How can local arts venues grow and nurture audiences in the wake of the pandemic?

  • Research finds smaller, newer and freelance artists and venues most vulnerable to the effects of the pandemic
  • University of Sheffield’s Performer and Audience Research Centre (SPARC) call for sustained funding for those artists and arts organisations as lockdown measures expected to last well into 2021
  • New book published by SPARC looking to support the sector to survive with a insight from a large-scale interview study discussing how and why audiences engage with live events
  • A guide for audiences new to the contemporary arts says ‘it's okay not to like it!’


Despite some lockdown restrictions easing many music and arts venues around the country remain closed, and with social distancing restrictions still limiting audiences sizes for those who can reopen, how will the sector survive in the long-term?

Academics at the University of Sheffield’s Sheffield Performer and Audience Research Centre (SPARC) have been researching not only the devastating effects of  Covid-19 on vibrant music and arts sectors in cities like Sheffield, but also what could be done to help those most vulnerable, smaller, independent, grassroots and freelance artists and venues, to survive the pandemic.

Understanding Audience Engagement in the Contemporary Arts explores how artists, art sector organisations and the thousands of people who make their livelihoods in the cultural industries can grow and nurture audiences.

Dr Sarah Price, Research Associate at SPARC, said: “The book will help the sector understand audiences, what brings them in, how they relate to different forms of art and venue, what makes them stay and how and why audiences choose to justify engaging with live events.

“This is valuable research for music and arts organisations across the country and could help them adapt and grow audiences in the wake of the pandemic.”

The publication follows a survey conducted in partnership with the Sheffield City Region Music Board which revealed that more than £1.2million in revenue was lost in Sheffield in the first two months of the coronavirus pandemic due to cancelled shows or events, with millions more expected as a total figure.

Director of SPARC, Professor Stephanie Pitts, said: “Many venues are having to reduce audience sizes due to social distancing restrictions, so will need sustained financial support beyond the partial lifting of lockdown restrictions; especially small, independent and newer venues, and freelance artists who will struggle to break even due to limiting audience sizes.

“These are particularly vulnerable to collapse due to not being able to access the funding options offered so far to support the sector through the pandemic, such as the new Culture Recovery Fund.

“More tailored and sustained financial support for the music and arts sectors is needed to help the thousands of people in the cultural industries who are struggling during the crisis. This is imperative to avoid a negative effect on the diversity of events open to audiences, and particularly to support the creation of new works which cannot guarantee large audiences, but are an important part of processing the devastating impact of the pandemic on society and individuals.”

SPARC are now looking to work with local music and arts venues to collect crucial data on audiences, venues and freelancers that can be fed directly into policies and economic recovery plans for the cultural industry in the Sheffield City Region and across the UK. They will also be working in partnership with regional arts organisations to help them understand the impact of social distancing measures for them to be able to maintain audiences.

Evidence submitted by SPARC to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) enquiry into the impact of COVID-19 on DCMS sectors also commented that the willingness of audiences to return to live events will be central to the recovery of the sector.

Dr Price added: “For audiences and participants, arts events and activities are shown to boost wellbeing and social connectedness, and contribute greatly to our sense of wellbeing mentally and physically. That's why it's so important for our cultural sectors to thrive and not just struggle to survive.

“Our guide for audiences new to contemporary arts looks at how we can engage with events when venturing back out in the wake of the pandemic, how we understand the contemporary arts and more importantly, that it’s okay not to like everything on offer!

“Sometimes the contemporary arts can be challenging and explore important societal issues, but we want to show the public that now may be the perfect time to discover something new and unexpected as the music and arts sectors look to work in new and different ways to engage with their audiences.”

Additional information

The University of Sheffield

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