What can you think of as a good excuse not to try?

ACED in Poland

When was the last time you went to a contemporary art gallery? How many times this year have you seen a theatrical performance? How much time do you spend during the week talking about culture and art?

If the answers to these questions are: Yesterday, a dozen or so, too much, then you probably work in the field of culture, and you will probably be interested in what we did in terms of the ADESTE+ project. Or you are a cultural omnivore, which means that we are interested in you.And if you're a man, then I'm sorry, but you know you're the minority, right? Because there are mostly women working in culture.

Let's start with the obvious. The concept of audience development is still quite little known on the Polish market. The results of a survey carried out a few years ago showed that most respondents do not know this concept at all, and those who do believe it to be marketing in culture.Therefore, for people like me, who saw great potential in this approach, the goal seemed simple - to achieve an increase in the understanding of the concept of Audience Development among a group of people working in culture. Implementing this goal aimed at opening the path to apply this approach, especially in public cultural institutions. 

Warsaw created favorable conditions, because the Culture Office of the Capital City of Warsaw, as the organizer of municipal cultural institutions, allowed implementing training projects with the participation of theatre groups, museums, cultural centers, galleries, and orchestras. In 2015, thanks to the initiative of the Directorate of the Culture Office at that time, together with Marta Skowrońska-Markiewicz, we joined the international team of the ADESTE+ project. It was back then that a network of people working for audience development in Europe began to take form. 

I have represented Warsaw in three subsequent European projects: ADESTE, Connect, and ADESTE+. We have trained more than 200 people in Warsaw, conducted 2 cycles of postgraduate studies, and built the informal ADESTE Warsaw network consisting of female and male practitioners working in the field of culture.Have we reached a satisfactory level of awareness concerning the understanding of audience development? Not yet, because it's a long and never-ending journey. It is the same as constantly, systematically caring for a demanding plant.We received signals and evidence that our work createdresults. nnouncements for positions as institution directors began to include requirements for an audience development plan in several institutions, people or departments have been appointed that bear such a name, and research is carried out to gain knowledge concerning the audience. 

Meanwhile, our goal has evolved - the awareness of the concept of audience development constitutes only the first step. The appetite is growing and we hope that institutions will act in accordance with its ideas, and that they will begin to act differently. For some institutions, this means acting completely differently, and convincing decision-makers to this change is a challenge.Certain about the audience development idea, we are trying to help institutions through this change taking advantage of various methods - the method of a lonely heroine who will infect others in the organization, the authority method, cooperation with academics, and most recently the team prototyping method, meaning the method of fait accompli. All signs indicate that the latter method is the most effective. We call it ACED - Audience Centered Experience Design and it is the result of the ADESTE+ team's work.

Let's decode the name: Designing an experience focused on the public, putting the audience at the center. "Design" means that we have an idea, we prepare a plan. "Experience" means to experience something, and on the basis of philosophy, the entire process of perceiving reality. "Audience" means a certain set of people, but also an individual, simply a human being. "Centered" means putting something in the correct position, in this case we believe that the correct position of the audience is in the center of attention.By taking advantage of the ACED, we want to provide everyone with better, easier access to culture and art. We want to make sure that our cultural institutions, especially public ones, do not exclude anyone. We believe that this can be achieved when we get to know and understand how different people from our surrounding behave, what is important to them, what pleases them and what worries them, how an institution can become an essential and natural element of their lives.In other words, we want to implement the ideas of audience development through the functioning of institutions in such a way  that a person/audience experiences something important, significant, developing, supporting, purifying – in whatever way we may define the mission of institutions in the program-person relation. This is a difficult undertaking, we assume that it can take a long time, and not everyone is ready for such a change. We still believe that it is worth trying, and that there is no other way in the case of public institutions.In this risky and difficult process of change, the ACED method gives as much safety as possible. We've carried out test versions of the ACED process in dozens of institutions in Europe, and subsequent trials resulted in more experience and wisdom, as you can see by visiting the (nazwa strony) website. 

