Collaboration key to engaging new audiences

Jan Lennox, Issue 116/10, p14, 01.10.2016
People respond more naturally when they experience the arts in their own space
People often think of London as a homogenous place with fantastic arts provision. In fact, there is a stark contrast between what happens in central London and most of the rest of the city.

Circulate is a consortium of organisations that has developed an outdoor arts network in outer London. The areas we operate in are much more akin to places such as St Helens and Stockton-on-Tees that are characterised by general low arts engagement and scanty provision, but with peaks of interest created by locally established festivals.

Now in our fourth year, we have been awarded Arts Council England funding for 2016-18. Circulate was born out of London 2012 and the Greater London Authority culture team’s Showtime Festival of Outdoor Arts. This set a benchmark for outdoor arts, showing how to create democratic engagement by taking the arts to where people live and work.

Circulate has linked the lack of arts provision in many outer London boroughs with the effectiveness of taking the arts to people in their neighbourhoods, to engage new audiences. Critically, we offer a long-term approach. It’s relatively easy to stage one-off outdoor arts events that draw an audience. But a “hit-and-run” event doesn’t start to break down the barriers that prevent people engaging with the arts.

There are many barriers: setting foot inside a space that isn’t familiar; not understanding a perceived “etiquette” in formal venues; paying to see something you don’t know you’ll like when there’s free TV and internet at home; and the expectation of some kind of informed critical opinion because you’re in a formal venue.

Outdoor Arts sweeps all these away. It’s informal, free and in your own space. It also offers a different experience in and of itself. Generally, audiences are closer to the action, so there’s a stronger connection with artists. It tends to demand a more immediate and visceral reaction because of this direct contact, but also because the formal conventions, expectations and behavioural norms have been removed. People respond more naturally when they experience the arts in their own space, without the defences erected when they enter somewhere unfamiliar.

Any outdoor arts may be said to have these impacts, but Circulate is about consistency and longevity. Over three years, we have placed the same quality of acts in the same places, over and over again. With familiarity comes confidence and further engagement, and heightened expectations among audiences of what the arts offer.

We’ve seen this at our outdoor venue, Bell Square in Hounslow. It regularly attracts more than 1,800 people, even to more challenging work such as dance or participatory theatre. Many are now regulars, having previously not engaged. This is why varied but high-quality programming is the essence of Circulate’s programming strategy: from French circus company Barolosolo to modern dance company Motionhouse.

Building towards this vision has been challenging. We have learned that partners need a shared agenda, and time to engage and plan strategically, as well as managing the daily programming needs. Separating these functions is important. It takes time and the will to work collaboratively.

We may have been described by the arts council as “London’s flagship touring project” but it’s been a steep learning curve for consortium members. Looking to the future, we need to harness this energy and cooperation to keep growing our core outdoor locations and their already diverse audiences. And a key part of the next three-year plan is to extend outdoor arts provision, and therefore opportunities for audiences to engage, by adding new venues each year.

Success will mean we have narrowed the gap between the inner and outer London arts scene, engaged new audiences who come back for more, and helped create more vibrant communities. We can achieve this by sharing knowledge, skills and capacity, and working at scale to deliver higher-quality events over the long term.

Jan Lennox is the director of the Watermans arts centre in west London, which is the leader of the Circulate consortium

Jan Lennox is the director of the Watermans arts centre in west London, which is the leader of the Circulate consortium