Is the Arts West alliance the way of the future?

ArtsHub  |  Richard Watts

A collaborative arts marketing initiative in Melbourne’s western suburbs is already kicking goals after less than 18 months.

Arts organisations in the west are reaching out to one another. Image supplied by The Substation.

Established in January 2014 and funded by Arts Victoria, Arts West is a two year, $100,000 pilot program designed to support a collaborative approach to marketing, audience development and capacity building among nine arts organisations based in Melbourne’s western suburbs: Big West Festival, Footscray Community Arts Centre,Barkly Arts Centre, the Women’s Circus, The Substation, Western Edge Youth Arts, Snuff Puppets, Ausdance, and 100 Story Building.

Described as a collaborative arts marketing initiative, the project grew out of research conducted by Arts Victoria using mosaic profiling (a geo-demographic profiling tool that uses aggregated consumer data to provide highly predictive analysis of the Australian population) as well as a qualitative study, and which revealed that although the arts had quite low audience penetration, those surveyed were open to doubling their attendance at arts events in their immediate area.

‘When we put those two findings together, we realised that there was significant opportunity to build audiences. Sitting alongside that, in the background, we realised that overseas there were some quite powerful models for organisations which come together to great success. It’s the safety in numbers argument,’ explained Linda Fleet, Deputy Director, Strategic Marketing and Communications, Arts Victoria.

The expression-of-interest based program was initially driven by Footscray Community Arts Centre (FCAC) and the biennial Big West Festival, but quickly attracted other participants said FCAC Director and CEO, Jade Lillie.

‘My sense is that we tend to speculate a lot in the arts about who our audience is, where they’re coming from, how they’re accessing information, and what they’re interested in doing. And the reason why we speculate is that it’s difficult to capture all of that information when you are, like some of the [Arts West] organisations, very, very small, with less than four staff members, right up to FCAC where we’re delivering over 1800 activities each year. Especially where, with our programs, things are 90% free, we don’t have ticketed events as much, so we don’t tend to capture audience data in the same way that other organisations who have ticketed events might, where you can track where they’re coming from, where they’re going to, the other things that they’ve seen,’ Lillie said.

‘The unique nature of the work that happens in Melbourne’s west is that all of the arts organisations here are community-engaged, and therefore most of the work that we’re doing is privileging communities or being in partnership with communities …We’re invested in activities that are public events, essentially, and it’s much more difficult to capture that sort of data.’

‘So what we wanted to do was understand who the audiences are currently in Melbourne’s west and also start to engage in what the audiences of the west will be in the future.’

Liss Gabb, program coordinator at Barkly Arts Centre (which works with individuals and communities who experience limited access to arts and cultural opportunities including the homeless and mentally ill, as well as young people from culturally diverse backgrounds) said that participating in Arts West gave her and her organisation a chance to better serve communities in the western suburbs.

‘I want the western suburbs of Melbourne both to be an arts destination but also to be a region that has the highest level of arts and cultural opportunities imbedded in all communities. So in short, I’d like to see it become the most culturally democratic region of Melbourne, and aligning with the other arts organisations in the west is certainly a way of looking at how that might happen,’ Gabb said, adding that she was already seeing benefits from participating in the alliance.

‘The most obvious benefit immediately has been that we, as a group of organisations, are actively involved in each other’s programs, so we’re actively involved in understanding which communities they’re serving through what kinds of projects and arts opportunities. So we’re able then to have a look at where some of those gaps are,’ she said.

Lachlann Carter, the co-founder and Program Director of 100 Story Building (a centre for young writers based in Melbourne’s inner-west) said his organisation felt much more embedded in the creative community in the west as a result of participating in Arts West.

‘We’ve got a better sense of the community that we work with and the crossover between us and the other organisations in Arts West. We’ve got a better understanding of who our target markets are in terms of not just publicity but also raising the profile of the arts in the west,’ he told ArtsHub.

Formalising the relationships between the nine participating organisations was also having a direct and positive impact on 100 Story Building’s programs, Carter added.

‘An example of that is, we work with children and their families in writing programs…and using that art form to build literacy skills. And a lot of the families we work with come from backgrounds with languages other than English, and for some of those we’ve been able to tap into the experiences of organisations like Barkly Arts Centre and Western Edge Youth Arts; they’ve done specific programming with specific cultural groups, and their experiences are things we’ve been able to draw on as we start to program for specific cultural groups as well. And it’s almost as if we have, for each of our organisations, an advisory committee that we can draw on, and pick up the phone and have a chat with, and feel freer about picking up the phone as well,’ he said.

