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Access All Areas #ADA

A technicolour kite in a blue sky floating above a row of cumulus clouds

Audience Diversity Academy Fellow, Emma Oaks shares with us how she is converting perceptions of her organisation, Buxton Opera House, one ambassador at a time.

As well as our beautiful but inaccessible Edwardian theatre, we also have a cinema that offers accessible screenings. Customer diversity is important to us as a company, but we have to demonstrate that we can provide an accessible experience before customers even step through the door. So, the experiment was to create a team of Access Ambassadors made up of staff, volunteers and community contacts who could spread the word about what we’re trying to achieve and share our passion for inclusivity with the wider community.

I must admit, with the faint whiff of disinterest coming from some quarters, combined with an un-successful first attempt at recruitment, that I wasn’t expecting anyone to be beating down the door to help with Access in either of our venues. However, there is a genuine interest in the Opera House itself as a beautiful iconic building, and in its long term survival following a closure 40+ years ago.

Having made contact with a few external groups to establish what access provision was available locally, I then contacted our own volunteer database to gauge interest in an Access Ambassadors group. I was pleasantly surprised by the almost immediate response from some volunteers and the recognition from them that improving access was essential to growth.

An initial group of 11 volunteers expressed an interest and we arranged to meet to discuss the potential of the group, what the aims would be, potential training that might be useful and how everyone’s personal experience could contribute to the project. Most of the volunteers had a backstory that reflected their interest in access as a subject, from grandchildren with autism; working with isolated adults; and personal hearing loss.  Our usual pool of volunteers is typically retirement age, so it was refreshing to have a wide age range represented in the access group – from mid-20s to mid-80s – although the majority were still 60+.

This led to very different contributions around promoting our accessible productions, with a high proportion being against social media, but several offers of support in attending community events.

As a group we developed a vision board that showed where our imagination might take us in the future. Interestingly the group focussed very much on our famous welcome and how fabulous our venues are along with an emphasis on the importance of the team working together. We finished the meeting knowing that we’re not perfect as an accessible venue, but as a team we’ll do what we can to make sure everyone has a good time – what a great starting point!

In all we recruited 15 volunteers, one of which is a full-time member of staff, two are from external community support groups and I’ve just turned customer services complaint about access into a new volunteer. Facilitating the group raised its own communication challenges – not everyone is on email; not everyone can use a phone due to hearing loss; and we don’t have an accessible meeting space in the Opera House, but we’re working round these as best we can. Since the meeting we’ve put a basic training plan for the group in place that includes autism awareness and a talk by Age UK. Our first event is planned for Disabled Access Day in March.

I’m faintly terrified by the size of the access project overall, but creating this Access Ambassadors potential group will certainly go a long way to helping spread the work load and reach more customers.

Getting on with it #ADA

View from a Gambian shore

Pauline Bailey is an Audience Diversity Academy (ADA) Mentor whose approach allows the Fellows to touch base when they feel that they need to bounce an idea across for clarification or to catch up after a particular milestone in their ADA experiment cycle.  

As very competent and experienced individuals they were able to get up to speed with their experiments and blogs so it would seem our sporadic start has not hampered them too much.

Hopefully as the process continues and now I’ve returned to the UK with access to better internet connections, I can get back to giving quality support.

Jane Elliot and Rachael Dodd from Yorkshire Artspace and Jessica Ziebland from the Discover Children’s Story Centre all have clear ideas of what they would like to achieve and have just got on with the tasks in hand despite the short time frame. Jane and Rachel have delivered their activity based on their annual open studio event, but this year with a twist on account of evaluations of previous events and identification of they’re learning from previous programming. The 2 days delivered so far has provided them with further learning on how they can continue to engage their target audiences. I’m looking forward to hearing more about how it all went.

Jessica has spent some time furthering her dialogue with a local school and due to engage children and parents in after school activities over the next few weeks. With a few suggestions from me Jessica will explore the possibilities of using the learning from this experiment to feed into and help shape a much larger annual event which is an exhibition and associated activities on Fairy tales which involves input from the larger team.

