Don't tell me what I want!

Don’t tell me what I want!

One of the most innovative UK audience engagement projects in recent years is the Cultural Citizens Programme. By introducing 11-14 year olds from disadvantaged backgrounds to arts and culture near where they live, the program aimed to build the participants’ confidence to choose what to engage with on their own terms.

Helping these young cultural citizens to find out what’s on offer and how to get involved is very different to the usual approach of taking them to an arts event chosen for them by a teacher.

Expectations of the program were not all positive at first, with some of the young people feeling apprehensive, nervous or simply assuming that it could be dull.

“My preconceptions were like… I thought this would be quite boring. I didn’tthink there was anything that I could learn to do with arts and culture.” (Young person, Blackpool)

The Cultural Citizens Pilots took place in four areas of England. Culture Counts worked with Curious Minds, who ran the pilot in Blackpool and Liverpool. Across the pilots, 774 young people took part in 332 arts and cultural experiences across 12 different art forms. It was a notable success, with 97% of the young people involved rating the Cultural Citizens Programme either ‘very good’ or ‘good’, with 60% saying they would now visit more arts and cultural venues in their spare time. The full evaluation of the programme is available here.

“I learnt that there are amazing and interesting cultural events that go on in these cultural venues and I learnt a lot about art careers, how stories are told through many forms of art and how you can open your mind to what else is going on within the arts.” (Young person, Barking and Dagenham)

What was particularly interesting for Curious Minds and Culture Counts was the mystery shopper element of the pilots where arts and cultural organisations didn’t always know someone from the Cultural Citizens Programme was visiting. Often cultural organisations do know when groups of young people are coming. They are then chaperoned during their visit and rarely asked for their detailed feedback on what they thought about the experience. In the Blackpool and Liverpool pilots, the young people visited as members of the general public and reflected on their cultural experiences by responding to dimension statements in the Culture Counts platform.

Unsurprisingly the young people loved some events and not others. But what shone through was their ability to make discerning judgements, particularly about things they didn’t like and why. The pilot helped them to think differently about going to cultural things. 

At Culture Counts we were left wondering how we might work with partners to amplify the voice and preferences of young people to cultural providers. We see our cultural clients demonstrating a huge commitment to producing fun, inspiring and relevant work with and for young people. Many would still maintain that more work needs to be done to ensure the preferences and passions of diverse groups of young people are creatively responded to. We need more programs like the Cultural Citizens Programme and its principles to inspire the work of our cultural organisations. We need fewer ‘taken to’ moments for young people and more takeovers. We need more of their mystery shopper feedback and less teacher mediated feedback. In short, we need to listen harder to a wide range of young cultural citizens if we want to support them to become lifelong cultural consumers.

About the author
John Knell is the Director of Counting What Counts - Culture Counts' partner organisation in the UK.