Interview with Context curator Emily Bull:
I come from a visual arts background; I did Fine Arts at Nottingham Trent University. And I became interested in the communication between the art and the audience - what happens when you make a piece of work and put it into a gallery and somebody sees it. I did an internship at the Tate, and from there went more into working in learning and participation. And I've constantly been intrigued by that communication between the art and the audience - and vice versa, how the audience can provide content for art as well, and bring it to life. As far as I'm concerned, the audience is part of the art for its life; it wouldn't exist, evolve or continue to be without the audience.
So Context is my practice as an artist; it's what i do instead of making work. Context is a project-led organisation that I set up in 2010. I was doing a Masters degree and looking at increasing the amount of provision and opportunity for rural audiences to access work, and for artists to be able to produce work in a rural setting - as well as bringing artists into a rural setting - mainly in Somerset and the Southwest.
I did a big project that looked at how that could be done. It consisted of one-day, intensive residencies bringing artists and materials together to generate ideas and conversation; to taking over the whole of Somerset College for the summer holidays, thinking about unused space.
We also did a touring outdoor film exhibition where we got digital film and screen-based artists to make short work. So we went to village halls and quite rural places in Somerset, and invited the audience to choose from the programme of art to create their own evening - so they screened the films, they voted on what they wanted to watch.
And then the last piece of the project, we did what we called An Evening of Progress, which brought together artists, funders, stakeholders, people from venues, to come and have a big dinner party - sit around a table and eat food and discuss. It was a really interesting - excuse the pun - context. Bringing people who knew each other, speak to each other when they go to private views. But they had never had the conversation: 'Okay, so you’re the local authority and you provide funding. How do I access that funding?' Or, 'You’re the venue - what space have you got available to show my work?' The conversations that were fundamental to each other’s practice.
So that was the project, and we evaluated it, and I wrote my thesis on how you could make work happen, and about the role of the arts manager; I was doing an Arts Management Masters.
It was through my Masters that I started working for Audiences London Plus, and I got into a full-time role, now as Regional Engagement Manager for the South West. There were all these regional development agencies all doing the same thing, so by combining we've become a sort of best of breed. Audiences Southwest used to be about numbers and audience data, and I've brought more community engagement.
The simplest way to describe it is that we can help organisations understand their existing and potential audiences through research and data. And the second spoke of our work is about practically advising and consulting about engaging with audiences, whether community engagement and outreach, or saying for example 'Our business plan's telling us that we should be looking at targeting families, or older people.' Then we would start looking at focus groups and evaluations and actually getting those audiences in. It's not just the arts, but includes heritage, science museums, the National Trust; culture being the bigger picture - cultural engagement.
I didn't know a huge amount about data analytics when I started. I was working for a dance company as their Education Officer, and before that, the same role in an arts centre. So I was coming at it from an engagement background. But now I think the most valuable part is pure evidence, because there's only so much you can presume about your audience.
For example, a rural village out in Somerset that you know has a lot of affluent people who engage when, say, there's a village fete. With data you can say, 'This is how much people in that village attend the arts; they either visit it outside or visit it in; this is their tendency to visit something should you put it on there; this is their lifestyle, their behaviour.'
It's stuff that you see used commercially, for selling products, but the way we use it for the cultural industry is thematically, for programming - being able to really deepen engagement with an individual or a group of audiences, and to really think about who your audiences are, how your programming and facilities fit them. And then including them in a sort of 360 approach with a review of your organisation and where it sits.
Sharing data & practice
We recently worked with Spike Island on a project called Understanding Audiences - a national benchmarking project looking at visual arts audiences. It was kind of a layered cake where we were funded to make a standardised questionnaire for visual arts venues that don't have box office systems. Showing how they could collect data in a standardised way, and also to train front-of-house staff to collect that data; and thirdly to create a data hub for us to analyse that data for the benchmarking report. Spike was one of 12 organisations in the whole South West, and there were four other regions that took part - East, East Midlands, London and the North West.
