“Go to them, where they are. Take them as you find them.”
– Lauren Honcope

Recently I went to a panel discussion for Dance Week, convened and hosted by Ausdance ACT. The subject of the panel was ‘Dance Activism’, and five panelists (including current You Are Here commissioned artist Alison Plevey) spoke about their dance, choreographic and community coordinating practices. One thing that typifies much of this work is its presentation in public spaces – sometimes site specific, sometimes in the manner of a flash mob. It seems a natural fit for work that deals with social themes, political change and social betterment – to take it to the people. Sometimes in the context of a festival or protest action, othertimes standalone.

The question of audiences for contemporary dance (specifically the want to grow these audiences, or in the least stop them shrinking) was raised in the Q&A that followed. Lauren Honcope, Ausdance ACT Chair, remarked that, to get through to audiences, the need is to:

“Go to them, where they are. Take them as you find them.”

I was extremely taken by this stark and striking statement, poetically direct and refreshing in its clarity.

Many of us arts workers know too well the lonely futility of being directed again and again to find new audiences for the same product, already tailored to a fixed audience–one that is oftentimes set in their preferences.

A huge amount of time in any arts organisation office is spent hypothesising where the elusive audience may be found – and making assumptions around who needs to be plucked from what a perceived otherwise droll life, void of meaningful experience, and relocated into our gallery, theatre or festival as soon as is possible. There they will be converted, saved! Retained.

But it doesn’t take much further thought to know this is idyllic and simplistic. Our imagined audience has money to spend on membership, tickets, books and donations at tax time. They have the time and freedom to attend events of an evening–babysitters, probably even transport to get there on time. Once there, they know what to do, how to‘behave’. The premise is that it has just never occurred to them to do before what it is we dream they would do, and if only they heard of us, all would be well.

But who are these people? Is there room in their lives and minds for the art we would put upon them? We may want them, but there is no reason to believe they want us, other than our condescending insistence that a life without art (as we define it) must be empty and somehow less.

You needn’t look far to see that the wider populace are investing their energy and attention to creative outlets and participating enthusiastically and authentically in cultural pursuits that might bear little resemblance to the activities and practices we place on a pedestal (literal or otherwise). Their creative vernaculars can appear to be at odds with our strategic frameworks and classist notions of real art.

I think of Summernats, a much-maligned Canberra institution and eternal font of bitterness for funding competitors in the arts. What can be framed as a fresh hell of debauchery and toxic masculinity writ large is also an annual culmination of hours, days and months hard work and investment of creative individuals from around the country and source of inspiration for those whose creative practice exists hidden in sheds and garages. Both things are true.

I think of Christmas light displays in deep suburbia. Of the individuals who trawl eBay and Bunnings to amass the materials that will see their suburban homes lifted from cookie-cutter obscurity into mega-watt resplendence. Every year’s work surpassing the last.

I think of the drunk gentleman at my local, who after telling me about his latest bout of gout segued to a story about seeing Rose Tattoo perform at the Majors Creek pub, and, as his eyes welled with tears, explained that it had been the most beautiful musical experience of his life.

Anything resembling audience development surely begins with programming and core organisational strategy, rather than slotting in with marketing and communications at the end of the line. We need to attempt to genuinely understand what life is like on the outside, and manage our own expectations, preconceptions and prejudices first.

Lauren’s words might provide a sort of map.

Go to them: explore public spaces, non-arts venues, online formats. Get out of your comfort zone and into theirs. Get away from the city.

Where they are: lower costs, make things free, prioritise accessibility in all its forms, be relevant. Make the barriers for engagement so low, people trip and fall in.

Take them as you find them: expect nothing in return, be prepared for colossal failures and unexpected wins. Welcome new artists, develop new insiders. Never stop reaching out, and they might come, if they want to.