Romancing the audience: How NSW arts and cultural organisations are striving to stay relevant

Image courtesy of Powerhouse Museum.

Image courtesy of Powerhouse Museum.

Inspired by the myriad of conferences and conventions across NSW in the past month, Arts NSW Policy Support Officer Emma Blong writes about how organisations are responding to both the challenges and opportunities around audience engagement in today’s modern world. 


Over the last fortnight Sydney has been abuzz with an array of festivals, forums and conferences.

We’ve had the likes of Sydney Writers Festival, Vivid Festival, and the Museums Australia National Conference and of course this week’s Remix Sydney 2015 Summit. These events bring together the very best creatives, game-changers, cultural leaders, tech pioneers and entrepreneurs to tackle big ideas.

Hopping from one session to another, a common question emerged again and again throughout these events: how must arts and cultural organisations evolve to re-engage – or simply just engage – with dynamic audiences?

The Museums Australia National Conference (21 – 24 May) was titled ‘Message + Medium: a cultural cacophony’. The conference’s themes of medium and message reflect that change in museums and galleries is rapid and unrelenting. Although the conference program included hot topics in visual arts, provenance, cultural leadership, indigenous issues and digital impacts, many of the actual session titles betrayed an overriding occupation: how to get new and current audiences to interface with museums in innovative and participatory ways.

In a digitally dynamic environment, arts and cultural organisations have to work harder in order to stay viable.

They are faced with the challenge of maintaining existing audiences whilst branching into new spaces. Innovative exhibitions, exciting public programs and new technologies are now prerequisites.

This was key a message in a plenary session in which Kim Williams AM and Luca Belgiorno-Nettis discussed ‘The Contemporary Relevance Challenge for Cultural Institutions’, chaired by Rose Hiscock, Director of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences. In a call-to-arms fashion, Kim Williams enticed organisations to be ambitious, bold and confident in their operations. ‘Managing institutions in the same way is no longer an option,” Kim warned. “It’s going to be a really bumpy ride. I suggest we relish the journey.”

For a number of arts and cultural organisations around the world, this journey has already begun.

These institutions are shifting ground and inviting audiences to co-create and co-curate.

I first observed how this shift was taking place internationally last year, as project manager of the 14th edition of the Communicating the Museum conference in Sydney. We had the pleasure of having the directors from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Dallas Museum of Art, and the Arts Institute of Chicago speak about the Art Everywhere US campaign. The directors shared their experiences of breaking down the barriers that sometimes exist between a museum and its audiences.

Art Everywhere is a national outdoor art exhibition that places the power about what is shown with the audience. The movement for ‘art to be seen everywhere’ began with entrepreneur Richard Reed, who produced the world’s first ever Art Everywhere campaign in the UK in 2013.

In 2014, five leading US art institutions decided to set themselves the Art Everywhere challenge: to celebrate the history of American art through 100 great works – or 20 each from each of the institutions’ collections. They collaborated with the Outdoor Advertising Association of America (OAAA) and artists, estates, foundations and copyright agencies to share images of these 100 works with the public via social media.

The crucial ingredient to the Art Everywhere concept was the placement of the public at the front and centre of a campaign. The final works displayed were selected by a public vote. The campaign empowered the public, gave them a voice and an opportunity to choose what they wanted to see on the streets.

In the US, the final 58 works selected were transformed across approximately 50,000 public spaces nationwide, including billboards, street furniture, bus stops and trains stations. The Art Everywhere campaign afforded an unprecedented opportunity to acquaint millions of Americans and tourists with some of America’s most memorable art, which then encouraged people to visit their local galleries and museums. It also started a conversation about the importance of nurturing creativity in everyday life. So far, it has been the largest outdoor art exhibition in the world and has an estimated media value of $100,000,000 USD. Now that’s a marketing campaign!

There are some fantastic examples of how museums and galleries are evolving on a local scale.

In 2012, the Sydney Opera House launched its Digital Education Program to further its engagement through education. The program consists of live digital tours, workshops and streamed performances for primary and secondary students and teachers.

In 2013-14, the Sydney Opera House held 116 digital education workshops, reaching about 6,000 students from 97 schools. In regional NSW, 36 schools and more than 1,500 students participated. The program has received a huge amount of positive feedback, particularly from regional teachers who are constantly looking for technology-based, interactive learning opportunities.

However, it doesn’t all have to be so serious.

One of my favourite examples is actually one of the simplest and it goes to show you can achieve a lot by simply appealing to an audience’s sense of fun.

Earlier this year, the pithy Tumblr When You Work at a Museum initiated the International Museum Dance Off 2.0 competition to demonstrate that museums are far from staid and conservative but are in fact fun, creative spaces that can be enjoyed by all (especially staff!) The dance off is a friendly competition that shows museums in a different light, engages with the public and starts conversations. This year, 28 museums participated across the globe and our own Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences: Powerhouse Museum did a spectacular rendition of Uptown Funk (by Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars). It ended up taking out the Judges Choice Award for Best in Competition.

WATCH: The Powerhouse Museum Dance Off 2.0 entry

Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences – Museum Dance Off 2 Submission from MAAS Volunteers on Vimeo.


These discussions around audience engagement and relevance are timely in light of the NSW Government’s move to waive entry fees for the Powerhouse Museum and Australian Museum in Sydney for children under 16. In an announcement earlier this year, Deputy Premier and Arts Minister Troy Grant said “fees for students on school excursions would also be waived.”

The move to waive entry fees for these two State Cultural Institutions delivers a priority action under Create in NSW, the Arts and Cultural Policy Framework which sets the NSW Government’s ambition for increasing opportunities for people to take part in and shape arts and culture. By removing the general admission fee for children under 16, more people will be able to access and experience the arts, regardless of where they live. Studies show that being encouraged to get involved in the arts as a child increases the chances of being an active arts consumer as an adult.

Increased openness and accessibility is an important element in changing and stimulating the relationship between the museum and its audience. Introducing free entry to the Powerhouse and Australian Museums will create a whole new generation of art-loving audiences.

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Published: 2 June 2015