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Public venues and

their role in society


Japan Foundation for Regional Arts Activities

(Speech Transcript -)

Michael Spencer
Research Fellow
Ueno Gakuen University Music &
Culture Research Centre




Public Venues Evolution

Becoming a Resource for the

Community 3 questions
Creating a Public Engagement


Sponsors: Japan Foundation for Regional Arts Activities

PublicVenues Evolution
The purpose of my speech is to consider some of the challenges that face publicly funded
performance venues today, how these are being addressed, and what sort of solutions
are being found. I will focus in particular on public engagement and community
programmes, and their role and method of application in shaping strategically effective
and sustainable presences in our towns, cities and countries. In doing this I want to
highlight 3 questions which I feel are fundamental to developing such
programmes. However, this will come later.

Public Engagement

First, I intend to start by briefly considering the origins of the public venues we have today
particularly as their history, structure and purpose is so intimately entwined with the
Western-based art forms, traditions and societies with which they are associated. So I
want to wind the clock back more than 2,500 years to Ancient Greece.

It was the Ancient Greeks who were to create the first large-scale public performance
spaces; something unique to Western culture. In many ways they still influence the design
of the auditoriums we have today. One of the fundamental differences is that now most
contemporary venues have walls and roofs, although this can also bring a different set of
acoustic challenges.


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Their purpose was originally religious and we know this from the etymology of the word
tragedy; one of the three dramatic forms performed in these public spaces. For those
who are interested tragedy, or in its original form tragoidia, is made up from two Greek
words; tragos meaning goat, and ode, the word for song. This gives us an indication of
the original purpose for these spaces. They were intended for religious purposes and in
particular the cult worship of the Greek god Dionysus who spent, as legend tells us, part of
his early life in the form of a goat.


You can see him here on a sarcophagus (260-270 CE) held by the Metropolitan Museum in
New York.


Dionysian Procession, Marble sarcophagus, Metropolitan Museum. Roman. ca. 260270 CE


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Epidauros. 300-340 BCE


This theatre at Epidauros holds over 14,000 people and was built in the 4th century BCE.
Even though it is famous for its unique acoustic properties, from looking at this image we
must surmise that it still required the audience to listen in almost reverential silence.
Because there was no artificial amplification, if the theatre was full, it would have been
quite difficult to hear the performers from the back of the seated area, or theatron (the
origin of the word theatre).

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Roman Theatre in Orange, Southern France. Built about 300 BCE


Comparing this with the theatres of ancient Rome we can see similar architectural
features, however, despite drawing strongly on Greek (Hellenic) theatrical tradition, the
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performances also included elements more associated with street theatre, acrobatics and
other popular entertainments. In effect they were responding more closely to public
demand. This blend of performance practices created events that were more varied,
extensive and sophisticated than those of any culture before.

If we jump forwards to the Middle Ages, by around 1000 CE there are no longer the same
examples of formalised public performance spaces. Instead, informal entertainment
areas tended to be integrated within places where people naturally congregated such as
market and fairs. At this time also the Church played a major role in the promotion of
public performance. The liturgical drama was a means by which religion could
communicate directly with a largely illiterate but enthusiastic audience via the creation of
lively dramatizations of biblical events. By the middle of the 11th century this tradition was
widespread from Russia to Scandinavia and the rest of Europe.
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By the 15th century more formal, dedicated performances started to proliferate. These
were often on movable structures such as wagons or carts, and actors were frequently
amateurs drawn from the community.


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Castle of Perseverance 15th century England


This is a stage plan stage from the 15th century. It shows the audience surrounding the
performance area. This implies that the relationship between the performance and public
areas was more closely interrelated.

At this time England started to emerge as one of the worlds main centres of development
of theatrical tradition, and in 1567 the first theatre was built in London - The Red Lion - and
it marked the re-establishment of the formalized, dedicated public performance space.
Interest in the performances was such that people from different social classes often
made up the same audience; members of Queen Elizabeths court stood alongside
commoners to watch the same plays. The number of public theatres proliferated in and
around the City of London until 1642 when the influences of the Puritan religious
movement and the English Civil War closed them down for the next 18 years.



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These theatres were vibrant, social centres designed for interaction between performers
and audience. This is an example of one such theatre. The Swan. You can see how
the thrust stage took the actors to the heart of the audience


Here is an image of the reconstructed Shakespeares Globe Theatre as it replicates the

Elizabethan theatre experience today.

