Audience Development - The Adeste Journey

Alessandra Gariboldi, President of Fondazione Fitzcarraldo and lead on the Adeste+ project reflects on Audience Development as it has been conceived and developed by the Adeste partnership

Audience Development (AD, from here on) is a controversial matter. It raises a wide and complex range of issues and challenges: from ensuring cultural rights to questioning who holds the power of defining Culture. From culture’s role in society to the representation of a diverse set of values for different groups of people; from the technicalities to engage audiences to the rebuttal of some “audience” definitions. It also leads to the claim for a fairer and more democratic society made up of empowered citizens through cultural participation.

In such a wide arena, it’s worth introducing the Adeste consortium and the vision that it developed over time, framed thanks to three different EU-funded cooperation projects that allowed us to discuss, test, and research several perspectives.

As a long-standing consortium, Adeste was initiated in 2013 by a group of European entities that were independently researching and discussing these issues a long time before they became a “labelled” topic and a European Commission priority. At a time when AD was mostly understood as a fashionable and culturally acceptable definition of arts marketing, the consortium of researchers, project designers and academics needed to agree on a shared  understanding of the concept.

At that time, despite the partners having a relatively homogeneous background in cultural management, there were different understandings and interpretations of the “failure of participation” in arts and culture, as we were all strongly influenced by our cultural, institutional, and organisational contexts. In countries where cultural management and marketing were still largely lacking, we believed that creating a healthier “data culture” could be a solution. In countries where management and marketing were already largely established, we believed it was a matter of good planning and intentionality. It was felt that something was missing: amazing initiatives were taken in several contexts, but they were systematically marginal, and they were too small-scale or isolated to affect participation rates and patterns in the long term.

This said, it took a while to build a common ground, and we started finding it thanks to the thoughtful question by – not surprisingly– a non-European partner, who asked us why we believed that widening, deepening and diversifying cultural audiences was so important. It was an eye-opening question.

Why does it matter to us? Our shared belief was that AD is what cultural organisations must do in order to improve cultural participation, which is itself a matter of democracy: about making it possible, making it fairer and more equitable.

We soon understood that we were not alone; many researchers and practitioners shared the same concern, and this also explains the success of the consortium over time. Every time we shared our vision with artists, managers, curators, researchers and professionals at all levels, we found interesting and new passionate perspectives, also pushed forward by other consortia across Europe and beyond. Many were contributing to the same end – for example, by raising academic debate, exploring policy frames, testing co-creation practices or investigating the role of arts in public spaces. This puts Adeste in the wider context of those single or aggregated players in the cultural ecosystem who believe in the transformative power of culture, and who are trying to transform its practices to this end. We all strongly agreed on a very basic principle: if people don’t participate in culture, it’s our responsibility. According to this principle, what should be “developed” is the cultural sector, not the audiences.

Thus, we adopted the point of view of organisations, the main players on the ground that must take responsibility for the wider challenge of cultural citizenship and, ultimately, of democracy. We acknowledged the role of policy (and politics), but our attempt to explore practical approaches to change was focused on the organisational level, feeling that our competencies could make a difference.

The first Adeste project (2014-2016) trained more than sixty professionals working in as many cultural organisations in five countries and was aimed at equipping them with the tools and competencies to design consistent audience development plans for their organisations. The original intention was that they should become “audience developers”, change-makers from inside their organisations, equipped with the required competencies to make a difference.

The initial research carried out in the project revealed the importance of fostering ‘soft’ and ‘transversal’ skills as well as emphasising the importance of practical methodologies. It was therefore necessary to address the importance of applying diverse methodologies that could enable the development of leadership, relational and negotiation skills as well as strategic planning. This requires permanent peer to peer learning programmes and the mentoring of professionals:

“Fostering cross-sectoral capabilities and personal attributes such as curiosity, empathy and enthusiasm is a great help.”  (Cuenca, Makua, 2018.)

The training approach then, recognised the importance of ‘hard’ and ‘soft skills’ and aimed to encourage participants to learn in an experiential way, drawing on their own experiences and those of fellows. The intersection between the techniques chosen to promote hard and soft skills was a critical element in the success of the programme. In particular we adopted the Action Learning methodology, a group coaching and learning method developed by Reginald Revans: “Swap your difficulties, not your cleverness” is the underlining principle encouraging participants to show their vulnerability, to be entitled not to have an answer to a question, but to ask help from others, as the new leadership theories claim.     

