UACA methods


Understanding Audiences for the Contemporary Arts: Research Methods

This page provides an overview of the research methods employed on the Understanding Audiences for the Contemporary Arts project.

Project timeline

Pilot study methods

National phase methods

Research ethics

Expand All


Project timeline

Pilot studyUACA launchAudience researchAction research / write-up
Oct 2014 - May 2015May 2017 - Dec 2017Jan 2018 - Sep 2018Oct 2018 - Oct 2019
Investigating engagement with the contemporary arts in Birmingham. Interviews with audience members and staff at contemporary arts organisations in the city, as well as ethnographic observation at contemporary arts events.Establishing partnerships with contemporary arts organisations in Bristol, Liverpool and London. Interviews carried out with audience members for contemporary arts events in Bristol, Liverpool and London. Culminating in our UACA partners workshop and Open Space event (September 2018)Analysis of the audience research interviews. Launch of our national survey testing emergent findings outside the four case study cities. Audience development initiatives to be designed and implemented by arts organisation partners from each of the four cities, testing emergent findings from the interviews. Culminating in our Audience Research in the Arts conference (July 2018).


Pilot study methods

The research presented in this report was conducted through a collaboration between the Sheffield
Performer and Audience Research Centre (SPARC) and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group
(BCMG). Responding to the striking absence of research regarding audience crossovers between
contemporary work in different art forms, the project has investigated who comes to the
contemporary arts, what experiences they have, why these experiences are valuable to them (or
not), and what strategies contemporary arts organisations are currently employing to develop
relationships with audiences (extract from Pilot Study Report).

Partners:
Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG) (lead partner)
BE Festival (Birmingham European Theatre Festival),
Craftspace,
DanceXchange
Grand Union.

Life history interviews

Life history interviews

52 interviews were carried out by Dr Jonathan Gross (then Research Associate on the project) with audiences for contemporary arts events in Birmingham.

Through the use of specifically developed, semi-structured, ‘life-history’ interviews, we gave audience members an unusually extended and ‘open’ opportunity to articulate their experiences of the arts; to track the development of their cultural experiences, attitudes, tastes and practices over their lifetime; and to articulate these experiences in relation to any parts of their life to which they are connected – such as work, family, education, friendships and other interests. The way in which these interviews were conducted also gave participants the opportunity to ‘think out loud’ and to answer the same question more than once, in a different way. These methods respond to the considerable challenges that face attempts to articulate experiences of the arts and their value; and create conditions in which the full importance of these experiences – embedded within rich biographical contexts – can be expressed (extract from Pilot Study Report).

Interviews lasted an average of 1h 09 minutes and provided participants with an opportunity to describe their experiences of the arts over the course of a lifetime. The interview schedule can be downloaded by completing this form.

Pilot study interview participants

52 interviews with 53 audience members (1 double interview)

NB. 4 participants did not give their consent for their data to be used in future research projects, therefore the number of interviews has changed from previous publications where it was reported as 56 interviews with 57 audience members.

Recruited via the mailing lists of the partner organisations as follows:

  • BE Festival: 14 participants
  • BCMG: 20 participants
  • Craftspace: 8 participants
  • DanceXchange: 5 participants
  • Grand Union: 5 participants
  • Unsure / word of mouth: 1 participant

Demographics of the dataset:

  • Age: from 22 to 86 years old.
    16-24 = 5  |  25-34 = 5  |  35-44 = 2  |  45-54 = 7  |  55-64 = 12  |  65-74 = 17  |  75+ = 5
  • Educational history: from school leaver to university professor.
  • Occupation: including civil servants, administrators, community artists, an art therapist, students, a commodity trader, a consultant geneticist, social workers, teachers, and other occupations besides.
  • Type, duration and intensity of previous involvement with the arts, including: recently developed interests in the arts; very infrequent attendance at live events; engagement in amateur art practice; advanced art school education; long-standing and/or extremely frequent arts attendance; membership (or financial support) of arts organisations in Birmingham.
  • Location: 31 participants lived within the Birmingham city council region, 10 lived within the wider West Midlands county, 9 lived further away from the city in neighbouring counties (Shropshire and Worcestershire), with 2 participants in London and 1 in Manchester.