I should perhaps mention also that whilst these theatres were open to the public they
werent supported from public funds and were instead commercial concerns.

It wasnt only in England that this intimate relationship between audience and public
theatre was developing. The same happened in Japan. Kabuki moved from the informal,
almost improvised performance platforms in the riverbed in Kyoto to dedicated, multi-level
theatre spaces. And we know how popular these were from the way in which the
authorities reacted in trying to limit the number of people who attended as they felt that
the gathering of crowds was potentially politically volatile.

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By the 18th century there was a considerable degree of interaction between the theatres,
their audiences, and the communities within which they were situated.
However, in Europe, from this time forwards the role and nature of these spaces started to
change. This was in no small part influenced by the way in which the performing arts were
evolving and how in consequence public tastes and attitudes adapted. This was the
period known as the Age of the Enlightenment, when the voice of the individual was of
paramount importance and needed to be heard.

Music, for example, had until this time served either as a privileged soundtrack to the lives
of rich patrons, including the Church, or as bucolic accompaniment to daily life in the
form of folk music traditions. During the 18th century, however, it started to evolve into a
form which required the attention of the listener and consequently we see the
establishment of the first dedicated concert halls.


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This is Holywell Music Room in Oxford; built in 1748 it is the oldest custom-built concert hall
in Europe and was funded by public subscription.

In1781 Leipzig received its first concert hall, which was created from the upper floor of an
old trading house and became the first home of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.

During the 19th century, as access to public tutelage became more widespread and
standards of education started to improve, we observe the start of a gradual transition of
the public performance space from a popular and lively arena integrated within its
community into something much more sober and contemplative with more akin to the
temples of the Ancient Greeks, and created for the worship of high art by the
cognoscenti. For these venues public subsidy played an increasingly important role
whereas the more popular theatrical forms such as burlesque, vaudeville and music hall
were generally privately run commercial concerns and left to fend for themselves.

Undoubtedly these subsidized spaces developed their own particular communities of

interest, however, as we start to move through the 20th century we find their audience
base shrinking, and by the time we reach the 1950s and 60s, certainly in the UK, the act
of attending concerts, opera or the theatre often carried the stigma of elitism.

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In conclusion, from this brief overview we can see that throughout history communities
have developed public spaces that reflected their needs, whether these were for
performance, sacred celebrations, local rituals or general areas for congregation such as
markets. Public spaces also often became iconic symbols within the community, society
or culture within which they were based. I would suggest that this was perhaps what led
to the creation of community-based performance spaces often linked to civic centres,
each of which was subsidized from a varying combination of local and national
government funds, ticket sales, foundations and sponsorship.

With the advance of the 20th century came an increasing focus on public accountability,
and in response, for their own survival if nothing else, publicly subsidized venues had to
address the long term effects of falling public interest and the failure to attract new and
younger audiences. This has its basis in a number of influences but particularly the public
perception of inaccessibility and a growing interest in alternative sources of entertainment
e.g. television, sport, technology etc. The argument for survival could no longer be made
on the value of the Arts to society alone. In the UK the debate became increasingly
vitriolic and reached one particular climax in 1998 when there was a public outcry about
the proposed 218 million pound refurbishment of the Royal Opera House, 78 million of
which was to come from public sources. Did we need hospitals or the Royal Opera

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Therefore, venues that received public subsidy as a part of their budget had to take
responsibility for justifying what was, by some, considered an unequally privileged position.

This provided the backdrop to the development of outreach and community

engagement programmes. In fact, one of the key reasons that the Royal Opera House
received the refurbishment grant money it did was because of the way in which it
integrated a robust, strategic education programme within its overall strategic plan. At

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that, however, time the concept and methodology behind such outreach programmes
were still in their infancy.

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Becoming a Resource for the Community 3 questions

I am aware that today I am addressing an audience with a mixed variety of experiences
in arts management. Some of you are just about to move into your first jobs, some are
already well seasoned. Whatever your background may be Id like return to my opening
remarks and ask you to consider your own experiences of public theatres, and in
particular I would like to pose three questions.

1. Bearing in mind that physical structure of your venue is probably one of the biggest
public buildings in the community how many physical spaces, suitable for public
use, does it actually contain? This includes foyers and additional rooms. And over
what proportion of their potential usage time do they remain empty?

2. What in-depth knowledge do you have about the community that is served by the
venue, and not only those groups or individuals that may be interested in attending

3. If there is any interaction with the surrounding community, other than attending
events, how is this publicised?

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I realize of course that some public halls have a bigger remit than others and their
community might be prefecture-wide, but I would suggest that the answers to these
questions are fundamental to the success of any public venue.