They’re on their way, though there’s still much for them to do. I’m excited and looking forward to the next instalments from my Fellows!

Money, money, money #ADA

With money seems to come more flexibility or the green light to take plans and experiments forward.  Does a red light stop the intention dead?  English Touring Opera Fellow of the ADA 3.0 shares this blog about the next steps for their strategic journey.

I was so close to getting my experiment up and running.  I had written a proposal, did market research, spoken to our partner venues and other arts organisations and everyone was excited about my audience development scheme.  I was set to press ‘go’ but with one short email, my dreams of getting this revolutionary ticket scheme dissolves into nothing. Senior Management loved the idea but there was no funding so I had to pump the breaks, do a U turn and return the shiny sports car to the show room…

As much as we, in the arts, try to not to talk about the ‘M’ word, we can’t avoid it.  It is, unfortunately, at the heart of everything we do.  As I sat at my desk, very deflated with the knowledge that my experiment had been halted because there wasn’t enough money, I wondered how many great ideas had never seen the light of day because of funding.  Even the little one man show in the basement of a pub in the middle of nowhere at least needs petrol money for his sins.  It makes me really sad to think about how much art and creativity we have missed out on because people don’t have the funds to bring their ideas to fruition.

In this current climate, it is harder than ever to justify why we need money to the arts.  How do you convince someone who has never been to the opera why they should spend millions of pounds on it, when they are worried about the implications of Brexit?  You may argue that commercial shows in the West End don’t need public funding but I would remind you that they have a lot of private investment and the ticket prices are sky high.

How do we create beauty when we are restricted by our means?  We tried using unpaid interns but that doesn’t fix the problem and is highly unethical and elitist (as only those that receive support from their wealthy parents can afford to do these roles).  We all work extra hours without pay but again that doesn’t fix the problem.  Even if there is a pot of money, if the powers that be aren’t convinced by your idea or the money has been spent elsewhere, how do you get your idea off of the ground?

I ruminated (sulked) on this for a while.  After lots of cups of tea and a couple of bourbon biscuits I noticed that I was the guest of honour at my own pity party so I rammed a couple more biscuits in my mouth and started to think about ways I can make this experiment work.  With the kindness, patience and wisdom of my mentor I decided to scale back my idea and will ask the Development team to apply for funding.

I may graduate from the Audience Diversity Academy having not finished (or even properly started) my experiment but I will end this experience knowing that my idea will happen, no matter the cost.

mAkE sOMe nOiSe #ADA

Installation view, Survey, Jerwood Space, London, 2018. Artworks by Rae-Yen Song and Frank Wasser © the artists. Photograph: Janie Airey

Claire Noakes is an ADA Fellow and has been working quietly to strategically increase the audience demographic visiting Art Fund venues.

We’re all familiar with the age-old saying ‘actions speak louder than words’ and it’s true, sitting in an office and hatching plans to grow our audience into a diverse and inclusive group of art lovers might make us feel good but doesn’t mean a lot until those plans are realised. However, once they are, it is worth making some noise about.

It is very well for a gallery, theatre or charity to be attracting new visitors and supporters who diversify their audience, but if we don’t publicly celebrate that progress, we’re missing an opportunity. Talking about change is not only important to make it explicit that access and inclusivity is an organisational concern, but it is also a way to maintain momentum; diversity breeds diversity; if I feel represented by an audience, I’m more likely to join it.

I think it’s a common concern that by pointing out progress, we will expose where we were failing before, but appearing to deny our failures has got to be worse, right?

So, on that note, here I am, making a little noise about some positive change at Art Fund…

A recent blog post by an ADA fellow, rightly criticised cultural venues for the assumption made that, at 27, we are all suddenly able to afford full price tickets. I’m sure we all wish it were true but reality’s a little different. For that reason, and as an aging twenty-something, I am pretty proud that the National Art Pass, once for ‘under 24s’, has now been extended to include all ‘under 30s’, to prevent entry fees acting as a barrier for young adults.