Participant observation

Participant observation

We supplemented these interview methods with participant observation, in order to speak informally with audiences in situ, in the immediacy of their arts experiences; and to observe the uses audiences make of particular organisational spaces. We conducted participant observation at Digbeth First Friday events, at which a number of small and medium sized contemporary art galleries and studios in the Digbeth area of Birmingham open late and invite people to visit a range of venues during the course of the evening. We also conducted participant observation at BCMG concerts and rehearsals. Members of the BCMG Sound Investors scheme are given access to rehearsals, and – as discussed in the ‘Findings’ section below – for many  participants this is a very important part of their overall engagement with BCMG. Being able to speak to people informally – before, after and during these events – provided important additional insight into participants’ experiences of the contemporary arts and the value they place on them.

Audience exchanges

Audience exchanges

See also: “Audience exchange”: cultivating peer-to-peer dialogue at unfamiliar arts events

We conducted four ‘Audience Exchange’ visits, taking groups of between 8 and 12 people to a performance or exhibition at an organisation presenting contemporary work, and holding a group discussion. Participants were encouraged to sign up for a visit to an art form or an art organisation they are less familiar with, or do not typically visit. This method has two significant benefits. Firstly, it creates opportunities – in situ – to explore audience experience of contemporary work with which they are unfamiliar. And secondly, it creates conditions in which research participants can share experiences as a group. This allows for important themes and ideas to develop through the group dynamic; encouraging responses to be exchanged, shared, and contradicted; and for matters of shared concern or interest to emerge in ways that only a group conversation can make possible.

15 participants took part in 4 audience exchanges:

  • BCMG Family Concert: Pathways and Places, 8th March 2015 – 10 participants
  • DanceXchange: 21 Years / 21 Works by Vincent Dance Theatre, 18th March 2015 – 8 participants
  • Eastside Projects: visit to Birmingham Show exhibition, 19th March 2015 – 7 participants
  • Ikon Gallery: visit to A.K. Dolven and Nástio Mosquito exhibitions, 19th March 2015 – 6 participants

Organisational interviews

Organisational interviews

Finally, we conducted interviews with the directors of the five arts organisations with whose audiences we had conducted fieldwork. The reason for this was to explore with senior figures, in strategic roles within their organisations, the ways in which they currently work with their audiences, and what challenges the organisation faces in working with audiences in the future. This final method allows for the research to bring organisational and participant perspectives into dialogue, putting the project in the best possible position to produce findings that draw on – and respond to – the articulated experiences and concerns of all those with an interest in the contemporary arts, and the organisational conditions and challenges within which these experiences take place.

  • BE Festival – Miguel Oyarzun
  • BCMG – Stephen Newbould
  • Craftspace – Deirdre Figueredo
  • DanceXchange – Linda Saunders
  • Grand Union – Cheryl Jones

Plus informal conversations with Kim McAlesse (Grand Union), Ian Francis (Flatpack), Libby Aldrige (DanceXchange), Sadie Newman (BE Festival), Charlotte Martin (Stan’s Cafe), Tim Rushby (BCMG), Adam Cooper and Kealy Cousins (Sound and Music), Sound Investors group discussion, and BE Next group discussion.


National phase methods

In May 2017, the national phase of Understanding Audiences for the Contemporary Arts launched, expanding the research out to three more cities in the UK: Bristol, Liverpool and London.

Bristol: Spike Island (lead partner), Colston Hall, In Between Time, Mayk, Watershed

Liverpool: The Bluecoat (lead partner), Constellations, FACT, Liverpool Biennial, Unity Theatre

London: Bush Theatre (lead partner), The Albany, Artangel, Nonclassical, Sadler’s Wells

Audience interviews

Audience interviews

Semi-structured interviews were carried out with 135 audience members in Bristol, Liverpool and London. Building on findings from the highly exploratory life history interviews in the pilot study, we designed a new interview schedule which asked participants to discuss the following topics:

  1. Arts engagement (c.25 minutes)
    Which art forms they chose to engage with / not engage with, how they made decisions about what to attend, the value of arts attendance in their lives, their thoughts on the contemporary arts
  2. The arts where you live (c. 10 minutes)
    Participants were asked to reflect on their city as a place for the arts, what arts provision was plentiful and where it was lacking, their awareness of arts events, and how their location shaped their engagement.
  3. Routes to engagement (c.10 minutes)
    Finally, in keeping with the pilot study, participants were asked to describe how they became interested in the arts, from school and family influences, to the ways in which their engagement fits with their other interests today.