This holistic approach was a success. All participants were enthusiastic: according to them, the project was a defining moment for their professional career. But, in spite of this satisfaction, participants also reported difficulties and frustration since most of them weren’t able – at least in the short term – markedly to change the attitudes and practices of their organisations. In one or two years after the project, some even changed their job, moving to organisations where they found it was easier to adopt an audience-centred approach.

We learned a great deal. Firstly, that “hard” competencies weren’t enough; secondly, that if we wanted “audience thinking” to become organisational practice, one change-maker in an organisation is not enough; thirdly, that audience planning is not sufficient as such to bring colleagues on board and make the case with senior management. An organisational culture change was needed.

With our second project, CONNECT (2016-2019), we extended the partnership and improved the training model by introducing some more elements. First of all, professionals were not trained alone, but in pairs with students and were required to create and test a real project in their organisations. The training was extended so that some parts were reinforced and some design thinking tools were introduced. Moreover, prototyping became a central piece, entrepreneurial skills were developed, and some organisational analysis and change management tools introduced. Again, the project was a success, tested in five countries with more than 100 participants (half professionals, half students), and again we learned a great deal. Firstly, that design thinking was a promising approach to enable diverse people to work together and to introduce a “fail-fast, fail-better” attitude; secondly, that testing a concrete project was more effective than designing resource-demanding plans; thirdly, that two people are better than one but yet that is not enough: organisations still resisted change and the leadership level was only superficially involved. Any change is risky, resource-intensive and not always sustainable and so we realised we needed something different to maximise our impact.

With our third and last “ADESTE” project (Adeste+ Audience Development Strategies in Europe 2018-2022), taking stock of our previous learning, we experimented together to develop a process to support organisations to design audience centred cultural experiences and, at the same time, develop new forms of internal collaboration, bringing change in small, manageable steps.

In order to do so, we changed the partnership composition: not only academics and researchers with a management background but also cultural organisations and policy-making entities. The commitment of organisations with different competencies, with their knowledge and diversity was crucial for the relevance and adaptability of the project results.

Adeste+ was more explicit in its organisational change ambition, involving cross-sectoral teams within organisations and further developing the Design Thinking approach by adapting it to the specific context of the cultural sector. It also included the application of an Action Learning approach which took place against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic. This approach proved to be particularly valuable in triggering some key elements of the process of change: as a relational and reflective approach it enabled a different mindset among participants, helping to challenge assumptions and facilitating the introduction of creative and collaborative ways of working.

We prototyped and tested this approach in an iterative way with more than 50 organisations of different cultural sectors, in order to get to the essence of a process that could apply to all cultural contexts, regardless of their size, artistic field or background. The main outcome of this work is the Adeste+ Blueprint, the Audience Centred Experience Design or “ACED”: a model of intervention to support cultural organisations in improving their capacity to establish meaningful relationships with their audiences and communities.

As a process, going through the blueprint is a different journey for each organisation, according to its priorities, needs, context and motivations. But we designed it to support all organisations in becoming more porous, as “relational devices” facilitating their ability to take risks, listen to their communities and creatively respond to their needs.

Beyond the projects’ results, the Adeste journey has actively engaged over time (through training, conferences, workshops and summer schools) hundreds of cultural professionals across the world. They represent a critical mass of change makers, equipped to sustain the transformation of the cultural sector into a committed and effective agent for cultural citizenship.


ADESTE - Audience Developer: Skills and Training in Europe (2014-2016) consortium was made by Fondazione Fitzcarraldo, Center for Arts and Interculture, ENCATC, Goldsmith University, The Audience Agency, University of Deusto, Melting Pro, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The India Foundation for the Arts. CONNECT - Knowledge alliance for Audience Development (2016-2018) consortium was made by University of Deusto, Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, Asimétrica, Center for Arts and Interculture, City of Warsaw, ENCATC, Fondazione Fitzcarraldo, Goldsmith University, Melting Pro, The Audience Agency. ADESTE+ (2018-2022) consortium was made by Fondazione Fitzcarraldo, Center for Arts and Interculture, City of Warsaw, ENCATC, Fondacao Calouste Gulbenkian, Fondazione Compagnia di San Paolo, Croatian National Theatre Ivan Zaic, Fondazione Teatro Stabile di Torino, Mapa das Ideias, Mercury Theatre, Melting Pro, Norrebro Theatre, The Audience Agency, University of Deusto, Zaragoza Cultural.

Read more about Why ACED?