New Audiences

What are “new audiences” in the arts?

Well, it basically means people who either don’t, won’t or can’t attend or consume the arts. These are people who are less likely to go to the theatre, opera, exhibitions, events and live art displays, either for financial or other reasons. And these are the people that “grants for the arts” are almost always targeted at. A 2011 report from the Arts Council in the UK said that “culture vultures” (people who see art often) are almost exclusively white. Unfortunately, “new audiences” are more likely to be younger, poorer and/or from non-caucasian backgrounds (in the UK/USA).

In other words, there’s a race and class problem in the arts that grant money is supposed to help correct. A question you have to answer is: should your taxes, or charitable organisations, fund arts with highly white-and-wealthy audiences?

Three short examples of (IMHO) bad grant funding

I love the opera. I’ve forked out several times to go see it. But, every time I’ve gone, I’ve been surrounded by white and wealthy people. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it just makes you wonder whether they need or deserve grant money. The Royal Opera House has just used a £2,000,000 grant to make their website mobile responsive and create a few short pdfs. Two other awesome projects that were recently funded: Clapping Music brings a minimalist classical composition to 37,000 iPhone users, and Talking Statues has brought history to life for 40,000 smartphone users.

These are all examples of great projects and institutions that have created good stuff with grants. But, are their audiences “new”? Or are these just new channels? What percentage of these mobile users aren’t from white and wealthy families? How much does that matter?

Why doesn’t funding ever focus on busking?

Arts Council England states that a little over 1/5 English people didn’t engage in the arts at all. This figure only looks at “arts events, museums, galleries, libraries and heritage sites”. But, it ignores the art with the widest demographic – Busking.

Busking is a readily-available source of live performance that is both consumed and created by society’s under-served communities: ethnic minorities, disabled people, immigrants, young people and the homeless. In fact, I’ve seen two homeless men empty their cups of change into the hats of street performers. If I’ve seen this happen twice, it must happen all the time.

Busking is also the only way that artists of all backgrounds can viably earn a living from their art in this post-Spotify/Soundcloud/Youtube world. This, combined with their audience demographics, would seem to make street performance an ideal target for grant funding.

And yet, not only is busking never funded by arts councils, but local councils across England are using new powers to criminalise busking. PSPOs are being considered for buskers in several cities – that’s a proposal to give artists lifelong criminal records for playing the guitar in public.

Our pitch to funders of “New Audiences”

The Busking Project has created an app that enables one-click cashless payments with an emotional side. We’ve done research into busking policy, and are conducting more research on the social and economic impact of live street shows. We’ve won international “placemaking” awards, presented our work to the UN, partnered with major organisations and been quoted in the House of Lords. And we’ve helped defend buskers (and busking) in courts and council houses.

But because the art form and artists we are supporting and protecting don’t have bricks and mortar, or non-profit status, or scheduled events, or audience monitoring, or scholarship funds, or PR agents, or ticket sales, we aren’t eligible for the vast majority of grants.

Unfortunately, without projects like ours, trying to give street performers access to cashless payments and to stem the tide of anti-busking legislation, the millennia-old act of busking could become a thing of the past. We support itinerants entertaining TRULY “new audiences”. Except they’re not new. Buskers have been entertaining everybody – regardless of race, wealth or background – for thousands of years.

What we’ve got going on for 2017

We are currently looking for mentors to help us find funds, and applying to the few arts grants we’re eligible for. That money will go to good use:

  • We’re putting together digital, interactive “city tours” that will link the interests of street performers and key local stakeholders, thus giving buskers important allies in the fight against the few people who try hardest to get buskers banned.
  • We’re creating busking programs in cities that are trying to deal with their “busker problem”, as an alternative to highly regressive auditioning, scheduling and licensing systems
  • We’ve hired a “busker advocate” to reach out to councils and placemakers to demonstrate to them the importance of busking, and the impact it has on cities
  • We’re publishing our research on the health of busking around the world and on the efficacy of licensing systems.
  • We’re funding and promoting busker advocacy projects in cities where councils are beginning to look worryingly anti-busking
  • And we’ve already built awareness of street performance in the placemaking field, but we now want to do the same with arts organisations, creating and publicising evidence that many of the problems with new audiences in the arts can be helped through having a lively busking scene

Please stop ignoring street art

Busking enables diversity in terms of genre as well of audiences and artists themselves, it’s accessible for everyone to produce and consume, it doesn’t require as much funding. And, regarding finance, street artists are making a living, even on difficult times; actually given the crisis many young artists are taking busking as an entry point to their artistic career.

You know what’s the main risk for busking at the moment, land privatisation, city councils and the policies that ban them. It’s odd don’t you think? I believe that the art institutions, researchers and those who influence the discourses should start acknowledging it. Putting busking on their map, and recognising its impact.