The schedule was still flexible, providing a series of questions and prompts to ellicit descriptions of arts engagement from the participants, but questions were often asked in a different order, or abandoned altogether when participants talked about those topics spontaneously.  Download the UACA Interview Schedule

On average, interviews lasted 48 minutes.

Participant recruitment

Participant recruitment

Recruiting participants was one of the most challenging parts of this project. The research project was promoted via social media and newsletters by the partner organisations. All interviewees who signed up online were asked the following questions:

  • In the last 12 months, have you been to any of the following?
    • Art Exhibition
    • Craft exhibition (not crafts market)
    • Play / drama
    • Dance performance
    • Opera
    • Classical / contemporary music performance
    • Film screening
    • Video or electronic art event
  • Do any of the following describe you? (tick all that apply)
    • I am a professional artist/arts practitioner
    • I work in the arts as a manager, administrator, marketer or similar
    • I studied an arts subject in higher education (e.g. university degree)
    • I volunteer for an arts organisation
    • I am an amateur artist, actor, dancer, musician or similar
    • I used to be an amateur artist, actor, dancer, musician or similar
    • None of the above
    • Other
  • What is your occupation?
  • What is your postcode? (first half only)
  • Which of the following age categories do you fall into?
  • How would you describe your gender?
  • How would you describe your ethnicity?

These questions helped us to select participants who represented a range of different demographics, professions and levels of arts engagement. We were aware that audience research has had a tendency to feature participants who were predominantly white, retired, affluent and well-educated; this is hardly surprising since that is also the demographic of most arts audiences. What became clear quickly was that our online recruitment was attracting a very similar population:

  • Overwhelming numbers of arts professionals (41% of online sign-ups)
  • Demographic bias: often female, often white

Furthermore, some organisations had an incredibly low sign-up rate when the study was advertised on social media or through their mailing lists. In order an attempt to recruit a more diverse group of participants:

  • We looked for partners that reach different audiences e.g. family, heritage, culturally-specific programming, free events
  • We recruited in person at targeted events that were believed to have a more mixed crowd, by approaching audience members before, during the interval, or after an event.
  • We offered a £10 voucher to every participant to reimburse for their time or travel costs

Overall, 321 people signed up to take part in this research, 159 online (50%) and 161 in person (50%). One participant found out through word of mouth.

It was not always possible to gather this information from every in-person sign-up due to time restrictions or willingness to complete the sign-up survey. However, by asking the sign-up survey questions for as many respondents as possible, we were able to select interview participants that represented as diverse a sample as possible.

click here to close

Interview participants

Interview participants

131 interviews were carried out with 135 audience members (4 double interviews). Our aim was to recruit 6-10 participants per organisation (30-50 per city).

Recruitment of interview participants
BristolLiverpoolLondon
45 participants45 participants45 participants
Spike Island
(11 participants)
The Bluecoat
(11 participants)
Bush Theatre
(8 participants)
Colston Hall
(6 participants)
Constellations
(4 participants)
The Albany
(7 participants)
In Between Time
(9 participants)
FACT
(9 participants)
Artangel
(10 participants)
Mayk
(14 participants)
Liverpool Biennial
(10 participants)
Nonclassical
(9 participants)
Watershed
(4 participants)
Unity Theatre
(10 participants)
Sadler's Wells
(10 participants)
Other / unclear
(1 participant)
Other / unclear
(1 participant)
Other / unclear
(1 participant)
Demographics of interview participants
 OverallBristolLiverpoolLondon
Sign-ups:321 sign-ups
159 online (50%)
161 in person (50%)
1 word of mouth
95 sign-ups
50 online (53%)
44 in person (46%)
1 word of mouth
105 sign-ups
33 online (31%)
72 in person (69%)
121 sign-ups
76 online (63%)
45 in person (37%)
How would you describe your gender?Female/'F'
80 participants (59%)

Male/'M'
48 participants (36%)

A lot male with elements of female
1 participant (1%)

Genderqueer
1 participant (1%)

Non binary
1 participant (1%)

Queer man
1 participant (1%)

No response
3 participants (2%)
Female/'F'
23 participants (51%)

Male/'M'
18 participants (40%)

Genderqueer
1 participants (2%)

Non binary
1 participants (2%)

Queer man
1 participants (2%)

No response
1 participants (2%)
Female/'F'
29 participants (64%)

Male/'M'
15 participants (33%)

A lot male with elements of female
1 participants (2%)
Female/'F'
28 participants (62%)