The first is about realizing the full potential for the venue as a building. Too often in Japan,
it seems to me, venue spaces are not used in sufficiently creative ways and tend to be
limited to their original purpose alone. For example, think of the empty foyers that are no
more than assembly points and have all the characteristics of an underused railway

Its interesting to look at venues such as the Barbican Centre in London that now has a full
programme of concourse events and activities, and how this creates a lively and vibrant
atmosphere outside of its dedicated auditorium and theatre spaces. In Gateshead, a
medium sized town in the North of England associated more with coal-mining and industry
than the Arts, the Sage Centre encourages involvement in the concourse events and
activities throughout the day and in doing so gives ownership of the venue to its


The Sage has also become the home of both the Northern Sinfonia, one of the UKs top
provincial chamber orchestras, and Folkworks, the largest folk music development agency
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in the UK. And its often the case that they combine together on projects. Its a
particularly interesting venue because of the way it has become a focal point for a wide
and diverse range of arts activities across the North East of England. Cross-partnerships

The second question concerns what brands call market intelligence. This helps with the
design of the content for every aspect of engagement with the community. Do you really
know who is out there and what their needs and desires are? Do you know what potential
there might be for collaboration?

I remember years ago being part of an unlikely collaboration between the London
Symphony Orchestra and Arsenal Football Club.

However, this is not to imply that ones role as an organization is purely to fulfill the desires
of ones community. The purpose of a venue should not be an aesthetic equivalent of the
immediate gratification one receives from a fast food outlet. Michael Kaiser, who used
to be the CEO of the Royal Opera House and is now president of the Kennedy Centre in
Washington, talks frequently on his Huffington Post blog about the importance of
programming compelling and stimulating content. This is applied to all activities including
educational or outreach work.

I will talk more about content shortly.

The third and final question relates to how an organization talks about what it does,
particularly if it is doing something new and ground-breaking. It seems to me that arts
organisations in general are very bad about publicizing what they have achieved in a
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way that is both engaging and stimulating for their audiences.

When I was Head of Education at the Royal Opera House some years back we created a
software package that was issued to 5000 schools. It was only because we worked closely
with the PR section that we were able to coordinate a media initiative that culminated in
two features on BBC prime time television news. They jumped at the chance of such an
original good news story and this was extremely positive publicity for the Royal Opera
House at a time when it was under much criticism. I cant emphasize enough how
important it is for education, PR departments and sponsorship departments to work
together closely and to have a good knowledge of each others roles and practices.


Creating a public engagement programme

I assume that that we all agree on the rationale for creating clearly articulated, strategic
outreach and public engagement programmes, so I propose to talk about some of the
elements from which they are constructed.

Before I do, however, I would like to mention a difference I have noticed in Japan with
regard to the way in which a season of events might be structured. It seems to me that
there is an emphasis on creating programmes of events that consist almost solely of a
number of unrelated performances, where the rationale for their inclusion is either the
popularity of the content or the reputation of the artist or artists. Whilst this sometimes
happens at other venues in the world, by comparison I notice that in Japan it is seldom
that one finds the same sort of themed series that often programmed elsewhere.

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For example, every year the Barbican Centre in London holds the Total Immersion series.
This consists of a series of days spread throughout the year for each of which a separate
musical topic is selected. All events that take place on that day will be connected and
give the opportunity to explore the music in greater depth. So for example, in February
there is a Japanese day that consists of two symphony and one chamber music concerts
all featuring the music of different contemporary Japanese composers, a film about
Takemitsu, and an illustrated talk about the music in Kurosawas films. Alongside this are a
number of related education events and demonstrations. Not all of these are necessarily
held in the Barbican. The next Total Immersion day explores the music of Finland and

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This whole series is just one of a number of interrelated programmes the Barbican holds
throughout each season. I mention this because by creating bigger planning structures it
is much easier to create a raft of supporting activities around a series of themed events
rather than individual items. Also, I believe that it leads to more innovative planning and a
much more positive and responsive engagement with the audience.

This type of programming focuses less on the performers and more on the music and how
it functions. Education work takes this even further and is based on the premise that
people are fundamentally curious and need the opportunity to question and learn. And
the best way for them to understand and learn is by practical participation; Learning by
doing as it is often known. I will be talking about this during later sessions in the

In considering outreach and community engagement programmes, I tend to consider

them as falling into two types of activity: Education, and event-based activities. They may
sometimes overlap.