Not only is this going to help diversify museum audiences, and benefit the bank account, but will also help with mental health – as a recent report found, under-30s are twice as likely as other age groups, to visit a museum or gallery to de-stress.

Time for me #ADA

Work-life balance is the theme of this blog by Change Management Consultant and ADA Mentor, Auriel Majumdar.

Recently I’ve taken the bold step of taking all my social media apps off my smartphone. Don’t get me wrong, I love the conversations that I have on Facebook and Instagram (twitter not so much, that’s another story) but lately the wave of notifications has felt like the final straw in my busy life. As I have been talking to the ADA Fellows that I mentor, this theme has come up time and time again – people are telling me stories about how much work there is to do and how little time there is to do it. It seems that I’m not alone in fighting a constant battle against ‘all the stuff’. I like being busy but what I’m noticing is that there’s a tipping point where busy-ness turns into overwhelm and at that point we stop performing at out best and our satisfaction with what we do diminishes.

What’s the answer? Practical steps like removing apps and turning off notifications can certainly help. So can a ruthless approach to setting priorities – only focusing on those things that are urgent or important and not ‘sweating the small stuff’. But this can only take us so far. Often priorities are set for us by the organisations we work for and our control over these is limited. Or maybe we have competing demands that are all equally important and urgent and impossible to choose between.

What really helps me is something more profound than prioritisation and something that I can actually control. For years I had a fundamental assumption, born from childhood experiences that I had to please people, had to always say yes, never disappoint. My boundaries were almost non-existent and so my energy was frittered away on making sure that I met everything that was asked of me. I managed like this for years before I realised that I was exhausting myself and decided that the impact on my quality of life was just too much. It took some serious work with my coach to realise that its ok to think about what I want before saying yes to things. In fact, not just ok but essential. I was not raised to put my own needs first but learning this skill has been a revelation. Having good boundaries means that I can think about my needs and interests and my current energy levels and then say yes or no to work requests accordingly. It means I don’t accept invitations and then duck out at the last minute because I’m too tired. It means that I think of myself as a precious resource that I need to take good care of. It doesn’t magically reduce the amount of work there is to do but I do feel more in control and can stop and think before adding to my To Do list.

So, if you’re noticing that you can’t keep up with everything that’s being thrown your way take a step back and think for a moment. Are all of these things yours to do? Can you delegate? Are you doing some things out of guilt or obligation? What do YOU actually want? Hopefully this will help you develop clearer boundaries and realise that actually “No, that doesn’t work for me right now” is sometimes the perfect answer.

Blog Block #ADA

Blog Block

Nobody said that it was going to be easy.  ADA Fellow, Emma Oaks from Buxton Opera House, explains her challenge of getting her experiments down on the page for all to learn from and enjoy!

Wait a minute, three blogs?! Yes the ADA paperwork definitely said three blogs. My heart sank a little. Not only had I never written a blog before, I genuinely though I might be able to pass the next 20 years or so into retirement without ever having to think about writing one. That’ll teach me to read the paperwork properly.

Don’t get me wrong, I love reading blogs – the witty, the frank and the thankfully short, I just didn’t think I had one in me, and I especially didn’t want my rambling thoughts on any kind of public forum. So I did what every grown up would do, I ignored it. My colleague reminded me. My mentor reminded me. I had email reminders from the AMA. I stuck my fingers firmly in my ears and then swapped and covered my eyes like a toddler – ha! I couldn’t hear them now.

My first attempt was a disaster. How I envy those people who can just sit at a keyboard and write whatever comes into their heads and it reads like a highly polished, copy-written, proofread and ready to publish piece. My first 500 words sounded like a teenage angst-written letter to the problem page of a magazine. I usually love people with all their little quirks, but that really didn’t come across in my blog, it sounded like I hated everyone and had years of frustration bubbling up from my very core. That snide little comment in paragraph three – would Sian recognise herself as the ‘surly colleague’ that I’d referred to? Nope, that would never do, especially if it was going to be public.

