MBS plays starring role in building Indigenous arts audiences


Melbourne Business School is helping bridge the gap between Australians’ overwhelming support of Indigenous arts and our less enthusiastic attendance at Indigenous arts events.
Jody Evans, Associate Professor of Marketing at Melbourne Business School, worked with Deakin University’s Faculty of Business and Law and Institute of Koorie Education to produce the Australia Council’s recently published Building Audiences report.

It examines why nine out of 10 Australians say Indigenous arts are culturally important, two thirds express strong or growing interest, but only one in four say they’ve attended an Indigenous arts event in the past year.

World’s oldest living culture

“Developing audiences for Indigenous arts has really important social implications for Australia as a community, but also very specific implications for Indigenous communities around their cultural capital and maintaining and sharing the world's oldest living culture,” Jody says.

“It also has economic implications because a major route to economic independence and self-determination is being able to embed culture with arts practice and build an audience and customer base.”

Jody says the Council commissioned the report as part of its policy to turn Australia into a culturally ambitious nation, and that includes, as a top priority, having all Australians cherish Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art.

She says her team conducted focus-group research with audiences, interviews with people in the arts sector and a series of national forums to share their early findings and get key players in the sector talking about strategies to address audience engagement.

White guilt

The team found that Australians support but don’t necessarily attend Indigenous art events because they perceive them as too serious, and because they carry a lot of white guilt.

“Indigenous art is perceived as very serious, traditional and ceremonial, which is a problem if you're in leisure mode. And then there's the political baggage and white guilt. Non-Indigenous audiences often don't know how to behave. They're terrified of offending anyone and doing the wrong thing.”

Jody places much of the blame for these problems on how Indigenous art was introduced in schools in the past.

Don’t laugh

“You were told to be quiet, sit still, don't speak, don't laugh, don't giggle, and so you’re memories as an adult are not of a particularly rewarding or engaging experience.”

The report suggests early intervention to give children a more participatory, engaging and entertaining experience will help build future audiences.

And to build current audiences, it recommends moving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art onto centre stage at mainstream venues to counter its perception as niche and only for specialised festivals or community events.

Human stories

“It needs to become an art experience like any other, but able to leverage its unique qualities,” Jody says. “We know from the research that audiences are really attracted to the human stories that are told, whether it's visual art or theatre or dance or music.”

She says the report provides clear, actionable strategies to drive change, including capacity building for Indigenous arts organisations.

“We need more support for organisations to have authentic representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts workers across roles, not just as the artist or creator, but as the producer or marketer in decision-making positions to gives these works the mainstream visibility they need.

“There also needs to be a much stronger focus on marketing. A simple quote from one audience member was, 'You can't go to what you don't know is on.’ There is such a huge amount of content available, but it's just not marketed effectively in the right channels and with the right message.”

Moving on

Based on the report findings, Indigenous arts groups and artists such as the Bangarra Dance Theatre, Ilbijeree Theatre Company, Reko Rennie and Frances Andrijich could enjoy even greater success, and lesser known artists should gain wider recognition more quickly, Jody says.

At the report’s Sydney launch, she recalls Aboriginal actress Rachael Maza saying, “Art is a way for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians to come together and just understand. You don't need to feel guilty, you don't need to feel ashamed, you just need to understand. Then we can move on together.”