[SLIDE movie clip]

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This is a superb example of an event-based activity that was used to reach out to their
local community, and beyond. The Orquestra Simfnica del Valls is an ensemble in
Spain of which I am Director of Education and Strategy. We had often discussed the
need to get closer to their community audience. This was one of their solutions.

With over 9 million views on You Tube the orchestras stature has increased immeasurably.
It also helped in no small way with their relationship with their sponsors the Bank of
Sabadell - as it took place in front of their main building.

This process was straightforward and the objectives clear

[SLIDE movie clip]
This is an example of an education-led project I facilitated in 2006 at the Grand Ship in
Shizuoka. This type of project has a much more involved process and the aim is to involve
the participants in learning about some particular aspect of the Arts. This is achieved by
active participation and exploration or Learning by doing. The video extract shows the
early stages of a project based on Mussorgskys Pictures at an Exhibition.

And, these projects need not necessarily be confined to music alone. A few years ago I
ran a nationwide project for school students exploring Kabuki drama. It was part of the
2001 Japan Festival that was held throughout the UK. We looked at the essence of Kabuki

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by taking the balcony scene from Shakespeares Romeo and Juliet and transforming it
into a kabuki-style performance. In the final stages we even had the assistance of one of
the actors from the kabuki-za, and final performances or sharings took place at the British
Museum and the Japanese Embassy in London. Obviously this was not an accurate
replication of kabuki, nor was it intended as such. But by giving these inner city children a
practical, in-depth, creative experience reinforced with educational rigour, and by using
some of the dramatic tools and traditions of kabuki, they received an immersion in
another culture that will remain with them for life.

I shall never forget the day when, in the North East of England, we managed to persuade
some very tough young men with tattoos to explore the role of the onnagata!

As we can see, event-based interventions are comparatively simple to arrange.

Education-led programmes are, however, usually much more involved and have a
number of stages and a requirement for facilitators with specific skill sets.

Perhaps the most important starting point for an organization when creating such a
programme is to have a clear understanding of why it is deemed necessary, how it fits
within their overall strategy, what the parameters will be, and what the outcomes might
be. I have witnessed too many education programmes that failed because of the lack of
alignment with the aims and objectives of an organization.

The second most important stage is the consultancy and data collection stage which
precedes any practical work. This involves interviewing stakeholders within the
organization, community representatives, interest groups, possible sponsors etc.

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The Royal Opera House has a major project under way sixteen miles to the East of London
in Thurrock, Essex. This was once a busy, heavily industrialized area but now has rising
unemployment, wages below the national average, and the lowest take up on higher
education or vocational training in the UK. Undoubtedly an area of social deprivation.


The production facilities for the Royal Opera House had to be re-sited because they lay
within the plans for the Olympic Park. In 2005 Thurrock was chosen as the new site. But as
you might imagine the concern about this world-renowned and possibly elitist
organization suddenly turning up in the middle of a deprived area had the potential for
both a social and political backlash. The Education Department, however, has
considerable expertise and knowledge of working in such circumstances and it was
decided that they would lead on the strategy for integrating the ROH and its new facilities
within this particular area.


There followed 8 months of formal and informal consultations across the community after
which the first education project was instigated. Over the next 4 years the programme of
education work continued to expand, even though the production facilities had yet to be
built. This didnt start until 2010.

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Now, this project stands as one of the most successful examples of integration and
inclusivity in the UK. 2,500 people from the community have actually attended
performances at the ROH in Covent Garden, there is a raft of education projects in place,
a local choir has been formed, and as a joint project between the ROH and the
community a new opera was created and performed which attracted a combined
audience of 3000. The Royal Opera House is now an integral part of the Thurrock



Last year, I spoke with my past colleague, the Director of Education, about this project
and he emphasized the importance of learning to be flexible and responsive to demand.
It often means adapting the original plan, and reframing it to accommodate the views of
each stakeholder. Therefore there has to be a willingness to listen, negotiate and
compromise wherever possible.

This is obviously a large-scale project with a long future ahead. On a much smaller scale,
a very modest project I put in place at the ROH focused on social dancing. Our brief was
to work with all segments of the community it was seldom that we involved those of
advanced age. We therefore started a programme of tea dances. This style of dancing
was extremely popular in the 30s and 40s in the UK, but it was not necessarily the most
obvious project for the grandeur of the ROH. The convincing argument came when we
realized that during the war years the opera house was a dance hall.


