Despite increases in recent years, overall visitor numbers to UK museums and galleries are on the decline. Worryingly, this is especially true for under-15s, with this group seeing a 1.8% decrease in visits from 2014-15 to 2015-16, after DCMS adjustments. This may in part be driven by a 6.9% in educational visits for under-18s, but it could be symptomatic of cultural venues being widely perceived as “not for me”. More anecdotally, when you look around at a gallery or museum the audience is usually white, middle class and older – an observation which is supported by the government’s own longitudinal analysis of DCMS’s annual ‘Taking Part’ survey.
So, what can cultural venues do to combat these trends? To a certain extent the sector is already responding with discounts for exhibitions and entries for young people. For example, the Young Barbican, the Under 35s scheme at Wigmore Hall and a substantial price reduction on the National Art Pass for those under 26. Luckily I am (still) young enough to take advantage of these concessions but they are not always well advertised – especially to those groups less likely to go to cultural venues.
Chris Michaels, Digital Director of the National Gallery, usefully highlights some innovative ways the cultural sector can learn from the digital economy in his article. Monthly subscriptions, dynamic pricing and new models of fundraising could all help to mitigate a decline in visitor numbers. However, it is vital for the cultural sector to listen to the voices of those groups not currently going to museums and galleries too: to be truly successful and change entrenched attitudes towards cultural institutions, tackling arts and cultural (dis)engagement cannot be a top-down initiative.
Renaisi has been commissioned by the Arts Council to evaluate the Cultural Citizens Programme, which featured in the Cultural White Paper and is delivered across three pilot sites in England. The young people participating in the programme, in some cases selected due to low levels of arts and cultural engagement, visit five arts and cultural organisations and are able to choose which venues they visit. I’ve been going to schools in Barking and Dagenham where young people have been feeding back on how arts and cultural organisations could improve the visitor experience for young people. Better advertising on social media, more break-out spaces and a wider, and cheaper, variety of food were all prominent themes which emerged from the discussion.
While these suggestions may not be practical for some venues, they have been generated from young people’s direct experience of museums and galleries, and so merit trialing. For the cultural sector to boost attendance among all groups, not just those more likely to attend, we need to think about how people experience a museum or gallery, not just how they can access an exhibition or membership scheme.
I genuinely believe we can think differently through the use of digital economics to send the dark clouds that hang over museums away.