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Discourses about audiences: spatial strategies and public programming in the Barbican Centre’s foyers

Donini, Stefania (2021). Discourses about audiences: spatial strategies and public programming in the Barbican Centre’s foyers. (Unpublished Doctoral thesis, Guildhall School of Music and Drama)


Audience research has become a central focus in UK arts institutions’ policy and practice in the last two decades, often carried out to fulfil a variety of different agendas. This study focuses on the relationship between audiences and arts institutions against the backdrop of both the ‘participatory turn’ and of an increasing process of neoliberalisation of culture. Using the Barbican Centre’s foyers as the primary lens of analysis, the thesis investigates how certain discursive conceptions of audiences are constructed, challenged and re-assessed in the specific setting of a large urban multi-arts centre.

Notions and practices of audience development, engagement and participation have been widely discussed in the field of arts management and cultural policy, drawing upon disciplinary areas such as arts marketing, audience and reception studies, theatre and
performing arts studies, and museum studies. However, whilst the work in this area is voluminous, very little scholarly research has focused on the intersection of discursive, spatial and programmatic conceptions of audiences in institutional contexts. Particularly, limited attention has been given to foyers and public spaces, except for recent contributions on museum thresholds. Taking a whole-institution approach, the study does not look at audiences in the conventional mode – as bums on seats in an auditorium. Instead, by bringing the foyers to the fore, the originality of this thesis is to look at expanded modes of ‘audiencing’, rebalancing the exclusive auditorium model.

Combining critical discourse analysis and institutional ethnography, the study discusses shifting conceptions of audiences and spaces in the context of the Barbican Centre. The fieldwork draws primarily on institutional documents and interviews with staff members across the organisation, from senior management to front-of-house – the Audience experience hosts. The key finding of this study is that social spaces and non-ticketed audiences are becoming central in institutional agendas, yet there are conflicting understandings of how to manage both. In particular, there are tensions between ideas of inclusivity and participatory processes, and maximising income for the sake of financial sustainability. The thesis draws conclusions on alternative methods in visitor and audience studies, discussing the changing nature of public spaces in arts institutions, the role of mediators – such as front-of-house staff - in audience research, and the rise of public programming.

Publication Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Subjects: N Fine Arts > NX Arts in general
Departments: Doctoral Theses
[img] Text - Accepted Version
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