While these outcomes will clearly be beneficial for the nine participating organisations, Arts Victoria is also hoping to see some financial benefits develop out of the collaborative arts marketing initiative.

Ruth Gormley, Senior Manager, Strategic Marketing, Arts Victoria, said, ‘Our intent was that within two years we would be able to demonstrate the effectiveness of the model, show that it was starting to work. To be fair, it took a little bit longer for the group to coalesce than we had anticipated, but that said, I’m seeing a very strong group of organisations working together towards shared goals now.

‘For our first year we mostly have anecdotal evidence about the benefit of what was happening; things like moving out from just being a marketing group to the artistic directors now meeting regularly, where previously some of these organisations’ artistic directors hadn’t even meet each other let along work together.

‘The project objectives were to increase audiences at arts events in the west, to increase participation in the arts organisations, and to increase the diversity of the people who are coming in. Now in addition to that we’re kind of hoping to see that there will be some cost savings to them working together. That’s what we’re aiming to see in the next year,’ Gormley explained.

As a practical example of cost-cutting as a result of sharing costs, she pointed to the development of a new client database to be shared between the participating organisations.

‘One thing we have seen of benefit is the organisations working together to get a customer relationship management system up, which they can all use, and they will be able to work together to interrogate the data and find out who’s coming, why they’re coming, and how they can encourage them to come more often,’ Gormley said.

Jade Lillie said: ‘Now, we could have gone ahead as one organisation and invested $20,000 in making that [database] happen; however what’s more useful is that now nine organisations have access to this particular tool that can help us understand how audiences intersect across all of the organisations – along with participants, along with members, donors, any of those people who engage across various organisations in the west.

‘We’ve got some challenges to work out – there’s all of the privacy issues and how we share information and how we really take care of those carefully crafted databases and contact lists and the people that we’ve been working with to cultivate a supportive community about FCAS. I think that we’ll reap the rewards by understanding those audiences and communities better through that. So that’s just one example.’

Other areas where the participating organisations could save on expenditure by pooling their resources include printing costs, website hosting and cleaning services, Lillie added.

Simultaneously, participating in the Arts West alliance also increased the organisations’ opportunities to attract funding, Gormley said: ‘For example, in talking to philanthropic organisations, by coming in together they’ve created a lot more traction than they did when they come in one by one. When they go and present to Council, doing it as a group and talking about the footprint that they have gets them again a lot more attention. They’re now starting to talk to their local business traders and creating that community of interest around what they do in their area, they get more traction; their story is richer.’

Though the success of the program will not be quantifiable until the initial pilot program has been completed and its results analysed, all concerned seem hopeful that the Arts West model will not only be continued, but rolled out elsewhere across the state.

As Arts Victoria’s Linda Fleet explained: ‘This is very much a pilot project, so because it hadn’t been done before we weren’t really quite sure what the journey would look like. It has, I think, been sufficiently successful that we would certainly look to replicate the model where we can.’

Lachlan Carter added: ‘A part of this year is us looking at how this [initiative] becomes a sustainable thing, so it doesn’t rely on continual funding to keep us going; this is about us building our capacity as individual organisations and as a collective. And I would love to see this as an ongoing thing.

‘I think what we’re doing this year is building on those ongoing foundations so it can be sustainable and create a model – or at least the principals of a collective – which can be picked up by other regions, other areas and arts collectives. I definitely see there is benefit there.’

Liss Gabb had the final word: ‘As resources get tighter and arts funding suffers, the only way that we’re going to stay strong and viable as small arts organisations is to work together. I firmly believe that the future is in collaboration and in partnership and in getting rid of the idea of competition.

‘It’s too easy in the arts, especially within small organisations, to become siloed, because you are constantly looking for money and constantly delivering and developing projects on very limited resources. I believe that partnership and collaboration is really the only way that we’re going to survive … you need something that formally brings those organisations together. And this has given us that. It’s much more than marketing.’

First published on Friday 30 May, 2014.

http://www.artshub.com.au/news-article/news/audience-development/richard-watts/is-the-arts-west-alliance-the-way-of-the-future-243952

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