What do you have to watch out for in order to ensure success in this process? What can you think of as a good excuse not to try?


There are institutions that are program-oriented, for example in terms of artistic activity or preserving heritage. They are aware of this and they do it consistently. There is little space for implementing ACED in such institutions, but it is still possible. It is another case when an organization claims to act for the benefit of, for example, the local community, while creating a program of what it considers important and valuable and then "selling" this program to the public. You are probably familiar with the "We have a great program, but the communication department can't sell it" narration. And what if we never asked ourselves about the institution's mission? It is a very good starting point, to begin with a reflection on whether art is a goal or a tool for us. 


Too small teams and too many tasks are a standard in institutions. It turns out that only a mature leader considers the need to invest in planning and evaluation as something obvious. One has to be aware of the methods and principles that make us work smarter andmore productively, rather than more and faster. Experimenting, analyzing, correcting, breaking habits, and self-organization constitute the path to work with less effort and with more satisfaction. This doesn't just come by itself, one has to devote time, energy, and attention to it, and then wait for the results. For some organizations, this means the necessity to change the awareness of employees (Where does money come from in our organization? How are the business costs distributed?) or making difficult program decisions (fewer exhibitions, fewer premieres). The starting point may consist in realizing the importance of the "less is more" principle and focusing on the quality of experience and not quantity.


Making decisions based on data seems to be a fairly obvious course of action, especially in institutions that operate with public funds. This happens in theory - but the practice is not as positive. Many institutions still have a fetish for the number of premieres/exhibitions/performances, the number of sold tickets, the number of workshop participants, and other quantitative business dimensions. Only a minor number of institutions consider quality as the basis for measuring work results - audience loyalty, willingness to recommend, quality of experience, attitude of the local community towards the institution (sentiment), inclusiveness, care for employees, the surrounding, and the environment, or the level of participation.Audience development constitutes conscious, long-term, orderly, and systematic work on relationships with people, in which everyone in the organization should engage. This means that we can measure effects, react and correct actions mainly on the basis of qualitative measures. Such an approach pays off, because the reward also consists of a high number of people interested in our program and a sense of the environment that this is "our place".


We call it the broadcaster mode. Unfortunately, most of our institutions have the broadcasting mode enabled. The broadcaster is convinced that he or she knows what the recipient wants to hear and experience. The broadcaster does not see the need to observe, listen, ask questions, or talk. The broadcaster behaves like a colonizer. In some cases, organization leaders actually know their audience, because it constitutes a hermetic, narrow group focused on a given environment or idea. However, there are more and more examples of breaking these attitudes - observation logs of a team handling an exhibition, a director on duty at the cash desk or lobby, the team going out of the office, qualitative research, social media analysis, or program councils composed of the audience. Without humility or a lively and sincere interest in other people, ACED will not succeed. According to some, empathy has devalued as a concept, but in this approach it is a must.


The tools that we offer in terms of ACED have been successfully developed and used in various types of enterprises for many years, including in the creative and technological sectors. For some people working in the field of culture, this is enough to reject them, because "We are not a corporation!" If we understand that the basis of methods used in terms of ACED consists in scientific knowledge concerning cognitive processes, we may be able to overcome this reluctance. Creating innovative solutions is not reserved for creators of apps, medical equipment, or the banking sector. We can successfully use the same or similar tools of thought, techniques that strengthen creativity, inventiveness or change by talking about social values and goals. And if by "corporatism" we mean discipline and efficiency, then I am in favor of it. Even more so, seeing how modern companies, wanting to hire and keep talented people, care about values more than many public institutions. 

To sum up: Yes, the change will be difficult, painful, and may not bring immediate results. The failures and problems that will happen along the way are an inseparable part of the process, so when you decide to give it a try, keep an eye out for them. And when they take place, look at them, think about what they taught you, what you can do differently or wiser next time, and try again. The prize will be a diverse audience that believes that they need the place you create and that the place is important and valuable. That it's the audience’s place - a place for all of you.

Beata Dubiel-Stawska
Poland, Warsaw

Published on 27 May 2022

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