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Once it was agreed to move ahead I contacted all the local age concern centres to
determine the level of interest. Despite the enthusiasm I encountered, first dance we had
only 80 people. By the third event, however, we had over 300 participants and because
of the safety regulations from then on we had to limit numbers. One of the main
attractions was that we used a 9-piece band, something seldom heard these days. It
gave the event a unique feel and was in line with the opera houses commitment to live
performance. This was 12 years ago and they are still going strong. In 2005 they held one
in Trafalgar Square and are now in the Guinness Book of records for the largest tea dance
in the world.

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For me the most telling comment was from one old lady who, until this moment, thought
that they were not entitled to come into the building.

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And what happens once a programme has been implemented?

Its essential to apply an evaluation that reports, challenges and rewards the project and
its stakeholders. There are many different ways of doing this and its advisable early on in
a project to determine the nature of the evaluation because this will ultimately highlight
the successes, failures, and learning points for future use.

In the UK there are a number of guides issued by the Arts Council which describe some of
the ways in which one might evaluate a project and they are not restricted solely to a text
based method of presentation

Finally, who is going to implement this work? It doesnt happen on its own, and its
essential to have at least one administrator who will develop a specialisation in this area. I
would suggest that its equally as important a role as any other within the organisation and
cannot be considered supplementary to the workload of someone with other

The other people who are important are those who actually plan and deliver the
outreach programmes. The facilitators. This requires a range of special skills and I will talk
about this more tomorrow.

One item I realize I have left out of the presentation so far is funding. The reason for this is
that it is a complex subject which requires a presentation all of its own. I realize, however,
that there is not the same tradition of sponsorship in Japan as there is elsewhere and this
has a number of different reasons, tax relief perhaps being one of them. In 2011 in the UK
the average funding budgets were made up from three separate contribution sources;
The Arts Council (33%), sales and merchandising (45%), and the remainder (22%)1 from
sponsors or grant giving bodies.

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2011 33
45 22

Sponsorship departments spend much time trying to match the needs of sponsors with
some sort of quantifiable method to demonstrate a return on investment. This is often in
the form of visibility, but can also fall within the remit of CSR programmes.

The fact remains that in the current financial climate sponsorship has become increasingly
difficult to find. This is why organisations are becoming increasingly creative in what they
can offer. The Orchestra Simfonica de Valles I mentioned earlier shows one such
example. Others I could mention include the sponsorship by local firms of individual
dancers in the Northern Dance Company, a small provincial dance company in the North
of England. I also heard of a performance of Handels Messiah where each section of the
piece had a separate sponsor. It might amuse you to know that when I was in the LSO the
second harpist, a woman, was sponsored by the lingerie company Victorias Secret.


If public venues are to continue to provide a range of life enhancing experiences they
have to become proactive in reaching out to the communities within which they sit. There
are now too many enticing distractions in the world that are enabled at the touch of a
button and which draw people away from authentic and meaningful interaction.

Life is really about the quality of relationship we develop with others and I dont believe
that technology is yet ready to give us a viable substitute. The sort of authentic,
relationship that is possible in public venues is both intimate and worth sharing, and we

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must be cautious that our audiences are not seduced into thinking that there are equally
effective alternatives.

Each venue will have its own unique set of demands, but there are also common areas of
challenge that are better if shared and dealt with together with your own community of
interest whether this be nationally or locally. PR, programming, funding, outreach and
community programmes, performers etc., all have to find a more efficient and strategic
way of working together. I can see how smaller venues with limited budgets might
struggle, but they have a wealth of resources available in their communities if they can
only learn how to tap into them. It takes courage and cant is not really an option.

No matter the size of the organization, it is imperative that they nurture connections at this
intimate and highly nuanced local level. And it can be a long journey. The Royal Opera
House started with one education administrator and a secretarial assistant. It now has a
staff of over 40 people to run its many different and diverse projects. But it took 16 years to
get to this level.

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If, as Shakespeare said, All the worlds a stage and all the men and women merely
players the evolution of the public theatre has an important role within this context and
together they form a holistic and evolving continuum. For their integration to be fully
effective requires an approach that is inquisitive, responsive and flexible, and it is perhaps
only in this way that venues can become true and valuable resources for the communities
in which they operate.

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MS. 5 January 2013

Tel: +44 (0)7976 432348/+44 (0)20 7247 0891

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