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Understanding how Tate conceptualise their audiences, a PhD

two people walking through the tate modern arm in arm

In a bid to understand the way Tate conceptualises its audiences, PhD student Victoria Young was granted behind the scenes access to the world famous institution

Museums hold a valuable position in today’s society. They are social spaces where we can spend time on our own or with friends or family. They help us to challenge our own beliefs and perceptions which contribute to understanding our place in the world. 

Museums allow us to take part in public discourse, and to co-create and share meaning. They are physical sites for learning, for reflection, for time away from our daily routines.

Like many of our public institutions the majority of our museums are facing unprecedented funding challenges. In a bid to become financially stable and accountable to their funders they have developed a more entrepreneurial market model, using data to drive strategy.

Data driven marketing vs audience development

Until now little research had been done into the disparity between data-driven marketing initiatives, aimed at increasing income, and marketing activity designed for audience development. 

As part of a continuing collaboration between LSBU and Tate, LSBU were awarded funding by the Arts and Humanities Research Council as part of their Collaborative Doctorate scheme to complete a research project entitled: ‘Art museum attendance and the public realm: The agency of visitor information in Tate’s organisational practices of making the art museum’s audiences.’ 

In the face of stiff student competition for the research award, the University appointed Victoria Young to undertake the research.

After six months, I was issued with a staff pass and a security fob, which was a turning point in terms of my access to the behind-the-scene spaces of the museum. From then onwards, I observed the embedded routines and patterned conduct of strategy meetings on site at Tate Britain, gradually extending the reach of my fieldwork from observing one group, to multiple groups, over a period of 18 months, tracing the role and effect of visitor data throughout.

Victoria Young

The relationship between audience profiling, arts policy and practice

Working with Tate, Victoria Young has conducted research that focused on the ways in which the famous art museum conceptualises its audiences across different departments and functions. 

“I’m specifically interested in how the museum makes sense of its audience typologies and data about its visitors, how this understanding is valued and applied across the organisation, and in what ways this relates to governmental policy and concepts of public value,” says Victoria Young.

“At a time when the focus within the museums sector falls heavily upon the gathering of visitor data, this study explores what happens when this data is in turn applied or resisted in working practice, and what this signifies in terms of institutional power and representation within the public sphere.”

The long-standing partnership between LSBU and Tate sustained by Professor Andrew Dewdney enabled Victoria Young’s research to benefit from a welcome degree of stability, with the research questions and methodology agreed from the outset, although the research still developed organically as Victoria Young’s studies progressed.

Addressing challenges and selecting appropriate methodology

“Tate’s shifting organisational priorities, and specifically, the ascendency of digital engagement with audiences, challenged the scope of my fieldwork,” she says. “In response, I’ve sought to maintain focus on Tate’s understanding of audiences, and application of visitor data, and have resisted slipping towards an evaluation of performance metrics for their digital platforms.”

While other research in this sector separates theory from practice, Victoria Young’s work constructs knowledge from within the museum, informed by a combination of immersed observation of working practice and theoretical critique.

Behind the scenes access

“After six months, I was issued with a staff pass and a security fob, which was a turning point in terms of my access to the behind-the-scene spaces of the museum,” says Victoria. 

“From then onwards, I observed the embedded routines and patterned conduct of strategy meetings on site at Tate Britain, gradually extending the reach of my fieldwork from observing one group, to multiple groups, over a period of 18 months, tracing the role and effect of visitor data throughout. At the same time, I was developing understandings of theoretical approaches to legitimacy, structures of representation, the locus of power, and the social construction of knowledge.”

The findings

Victoria has identified that, while existing literature recognises the standard demographic typologies, such as age, socio-economic status, visitor and non-visitor status, or standard subsets (schools, families, young people, local or overseas visitors), there are further, multiple, conceptions of audience in operation within working practice across the art museum.

“The research also found that data on these audiences is generated in a ritualised activity, and circulated, but applied inconsistently across the organisation according to the extent to which tacit departmental knowledge was enabled to play a role in the decision-making processes within the institution,” says Victoria Young. “The findings outline the extent to which the internal and external institutional narratives of audience centrality reflect actual operational practice.”

Victoria’s research is ongoing, she is hoping that her work can be taken forward by examining the extent to which its findings reflect organisational practice in other cultural institutions, perhaps making specific contrast between large and small organisations, or examining those with differing structural hierarchies.

 
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