Suzie Plumb and I work as Cultural Projects Managers for the Arts Development Unit at Tunbridge Wells Borough Council. We’ve recently received funding from various bodies, including Arts Council England, Kent County Council and Medway Council to embark on a 3 year audience development project: Hoodwink. This article aims to introduce the reader to the concepts behind the Hoodwink philosophy and to stimulate debate about the value of contemporary art in everyday life.
The Hoodwink team are trickster do-gooders, working at the very edges of curatorial practice. They target non-users of museums and art galleries and expose them to art practice in the most unlikely, surprising and exciting of places. By bringing the art to the people, their work creatively challenges current perceptions of exhibiting space and environment, and often deliberately subverts the traditions of curatorial practice in order to break down the barriers to engagement. They provide opportunities for museums and artists to expose their work to new audiences and develop their own practice through working in new site specific ways.
We will be commissioning work for 9 commercial venues across the next 3 years. Unlike other arts projects that have used empty shop spaces, Hoodwink venues are already occupied for commercial use, for example: supermarkets, sports centres and public houses. Showing work in these spaces targets non-users of galleries and museums by exposing the venues’ existing customers to the work on display in a comfortable and familiar setting.
We’re using Arts Council England research to define and target our non-users. ACE arts-based society segments define the majority of non-users into 3 categories: time-poor dreamers; a quiet pint with the match; limited means, nothing fancy.
Targeting is realised through community engagement undertaken by the commissioned artist during the research and development of their work, which will include creative sessions with venue staff, and from the approach to and presentation of interpretative material displayed with the artwork. The effectiveness of this approach was established through qualitative evaluation of previous audience development projects undertaken by Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery: Kentish Delights (2010 – 11) and Public Art House (2011-12, http://publicarthouse.tumblr.com). This evaluation exposed some exciting revelations:
- Customers enjoy seeing things out of the ordinary in their daily lives because it gives them something different to talk about than the weather (Kentish Delights)
- When staff are confident about a display, they enjoy talking to customers about it (Kentish Delights) Perceptions of customer service are improved if staff are able to engage with customers about objects on display in their venue (Kentish Delights)
- Customers enjoy having an activity associated with the art on display, even if they don’t think it has anything to do with the art on display (Public Art House)
- Customers are able to make meaning in their lives from engaging from art in this way (Public Art House)
Hoodwink will allow us to explore these concepts in greater detail, by commissioning artists to create work on a larger scale, and through experimenting with different types of interpretation.
Our commissioning process is very simple: once we’ve secured a Hoodwink venue, we agree an artist brief with the venue management, and advertise it as widely as possible across the UK. The brief asks that the artist respond to any aspect of the venue, its community, or the environment the venue sits in.
We also offer the artist the opportunity to work with a museum from Kent, by researching and selecting objects from that museum to be displayed in the venue. For many artists, this can give a local or historical context to their work, providing an access point to engaging with their work. This commission offers the artist opportunities to:
- Engage with a new audience in a meaningful way
- Expose their work to a large number of people
- Develop their work in new directions, through responding to a commercial, competitive setting
Interpretation is a vital component of good engagement with contemporary art, and is an element that will be experimented with during Hoodwink.
Hoodwink aims to realign interpretation with marketing, and borrows from commercial practice to do this. Selling concentrates on informing the customer why a product is important to them, and therefore why they should invest in it financially and in many cases, philosophically and intellectually as well. Customers think carefully about what they purchase and what meaning this has to their lives. Decisions are based on having the essential information about a product accessible and available. Access to this information depends on the success of the marketing campaign in exposing it to the right audience.
Hoodwink draws its audience by selling information about the works on display, and this is approached through many different media and interactions.
Firstly it will look at building an audience in advance of the exhibitions of work at the venues, by generating interest through social media communities, exposing the story of the artists’ work as it develops from ideas to installation.
Secondly, interpretive material will accompany the artwork on display. This material will offer customers different ways to engage with the work on display, avoiding presenting a single-voiced textual interpretation and encouraging meaningful interaction. This is a creative and exciting curatorial challenge for the Hoodwink team and offers them the opportunity to:
- Find and showcase effective models for meaningful engagement in real situations
- Grow a vast audience for contemporary art
- Work with different and unexpected specialists to achieve our aims.
Hoodwink has enormous potential to change arts practice and display, and it is something that we expect to gather momentum as it progresses. The social benefit of this change in practice can be enormous and life changing for everyone involved. We welcome your thoughts on our model and ideas at every stage of the project.
Our second commissioning opportunity is about to go live – we’ll be announcing it on our Facebook pages soon, so please join us at http://www.facebook.com/groups/396956693682730/
By Polly Harknett
Hoodwink Project Manager