The relationship between the artist and their audience is enduring, empowering, transformational and critical as well as loving. And often, all at the same time. But what exactly does an audience contribute to an artist’s work? Why do artists engage with their audience? And how do artists know if it’s working? But first, why do we make art?
At its best, art has the ability to transform its audience. Change the world? Now that’s a good reason to get your creativity out of bed in the morning. Award winning animator Adam Elliot ensures his style of film making is one of gentle persuasion. But still he feels that his role is clear, ‘we need storytellers to enlighten and evolve us’. Elliot uses his medium to draw attention to the injustices that enrage him. His feature film, Mary and Max, was inspired by his friendship with a pen pal.
Telling a story of a man with Asperger’s Syndrome, Max has spent his life being misunderstood. Elliot hopes that audiences leave his film with an informed perspective on the condition and are less quick to judge people like Max.
David Young, Artistic Director at Chamber Made Opera, also believes that art has the ability to change the way that people think. ‘When I see that transformation, that’s when I get excited’, Young confesses. The transformation that he seeks is a heightened perception of reality; where the audience discovers a different way of viewing the world and lifts their thoughts to new horizons. However, change isn’t guaranteed. Some consideration is required to ensure the best conditions.
When Angela Conquet, now Artistic Director of Dancehouse, and a choreographer were working with a female soccer team in Parisian commission flats, they first established an environment where trust could flourish. The choreographer immersed herself in the girls’ world, socialising and attending soccer training. Through the project, the girls displayed a new strength expressed through an empowered self awareness.
For Conquet, the arts offer a precious space in which ideas, feelings and experiences can be shared. ‘It’s no longer about individualism… but it’s about contributing together to something which will ultimately be a profit for everyone’. Conquet is quick to add that transformation through art is more than abstract theory, but can be made real in artistic practice. There are familiar activities that artists employ to build a connection with their audiences. Talks, forums, articles and interviews provide audiences with the opportunity to see artists and work in a new context. And there are other ways to engage with audiences that also provide artistic and personal satisfaction for both artist and audience.
Chamber Made Opera have been presenting original works in unusual spaces; the living rooms of audience members. The setting is on a human scale. It is domestic, intimate and welcoming. With the artists outside of usual main stage parameters they can take greater artistic risks. There is also time for lively conversation when the artists mingle with the audience after the show. An engaged audience cannot help but have an effect on the artist and their work. For Young, the
audience is an essential ingredient in the art making potion. ‘I’m not particularly interested in work that exists in a vacuum. I’ve written music and scores that sit in boxes, but that’s not the work. The work is this kind of vibration of air and bodies in space’. Elliot hears from fans all over the world. ‘Very rarely do we get to meet. We’re all living in isolation, but through letters and emails we can give each other the confidence, courage and conviction to keep going.’ He confesses that, ‘I need my audiences as much as they need me’. Elliot is always learning from his audiences’ points of view. ‘Sometimes these emails are like free therapy’, he chuckles.
Anything that develops his skills as a writer and a filmmaker is quickly applied to the next project. Conquet witnesses this kind of exchange revealing new directions for artists’ research. Taking the opportunity to talk and work with their audience, the artist has the chance to reflect on and think differently about their work. If audience engagement can be considered significant to an artist’s practice, then it is vital to identify when we are successfully connecting with our audience.
Of course, there remains the business of art. Let’s be ruthlessly pragmatic; more bums on seats gives permission to make more work. But it would be short sighted to reduce audience engagement merely to a quantitative formula. Success can be defined in other ways. There is the immediate reaction of the audience. Have they been moved? Are they emotional, voluble and thoughtful? Elliot feels that, ‘the last thing I would want is for my audience to be apathetic or indifferent. What I need them to be is effected, whether they laugh or cry, or both. I want to push their buttons and I want to provoke a response’.
Young looks for a distinct pattern. ‘After the performance and the clapping has stopped, there’s a silence and then there’s a sudden loud discussion. The proportional relationship between that silence and that volume of discussion is a good indicator of the success and the impact of the work’. Perhaps add a few more points if you have to kick out the audience at the end of the evening. Success should be measured over a long period of time. We should observe and value change that doesn’t fit into an acquittal form or on a profit and loss report.
Conquet tells a lovely tale that illustrates the reward of patience and persistence. She was once presented with a farewell gift from a regular audience member. It was a list of the performances that she had programmed. He had attended every single one. Over this period the man had radically changed his life, including changing career to embrace a more creative life. When Young feels that his audiences are engaged, the momentum is felt throughout the organisation. It’s seen in the number and calibre of artists who want to work with the organisation, and the ease in which relationships are forged with presenters. The relationship of the artist and the audience is complementary; each one holding the potential to inspire, empower and transform the other. Artists can tap a rich vein of benefits by building a connection with their audiences; the most valuable being the ability to tell a story and see it change the world.
This article was first published on ArtsHub.