Understanding Audiences for the Contemporary Arts

Hear about the UACA project in our short video, made at the launch events for our downloadable handbook

What do we mean by the ‘contemporary arts’?

Works created by living artists? Art forms that are experimental in some way? Or simply anything recent, strange or unfamiliar?

Who are the contemporary arts’ for?

Why does the Turner Prize spark such outrage and fierce debate? If “your child could have drawn that”, what does that tell us about the relationship between artistic skill and enjoyment? Should contemporary art be accessible or challenging?

What is UACA?

Understanding Audiences for the Contemporary Arts (UACA) is a research project (2017-2020) funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, exploring how people engage with contemporary dance, theatre, music, visual art and everything in between. Using qualitative, talk-based methods, the project investigates the role of contemporary arts in the lives of those who attend performances and exhibitions. Over the lifetime of the project, the team has worked closely with arts organisations in Birmingham, London, Liverpool, Bristol and Sheffield to understand their current and potential audiences, and then to put the project findings into action, testing audience development initiatives to recruit new audiences and enhance the experiences of attenders.

This project began life as a collaboration between the Sheffield Performer and Audience Research Centre (SPARC) at the University of Sheffield and Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG) which led to an eight-month pilot study in Birmingham (October 2014 – May 2015). Findings from this pilot study can be found here.

What has UACA achieved so far?

Since the project started in 2017, the UACA team have been working closely with audiences in partner cities. In addition to the recording and analysis of over one hundred hours of in-depth interviews with audience members, the team hosted a major international conference in 2019 and a range of workshops and symposiums over the lifetime of the project, at which practitioners and audience members were able to exchange ideas with academics working on audience research across art forms. The resulting research has already generated a handbook for arts organisations that shares the project’s discoveries in a practically useful way, and as the project reaches its end in 2020, it will also generate academic papers and a jointly authored book.

How can you find out about the project’s results?

You can download the Understanding Audienes for the Contemporary Arts handbook here, for an introduction to the main findings, and learn more about our inital findings here. For more information, please email sparc@sheffield.ac.uk,

What do our partners say?

Tim Rushby took part in our pilot study in his previous role as Marketing Manager at Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG):

The Birmingham pilot study for Understanding Audiences for the Contemporary Arts remains one of the most valuable projects I’ve had the privilege to be involved in.

The project enabled rich discussions with our audiences, providing real insights into how, why and what our audiences valued about BCMG’s work, as well as gaining information about other contemporary arts with which our audiences engaged. Most importantly for me, this project provided greater organisation-wide awareness on how BCMG could better programme and promote its work to a broader contemporary arts audience.

The Birmingham Contemporary Arts Network that developed as a result of the project was a real bonus. Having the opportunity to work closely with a broad range of contemporary arts organisations from across the city, specifically to develop joint programmes and audience development initiatives, felt like it could be the start of something big for Birmingham.

I’m certain that the knowledge and networks that will result from this nationwide phase will be hugely valuable to all organisations and artists involved.

How can you keep in touch?

If you would like to stay in touch with the UACA project – and any future SPARC projects – please follow us on Facebook or Twitter @SPARCsheffield, or you can email us at sparc@sheffield.ac.uk,

The UACA team and colleagues from our Birmingham pilot project