Attempt two. Well, I’ve been sat here a while, I better keep an eye on my word count. Hmmm… 27 words. I’ll re-read the guidance notes and see if that inspires me. Ok, this here blog doesn’t seem to fall into any of the topics on the suggested list, maybe I should re-start it? Nope, definitely haven’t got time for that. Maybe I should try a vlog instead, that’s got to be quicker …if only I could bear to see myself on film.

So, I guess I’ve inadvertently written my first blog, exposed myself as a secret people-hater who writes like a teenager and doesn’t read things properly. Oh and it might be public.

Exit stage right, whimpering dramatically.

Experiments never quite go to plan… #ADA

ADA Fellow, Ros Croker, has been developing experiments for her colleagues within her organisation in order to explore language and identity.

My first experiment with my team was aimed at thinking about the words we use to describe what we do with our audiences, and how we want to define these words, within our museum context going forward.  With a close team we had a safe space to talk about different terminology, relating this to both our personal and professional lives.  Discussions led to an unpicking of how we use language and identity and create activities that could be transferred to a wider team, where there perhaps might be less openness and more wariness about relating the personal to the professional.  The team were brilliant in being clear about what they were interested in reflecting on and where they could see possible hesitancy from the wider team if we were to repeat the activities.

During this time I took part in one of the Action Learning Sets and heard about a different approach that was proving to be successful in another organisation.  It communicated the activities as personal reflections with a view to understanding audiences, which also indirectly encouraged thought about their own identity without any call to share these reflections.  By removing the emphasis on the personal, participants had felt freer to share their reactions and thoughts – thinking about how similar or different their personal values were and therefore how that might translate to audiences as well.

Bringing both of these learnings together I’ve started to plot out softer activities that are more generous to participants, rather than asking them directly to think about identity and the workplace.

Dig Deeper to Diversify #ADA

In this blog Mel Larsen reminds us of the layers that underpin the Audience Diversity Academy.

If you are working in an organisation that has been exclusive of certain audiences or has been perceived as ‘not for me’ by large sections of society, when you commit to diversifying your audiences you are embarking on a journey of change that is likely to go a lot deeper and require much more of you than you initially expected.

A long-established organisation has a known way of operating that is effective in relation to the audiences they already attract. But when you start thinking about the needs of new audiences you have to think and act differently and that can often impact you as an individual as well as a team and a brand.

This is a journey where mindset and strategy are intertwined. What often begins as a conversation in the Marketing department (or if you’re lucky, at CEO level) can take you also to into the realms of Leadership, Psychology, History, Language and Power.

You may start by wondering why your organisation doesn’t attract ‘Audience X’ and end up digging into the history of why ‘Audience X’ has been historically and systematically under-valued or ignored and how that seeps into modern-day consciousness and what you are going to do about it.

For example, you may start by looking at why exactly is the information for your audiences with disabilities so sparse and hidden away on your website? You may even find yourself digging deeper and exploring for example how people with disability were grossly treated and even feared in previous centuries and how that still significantly impacts language, attitudes and access today.

There is so much for us all to learn: there are nine protected characteristics in the UK – age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage or civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation – plus socio-economic status is a key factor to consider, especially now that UK poverty is rising and there are many, many other facets of identity and access to consider too.

Within the safe, supportive space of the Audience Development Academy, delving into this rich diversity makes for a fascinating and enlightening conversation for all concerned. I am always inspired by how the participants jump in fully, ready to learn and challenge both themselves and others. As their blogs show, the results they achieve show this is a journey worth taking.

Straight Down To It! #ADA


ADA 3.0 Fellows, Rachael Dodd and Jane Elliott, are from Yorkshire Artspace.  With their main annual ‘Open Studios’ event due to take place less than a month after their initial meeting with their mentor, Pauline Bailey, they were feeling as if they would be faced with a very short lead in to their ADA experiment.  Would they be able to get them in place in time?

