TAITMAIL Uneven recovery?

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By Patrick Kelly

It’s the hope that keeps you going. Ask any artistic director or CEO of an arts institution how they have survived this calamitous year and most will say that the prospect of re-engaging with live audiences is what has sustained them through the long months of lockdown. 

As the vaccination programme ramps up and Covid numbers fall, theatres, arts centres, museums and galleries are busy drawing up plans for re-opening.

But if we build it, will they come? That’s the unanswered question that still torments box office managers as they load up their computer systems with tickets for events scheduled in summer and autumn.

The answer could be found in the latest surveys from the redoubtable Audiences Agency, which throughout the pandemic has been asking audiences how they feel about engaging with the arts in the age of Covid. The good news is that younger, highly educated audiences, living in cities and with more varied and contemporary tastes, are more likely to be keen to return to concerts, plays and exhibitions. 

But older, more traditional, suburban and rural audiences are indicating that they will adopt a “wait and see” approach before turning up to mix with hundreds of others in a concert hall or theatre. The bad news is that if this scenario does indeed come to pass, then the divide between big cities like London, Manchester and Birmingham and the rest of the country is likely to become even wider.

Will digital consumption help bridge the gap? Possibly, but it will depend on how well an arts venue was performing online before the pandemic. Audience agency surveys show that 45% of the population watched digital online cultural content in the 12 months before the pandemic, but only 33% had in the next seven months. However, much of this dip can be found among families and 35-44 year olds which, as the agency says, is “for reasons which will be clear for anyone who’s had to home school…”

The figures also showed that audience segments with already high digital engagement -  that’s the Metroculturals and Experience Seekers in the delightful parlance of marketingspeak - are engaging more than they used to. And they intend to do so into the future. But the Audiences Agency analysis suggests that the surge in digital appetite during lockdown is most likely to be driven by increased engagement from existing, rather than new, audiences. But those digital audiences are increasingly getting used to paying for their consumption, the figures show. Of those who have engaged online during Covid, 16% have bought a ticket, 16% donated and 13% have a paid membership. Of those who are interested in online cultural events and activities, more than 60% say they are willing to pay.

Will that be enough to make up for the breath-taking losses endured by the arts since March 2020? ACE’s national portfolio organisations lost a total £217m in sales in the last year and losses are continuing to grow at the rate of £15m. Those are staggering sums.

But it’s worth remembering two things. One, behavioural scientists say that we are notoriously bad at predicting our future decisions. In the middle of a lockdown, with everything closed and shuttered, we are not good at imagining a different scenario with everything open. Friends and family will apply peer pressure to join them on outings to the arts. “Come in, the water’s lovely” may well have a bigger impact on recalcitrant audiences than is possible to imagine now.

Secondly, we should not underestimate the ability of creative organisations to rise to the challenge of adapting to the new reality – witness the Arcola Theatre which plans to build a temporary open air theatre near to its main stage in east London (pictured), the Nevill Holt Opera in Leicestershire creating an outdoor performance space for its August festival or the Edinburgh Book Festival switching to a new outside/inside venue for its deliberations this year.  Clever schemes designed to accommodate audiences safely are on the horizon everywhere.

But the arts councils of England, Scotland and Wales need to keep a close eye on what further differentials in participation rates may follow the Covid era. A one size fits all policy for recovery will not be adequate for the rest of 2021 and into 2022.

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