience development workshop of Kaunas – European Capital of Culture 2022. A few years ago, the foundation ran a specially tailored audience development programme for Wroclaw 2016, and before that, from 2002 until 2007, Agata was working for the Polish Ministry of Culture. She was coordinating the Culture Contact Point (CCP) responsible for running the European Community Programme Culture 2000 in Poland and later, Programme Culture 2007-2013. The guest was eager not only to share her experience in the field of audience development but also to hear about the current state of affairs in Kaunas. After the workshop-discussion in the National M. K. Čiurlionis museum of art, Agata answered some more questions on the topic.

How did you start working with audience development? How did you get involved with Wroclaw as European Capital of Culture

Impact Foundation’s with audience development started exactly ten years ago. We’ve started testing the audience development philosophy and tools on ourselves. Back then we were organising big festival promoting independent, contemporary art produced in Warsaw called revisions. Both our organisation as a whole and this event were our first battle field, our laboratory.   

Audience development – in its roots – places people, audiences in the core of everything organization does. No wonder that we fell in love with the concept, it was the most natural thing as it was in line with our values, our methods of work. Then, after a while, we have stopped producing art events and focused entirely on spreading the joy of audience development.

First programme was design for organisations/institutions in Warsaw, our hometown. Then, we moved to Lublin, Łódź and Gdańsk. At first, we have mainly used the support from the British experts. It took a while to understand that our reality is very different… And that we can get inspired by the success cases and the tools but they cannot be reapplied to “our world”. It was also a feedback we were getting from Polish organisations. As a respond, we have started developing our own approach, methods and tools, we have designed programmes building the capacity in culture and creative sector.

We’ve continued the work in different cities in Poland and abroad, started to work more and more with individual organisations on their processes. We also have a tradition of organising an event which working title is “Open Days with audience development”. At first, it was in conference format, later we’ve started introducing new – more fun – formats designed specifically for the occasion.    

Wrocław appeared on “our map” quite naturally. We were approached by Wrocław 2016 team, organised the first series of workshops in 2014, and later the programmes for 2015 and 2016. We have applied all previously gained knowledge and experiences into them.

It was a first action of this kind and scope ever done in the frame of European Capital of Culture city and also a great lesson for us. We’re being quite critical towards ourselves and learn from each and every programme, process we conduct, implement.

As someone with experience in different countries, what problems and aims would you name as common in the different cultural sectors?

I would say that commonalities can be found not only in different sectors but in the culture sector across different European countries, especially in our part of Europe. For example. the fact, that in most countries, a global approach to audience development is missing. By global, I mean both at the national and city level. Audience development is not included in the strategies (if only there are any…). Our grant givers are usually asking about indicators and limiting this task to numbers. And how to equate one-off event for thousands and a linger educational process with a few?

So, tackling audience development in the documents at this level is necessary, but not only as requirement to report back numbers, attendance. Far more important is supporting capacity building in cultural sector enabling organisations to work more efficiently, grow, be better in what they do and help them to strategically build relationships with their audiences.       

There are of course issues specific to different branches (running across geographical borders). Like for example the language contemporary art is communicating with the outside world, or more accurately – with the internal world, as the language is design for – and understandable only by selected group of art critics, curators and artists. What is highly interesting, in many cases, same galleries or museums are running extremely good, inclusive art education programmes and initiatives. There are, of course, exceptions of this rule, and we can find organisations being experts in strategical approach to audience development.

And please, don’t get me wrong: where is nothing wrong with working with the narrowly selected group – as long as this an effect of an aware, planed action not just “this is how we do things around here” and “if they cannot understand, it is not our problem” kind of approach.

What is usually the initial reaction of a cultural institution or NGO when a talk about audience development begins? Is it more often eager anticipation or, rather, neglection of the need for the development?

For most, initial reaction is: “love it, that’s exactly what we need, let’s do it!”. We all want audiences after all…

It is also important to stress out, that we, Impact Foundation, are enthusiasts, doing our best to spread the joy of audience development. We’re also being honest about it: it is not only about getting people all excited, it is not only about fancy tools, it is rewarding but a hard work at the same time. We do love the fun part of our work, we’re full of ideas, we have plenty of experience we can share, we can and know how to help but we do not have the magical wounds and whispers and we cannot do all the job.

Audience development is the process involving whole organisation, it takes time, effort, engagement, curiosity, dedication and patience. It is not enough to just do the audience research or draft audience development plan. It is more about overall, holistic approach to everything organisation does. Nowadays, we all want things to happen fast, we want solutions, quick fixes. Therefore, understanding the value of process in placing the audience in the heart of everything organisation does, synchronising the actions, straightening internal collaboration, is the challenging part.

Quite possibly people might think audience development involves more money spent on marketing and PR, more people to hire, more hours spent at work and more expenses in general, therefore not possible for smaller companies or venues. How (un)true is that?

It is not about size of the organization and it is not about money. It is about strategizing. We need get better in that in the culture sector.

We are overworked and under-financed (and underpaid!). Paradoxically, very often, at the same time, we’re over-spending on the tools which are not effective at all. So, it is all about working more efficiently with what we’ve got at our disposal. And introducing audience development to the organisation might be a very good starting point, a tool helping in achieving this goal. Audience development strategies should always be tailor made. Each organisation is different, has different dreams, values, experiences, reflections and – as you have mentioned – size, capacity.  

Could the patterns that work for cultural institutions be adapted for, say, sports organisations?

Sure! In the culture sector, we’re equipped with unique set of skills we could use to help other sectors to grow. And in the process, we might also learn a thing or two… and get acquainted with new potential audiences. We could also learn something from sports organizations!

Representatives of culture sometimes value themselves in a way that see no need in educating people, that is, choose to communicate with those already in the know, assuming the audience they have is enough. What would you say about that?

Hmm… If that is a conscious decision not just an act of ignorance: I can live with that.  On the other hand, I do have a problem with the phrase “educating”. That is why I’ve adopted “enabling learning”, translating into “giving space, creating the opportunity and tools for people to learn on their own terms”. I’ve got that from the director of one of the institutions we’ve worked with recently (The State Museum at Majdanek).

What stereotypes should one get rid of when thinking about expanding (or reducing!) his or her audience?

I know how awful it may sound, especially taken out of the broader context and without a long foreword but I would say that, we have to become more critical towards our own actions and stop with the approach of “if people do not come it is because they are stupid, to stupid to understand”. We, culture workers, should take more time and effort in understanding people’s needs. Not only the needs of “hard-core goers”, present at every art show opening, but those who are not there yet, not present at the moment. Understanding and responding to people’s needs does not equal compromising the art. We should have more faith in people and take the effort in inviting them for the journey. But this journey requires careful planning, shouldn’t be a just spontaneous, one-off, pop-up, surprise party.

At the same time: we don’t have to be for everyone. Our programme might be designed for selected few, that’s also O.K. As long as it is in line with our strategy, philosophy, it is a fully conscious decision.

There’s also a very common mistake of blindly following the priorities of “grant giving institutions”. Yet, another reason for the organisational strategy to go first. We shouldn’t band, pretend to be someone else, only to fulfil fundraising targets and needs.    


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