We had some ideas in place about things we would like to do differently this year and were looking forward to using the ADA as an excuse to try some new things and focus on what we wanted to achieve.


Defining our Target Audience

After chatting to our mentor, Pauline, we decided that the under represented audience we would like to attract, that aligned with our organisation goals, was young people (aged 25 and under)

* specifically, approx. 16-20 years studying/interested in Art & Design

* especially those in areas with low take up of the city’s cultural offer

This process really made us think about our event and what we were hoping to attract these young people to: What would they see? What would their experience be? We tried to ‘see our event through their eyes’ and thought about how we might frame the event to make it more interesting, relevant and appropriate to young people’s needs.


The Experiment

The scrappy experiment thus became a guided tour of each studio building for young people on each day of our Open Studios event. We wanted to make young people feel especially welcome, able to ask questions, and sure that this event was for them. In order to put this in place, we contacted a sixth form college which we already have a good relationship with, in a deprived area of the city, and went to speak to them about what we do at Yorkshire Artspace, get an idea on the kinds of things they would like to see, and invite them in for a tour during our Open Studios weekend.



Our objectives were to increase awareness (especially in young people), strengthen existing partners and give a small number of young people a quality experience, meaning they would be more likely to return the next year.


Did we achieve them?

So, in brief, we did achieve our goals with our first experiment. We visited a Sixth Form college in a deprived area of the city, talked to approx. 30 students telling them all about Open Studios. Ten people signed up and came on an hour-long tour of the studio building with me. They seemed to have a great time (as did I!) and they all said they would love to visit again next year.


What did we learn?

As for learning so far, we were surprised by a comment from the tutor at college that the students independent computer skills were not very good, suggesting that putting the tickets on Eventbrite might have been a barrier- we had previously assumed all young people to be better than us with technology!

We also found it easy (ish) to go into the College, talk to the students, and come to our event at very short notice. We had previously thought them getting into town, and indeed asking students to do anything ‘extra curricular’ would be very difficult, yet we did this with only 3 weeks lead in time.

In hindsight, I wish I had given the tour participants the wifi password immediately, and asked them to use a hashtag, or had thought more carefully about how to record the responses of the young people. Perhaps a survey afterwards? Overall, I think it went very well and look forward to building on this approach, perhaps inviting other students to our exhibitions in the year ahead.

Cyber Space Shenanigans #ADA

Pauline Bailey is a visual arts practitioner and an ADA Mentor.  Here Pauline re-counts the drama that she encountered when communicating and connecting with people and projects in different places.

I was pleased to be asked to mentor on round 3 of the Culturehive Audience Diversity Academy, though a little apprehensive initially with it being my first time.  I’ve been mentoring for a few decades in a variety of contexts within education, employment and the cultural and creative sector, but this is my first baptism with mentoring online and quite ironic given that I had almost completely disengaged from having a digital presence for most of 2018 due to feeling overwhelmed by the information overload.

Deciding what to write has been a bit of a challenge as I was struggling to work out what real impact I was having on my mentees, and in the midst of too much it was more difficult for me to get my head around everything.  We had what felt like a good start. My fellows were able to articulate the context, rational, aims and objectives etc for each of their experiments and I had a good idea of what they were planning to do.

However, once I’d left the UK for The Gambia to deliver the Daughters of Africa Foundation programme, I felt as though I’d stepped into a French farce, and unable to fulfil my role as a mentor.  What should have been very simple turned into a nightmare because of the very bad and extremely slow Wi-Fi connections in the area I was staying.  In addition to this I was involved in filming at various sites, (three locations per day spread over ten days of my month-long trip). This obviously required moving about a great deal and included co-managing and supporting both sets of our volunteers from UK and The Gambia which made it impossible to do what I’d planned for my ADA Fellows.  So, a very frustrating time for me and I’m sure for them too!

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