Four contemporary art galleries in the North bring in new family visitors with innovative approach
Evaluation shows new approach, funded by Arts Council England’s Strategic Touring Fund, brings in 123,000 visitors but lessons are also learnt
Four contemporary art galleries in the North of England have successfully brought in thousands of ‘under represented’ new visitors by commissioning special exhibitions aimed at a family audience and using an innovative communication approach, their new evaluation shows.
The Gymnasium Gallery in Berwick, Central Art Gallery in Ashton-under-Lyne, Towneley Hall in Burnley and the DLI Museum and Art Gallery in Durham worked together to create the Generation Tour which visited the galleries between September 2014 and September 2016.
The Tour used a research-based approach to audience development and commissioned artists to develop four brand new hands-on contemporary art exhibitions designed to appeal to families.
Lucy Jenkins, Art Curator for Durham County Council, said “This has been a very successful project with rich learning along the way that we can build on. We hope others in the culture sector can also gain something from our discoveries.”
“We embarked on this project because family audiences were under represented in our venues. This was a missed opportunity, not only in terms of visitor numbers but because contemporary art can enrich the lives of families and encourage a lifelong appreciation and interest.”
“We were delighted that the Generation Tour was so successful. More than 123,000 came to see the exhibitions. Nearly 1,500 filled out questionnaires that showed 83% were visiting as families and the average approval score was 8.7 out of 10.”
“We were especially pleased to see that 14% of those visiting had never set foot in an art exhibition before – getting visitors to try a completely new cultural genre is not an easy thing to do.”
To achieve these results, family focus groups were used and previous research applied to find out what the barriers were to families visiting and what they wanted from a visit. The clearest message was that contemporary art galleries were perceived as ‘hands off’ places where curious, noisy children would not be welcome. Many found the terminology used in marketing off-putting too – even the use of the word ‘art’ was a turn off for many.
The Generation Tour responded to this with exhibitions that were very much hands on, colourful marketing literature that was instantly recognisable as ‘for families’ and training for staff to ensure a warm welcome for this audience.
For all their mainstream appeal, the exhibitions didn’t compromise on artistic quality. Generation AIR by Spacecadets created ambient, breathing inflatables inspired by the human body; Generation NOISE by Owl Project offered huge wooden interactive sound machines; The Tree, The Caterpillar and The Butterfly by Aether and Hemera invited families to bring a nature garden to life using Xbox Kinect technology and Musical Chairs by Hellicar and Lewis offered the chance to compose a changing soundscape by joining hands with other humans. They successfully brought in many families but not everything went to plan.
“We learnt there was a tricky balance between showing families that contemporary art galleries could be hands on but also getting the message across that it was not exactly the same environment as a playground.” said Lucy Jenkins. ” When you’re encouraging people to interact with artworks you need to make sure they are really robust otherwise things can stop working and it causes stress for front of house staff”.
“We’re now looking at our next steps and would like to commission new exhibitions. Funding permitting, these will use interpretation, exhibit robustness and staff training to help families interact with exhibitions in a way that’s both enjoyable for them and sustainable for the art offer.”
“With this learning we’re confident we can deepen the engagement for families further still and continue to play our part in turning around the perception that contemporary art galleries are not for families.”