Male/'M'
16 participants (36%)

No response
1 participant (2%)
Which of the following age categories do you fall into?
(see graph below)
Range: 16-74
Average age: 44
Range: 16-74
Average age: 45
Range: 16-74
Average age: 46
Range: 16-74
Average age: 44
How would you describe your ethnicity?
(see graph below)
White British / other white backgrounds: 80%

Black / Black British: 6%

Mixed/Multiple ethnic groups: 6%

Asian / Asian British: 3%

Chinese: 1%

No response: 2%
White British / other white backgrounds: 76%

Black / Black British: 10%

Mixed/Multiple ethnic groups: 8%

Asian / Asian British: 2%

Chinese: 0%

No response: 0%
White British / other white backgrounds: 91%

Black / Black British: 0%

Mixed/Multiple ethnic groups: 2%

Asian / Asian British: 2%

Chinese: 4%

No response: 2%
White British / other white backgrounds: 78%

Black / Black British: 4%

Mixed/Multiple ethnic groups: 6%

Asian / Asian British: 4%

Chinese: 4%

No response: 1%
Professional involvementProfessional arts practitioners
14 participants (10%)

Work in the arts as a manager etc
8 participants (6%)

None of the above
45 participants (33%)
Professional arts practitioners
5 participants (11%)

Work in the arts as a manager etc
4 participants (9%)

None of the above
9 participants (20%)
Professional arts practitioners
4 participants (9%)

Work in the arts as a manager etc
1 participants (2%)

None of the above
20 participants (44%)
Professional arts practitioners
5 participants (11%)

Work in the arts as a manager etc
3 participants (7%)

None of the above
16 participants (36%)
Location

Bristol participants were almost all (44 out of 45 participants) based in Bristol city centre and surrounding neighbourhoods: Easton (9 participants), Bedminster (9 participants), Bishopston (7 participants), Redland/Cotham (5 participants), and Knowle (4 participants).

Liverpool participants on the whole lived either around Liverpool (26 participants) or on the Wirral (13 participants). The 26 participants living in Liverpool were particularly clustered around the Garston area, such as Toxteth (6 participants) and Sefton Park (6 participants). The 13 participants who lived on the Wirral were particularly clustered in New Brighton (5 participants).

London participants were located in various parts of the city, although noticeably fewer in South West London. 9 participants lived in the South East and 8 participants in the North West of the city. Another cluster of participants (7) lived North of Kings Cross, close to Victoria line stations. London participants also include two people who did not live in London, but visited regularly work.

click here to close

Action research

Action research

Further information on the action research phase of the project will be added shortly.

National survey

National survey

On 24th October 2018, we launched a survey aimed to test initial findings from our audience interviews amongst the wider arts-attending population in the UK. In particular, we were interested in the idea that even arts attenders who see themselves as open-minded have limits in their attendance; everyone seeks some element of guarantee within their willingness to take a risk. The survey was designed to investigate the factors driving people towards or away from contemporary arts and unfamiliar programming.

The first year of this project has shown that the boundaries between attenders and non-attenders are not fixed, and there are many factors that draw people towards contemporary arts or keep them away. In this survey, we’re hoping to find out more about what makes people take a risk in their arts attendance, and how that knowledge might be valuable to organisations who want to make their work more accessible to more people.

Director of the Sheffield Performer and Audience Research Centre, Stephanie Pitts

The survey, hosted on Survey Monkey, employed a mixture of qualitative and quantitative questions and can be downloaded here: Download the UACA National Survey

Recruitment and sampling

Recruitment and sampling

We enlisted the help of UK-based arts organisations to publicise the survey amongst their audiences on the day of the launch. This was well-received amongst industry partners, many of whom happily offered to post on social media channels and 68 twitter accounts (mostly belonging to arts organisations) tweeted about the research with some also posting on Facebook and circulating it in enewsletters. From our own SPARC account, we know that our tweets about the research garnered over 28,000 impressions and a further 1100 on Facebook.

Despite this coordinated publicity effort, engagement with the survey was low. We received 38 responses on the first day, which slowly climbed to 142 responses by the time we closed the survey on 31st January 2019. While still providing a substantial data set for a lengthy quali-quant survey, the relatively low completion rate perhaps indicated a mismatch between the 280-character conversations of Twitter, and the greater time commitment of our survey.

