Australia-first survey shows where arts organisations can do better on audience diversity

Theatre-Seats-photo-by-Denise-Jans-UnsplashMany of Australia’s arts organisations are talking the talk when it comes to improving the diversity of their audiences, but far fewer are walking the walk on the critical actions needed to get there, according to a nation-first survey led by Deakin University.

Results from a survey of more than 1000 arts workers working across 184 Australian arts organisations have shown there is plenty of work to be done in building better understanding and engagement with audiences.

  • 43 per cent reported no strategic commitment to audience diversification.
  • While all organisations surveyed said audience diversity was important to them, nearly half had not identified which diverse audiences were the target.
  • Very few (less than half) of respondents considered changing their programming to attract new audiences, focusing instead on programming for known audiences and existing stakeholders.
  • 41 per cent relied on assumptions about their audience and didn’t engage in any audience research.
  • Almost a third said their connection with their audience was chiefly through the box office.

A team from Deakin and the University of Sheffield undertook the survey to identify strengths and weaknesses in the work needed to diversify audiences, supported by funding from the Ian Potter Foundation and the Australia Council for the Arts.

The survey identified eight tasks that lead to more diverse audiences and outlines how organisations can be Leaders, Adaptors or Avoiders of this work.

It found most Australian arts organisations are ‘Adaptors’; undertaking partial change but yet to make the full breadth of organisational change needed to diversify audiences, instead focusing on programming for loyal and familiar audiences.

Deakin Business School Professor of Arts and Cultural Management Hilary Glow said the aim was to shift the social profile of arts audiences to include more First Nations people, deaf and disabled communities, and those from different cultures, age groups, geographic locations, and sexual and gender identities.

“More diverse audiences can bring big benefits for arts organisations including the ability to share new and distinct stories, increase the public value of arts, and improve financial sustainability,” said Professor Glow.

“Attracting new and diverse audiences will require changes to the practice of arts organisations, and they need to be encouraged or assisted to make these changes.”

The most positive response in the survey was the recognition of the need for change. But Professor Glow said she was surprised to see a high prevalence of ‘Avoider’ behaviour in some areas, particularly in identifying target audiences, researching these audiences and their barriers to participation, and then adaption of programming.

“Our findings help to explain the lack of diversity in arts audiences. Arts organisations are either uncertain of or resist the work needed to change the social profile of their audiences,” she said.

“This report also highlights the need to build the skills and capacity of arts organisations to undertake audience-centric practice.”

Professor Glow said the team was pleased with the large response to the survey. She said this, plus the project’s support from all state and territory governments as well as peak bodies in the arts and cultural sectors, showed there was significant goodwill towards the idea of improving audience diversity.

“The critical next step is converting this goodwill into meaningful and effective action,” she said.

As part of the project’s next stage, a panel of change experts has been identified who exemplify the work needed in arts organisations to diversify audiences.

Alongside the project team, they will work with 11 arts organisations to form a ‘Community of Practice’ to inform the production of development resources for the wider sector encouraging change and ‘Leader’ behaviour in all arts organisations.

For more information on the Changing Organisations to Diversify Arts Audiences report, visit: for details.

Image: Theatre Seats – photo by Denise Jans | Unsplash