It was a really interesting process. Our standardised questionnaire had core data - full postcode, date of visit, stuff like that. And then we had optional, qualitative questions like why they visited, where they travelled from. It's one thing gathering the data, then analysing it, then telling about it, then getting people to use it; and there's always the danger that it can be interpreted in different ways. So our work is supporting people through that interpretation, and applying it so that they benefit.
We see our approach as consultative but practical, so that we provide people with skills so that they can sustain their own practice. Which is why we did a standardised questionnaire - so that they have a format, a template they can continue to use. And we can compare organisations - say Spike and Arnolfini, or Motorcade Flashparade - and then compare that with others across the region, like for example Stroud Valley Art Studios. So we can notice any gaps where we can help or start to shape something that can be sustained.
And this is what lots of our work is about - sharing audiences. You know, how can you increase your audience footfall by sharing audiences with the gallery up the road, recognising that audiences will travel. I think it's a redundant idea that galleries are in competition with each other. Audiences just want to see work.
And I think there's a lot to learn from the museum sector as well. There's a big project called New Expressions 2 happening in the South West at the moment, with I think four museums - M Shed, Plymouth City Museum & Art Gallery, Barnstable, and RAMM in Exeter. They got funding to employ artists-in-residence to better engage with audiences, and to look at their artefacts and shows and stuff, to bring them to life through the residencies. I remember having conversations with them last year and saying, you know, I wonder what would happen if it was the other way around, and art galleries were employing historians or something? Like Spike Island - an old tea factory.
And this year I’ve started to think about Context a bit more. I did a lot of work looking into urban and rural audiences - the nature of the two. And where people travel, and how art travels. Hence there was a lot of correlation between the idea of context and what happens when you take work out of a studio and into another environment, and how that environment might change, whether it’s a village hall or a white-box gallery. And what happens with the artist as well, and what happens with reflection of their work. If you invite an artist from outside a rural context, do they perceive that as being as high-class as a sort of urban, streamlined gallery? Likewise, the appreciatoin of the audience - what happens when you go to see a piece of work in a local environment, as compared to when you travel to go see something?
I’ve spent my professional career working in the South West, and have seen people leaving the South West to go to London, or what they perceive as urban environments, to experience culture. The thinking behind that is that Bristol is the epicentre for the work, really, in the South West, with regard to that cultural, urban environment.
And that leads back to Trace. It's partly a response to my now working in Bristol, whereas the one we did in Somerset was exploring different ideas of how to create opportunities. And Trace seems to be an opportunity in its own right - it's a curated exhibition, it's got a theme, it's a one-off, it's over a week - it's relatively intense. So the idea of Context comes from those boundaries of visual art and craft.
I've got some ideas for what to do next. I really want to do some projects with the notion of popup shops. Popup art galleries in spaces where you wouldn't expect them. It's the same idea as flashmobbing: What would happen if the arts manager and the artists knew they were going to do something in a particular place, and you had followers - audience members - and you just told them, 'Right, okay, tomorrow night from 7 to 9 we're gonna be doing this there.'
And I really want to do something about the transport infrastructure in rural environments as well. Because there's the problem of transport in rural places - there's little to none, and where there are, it's really expensive. And placing artists to make work responsive, so like on the back of bus tickets or in bus shelters, or on trains - because there's a massive tourist trade as well. That same idea of the audience travelling and noticing things. Being somebody who would actively get a bus ticket from Bristol to Highbridge to experience something they'd heard about. To provide work where work isn't usually seen. To provide work by artists who don't usually get the opportunity to make. And to do things that increase the amount of work that people can access.
I'm quite interested in online stuff too, because I think we've barely scratched the surface of how art uses the online world. So the same way I talk about taking work into new contexts and spaces - it's usually within a walled environment, a physical space. But I'm interested in taking it out of physical space and putting it somewhere where people can still access, and making it quite an organic form that lives in a different realm.