Recruiting via social media helped to reach a younger sample than is often seen in this research, with 36% of respondents under 35 and 18% over 65. Women comprised almost two-thirds of the respondents. 85% of the sample described themselves as white British (126 responses to demographic questions).

There is a propensity for surveys such as this to be completed by arts professionals. We therefore asked every respondent about any professional engagement or training in the arts, and to tell us their occupation. Collating responses regarding professional arts practice, working in the arts as a manager or similar, and open-text responses in the ‘Other’ field, we have identified 62 respondents (49%) with a current or prior professional interest in the arts. This proportion is significantly higher for younger respondents (77% of 25-34 year olds) and people of colour.

Response rate

Response rate

The survey was designed to take around 20-25 minutes to complete; the average time taken to complete the survey was 27 minutes (excluding 4 outliers of multiple hours).

142 respondents:

  • 71 respondents fully answered every question on the survey (‘COMPLETE’=C)
  • 47 respondents completed the survey, but missed out the odd question (‘ALMOST COMPLETE’=A)
  • 8 respondents completed the survey, but missed out whole sections (‘PARTIALLY COMPLETE’=P)
  • 16 respondents abandoned the survey part of the way through (‘INCOMPLETE’=I)

Having studied the data, we decided that there was valuable insight in all responses, even those that were incomplete, therefore we have not removed any of the 142 responses in their entirety from our data analysis. We have, however, excluded a respondents’ answers from analysis of a particular group of questions when their responses were too incomplete. The completion rate for each group of questions is therefore as follows:

Survey responses by question group
SectionDescriptionNo. of responses
1. Place and SpaceQuestions about the arts local to them and a venue they visit often138
2. Motivation to attend"What are the most important aspects of a live arts experience for you?"139
3. Artform Attendance"In the last 12 months, how many times have you been to the following [art forms]?"135
4. Most likely to attendQuestions regarding why certain art forms appeal more than others.132
5. Least likely to attendOpinions on disliked or least attended art forms.127
6. Attitudes to contemporaryGauging receptiveness to the contemporary, and what that word is thought to mean.129
7. Risk-takingRespondents were asked to reflect on a time when they took a risk in attending an arts event.117
8. Demographics and professionDemographic characteristics, occupation, and professional engagement in the arts126
9. Marketing images and copyReactions to 1 of 5 pieces of arts marketing123
(A/B Test breakdown: 28, 26, 21, 27, 21)
10. Send a message to the arts sector"If you could send a message to arts organisations in the UK today, what would you ask them to think about?"(optional)
115

Data analysis

Data analysis

Interviews

All interviews were recorded and transcribed verbatim, either by Elizabeth Dobson, UACA Support Officer or by a transcription company (depending on participants’ data processing permission). Interview transcripts were then returned to participants, who were given two weeks to suggest any amendments. Once transcripts were approved, they were fully anonymised, inputted into NVivo for analysis, and printed copies were produced for members of the research team.

We are currently analysing the transcripts and writing papers and reports on the findings. We are analysing the data using Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA), in which the researcher seeks to understand how a participant makes sense of and finds meaning in their lived experiences. Using IPA, we have been closely reading the transcript of each participant, looking at how they articulate the value of arts engagement in their lives and what impact this had on their selection of arts events. We also take note of how participants present themselves in the interview, paying particular attention to moments of reflection, realisation, contradiction and self-censorship. We combine this with thematic analysis across the dataset as a whole, looking for participants’ comments on a particular topic. Data relating to the topic is then coded in NVivo, and analysed to find sub-themes where participants speak about the topic in a similar way.

Research ethics

All research methods employed in this project were approved by the University of Sheffield ethics committee. Participants gave informed consent before taking part in the project and their personal data has been stored and processed in accordance with the EU General Data Protection Regulation. Interview participants in the national phase were asked whether they would like to be given a pseudonym or whether we should use their first name; their wishes have been respected throughout.

Participant codes

Participant codes


Research methodCode
Audience interviewsBirmingham pilot study life history interviewsBh00
Bristol UACA audience interviewsBr00
Liverpool UACA audience interviewsLv00
London UACA audience interviewsLd00
Audience exchangesPilot study audience exchangesAX00
Organisational interviewsBirmingham organisational interviewsn/a - named
National surveyRespondents to the national surveyNS000C/A/P/I
C = complete
A = almost complete
P = partially complete
I = incomplete
(see above)
Action researchCulture Feast evaluation surveys and interviewsCF00

Back to top