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Digital R&D Fund for the Arts: Understanding what young people really want

Never ask a child what they want for tea… offer a choice: fishfingers or pasta? Otherwise you may find yourself explaining why they can’t have chocolate cake and ketchup. So while you can ask whether arts organisations know what young people want, let’s start by turning it around: do young people know what they want from arts organisations? Of course, we want to offer them as much choice as possible, but perhaps in some cases the grown-ups really do know best – and how can young people tell you what they want if they don’t know what’s available?

Let’s take the latter issue first. Carolyn Hassan, of Knowle West Media Centre in Bristol, agrees that it’s a problem: “You can’t ask people what they want if they have no idea where the world is at, particularly with technology… often young people haven’t experienced, in school, some of the things that we can provide. We run things like code clubs, hacks, work with robots, but we also have a programme of music, film-making and photography. We find out what young people are interested in by trying out different things.” This hands-on approach has a lot going for it, but unfortunately isn’t always practical for every organisation.

Opinions are mixed on whether young people actually know what they want, and adult experience does count for something. Sharna Jackson, now of Hopster and formerly of Tate Kids, points out: “Sometimes young people know what they want and actually, sometimes you know best.” The education and learning staff in arts organisations are, after all, professionals. Fiona Ross, Director of Creative Learning at Sadler’s Wells says: “The arts community is very, very good at putting young people first, thinking about their needs and concerns… The limitation can be access to young people – it’s about finding the right strategies and structures to involve them at the planning stage.” Tom MacAndrew, Education Manager at the Poetry Society is slightly more equivocal: “You may know best in saying ‘this venue is great’, but you may not always know what the young people will find fascinating.” He advocates seeking feedback about which parts of projects or resources young people found most enjoyable or useful. That’s less helpful when trying to start a new project, though.

Jackson thinks that arts organisations need to be braver about asking questions: “There’s a fear that it’ll be expensive to find out [what young people want], but you can start with your own audience – talk to people at events, talk to parents, talk to children that you know… it’s a bit anecdotal, but see what games they’re playing and what content they’re consuming.” She also cautions against diving in headfirst: “if you’re making a game, the rationale is often just ‘kids love games’. You have to have an understanding of who you’re developing the thing for, you can’t just say ‘it’s for kids’ as if they’re a homogenous mass.”

As ever, a lot of decisions come down to money. MacAndrew says the biggest problem “is always fundraising for more than one year, so that you can build the feedback into the project for the following year.” With budgets stretched ever-thinner and technology changing the way we live, work and interact, is trying to stay ahead of the curve vital to attracting and engaging young audiences and participants? I’m not convinced.

In some ways, arts organisations are fighting a losing battle if they try to compete with well-funded digital platforms or resources. However, a lot of these platforms are available for other people to use. The arts also have an inherent advantage in that they are populated with creative people. That, combined with flexibility, may be crucial. For Jackson: “It’s about understanding that the budget you have will never match the commercial or private sector, so be realistic about what you can achieve. If you have £5k there’s no point trying to make a first-person shoot-em-up game, but you could make a beautifully written text adventure with a writer and an already-existing platform.”

In general, the arts have more to offer than just playing catch-up technologically; above all, they offer live performance. Purni Morell, Artistic Director of the Unicorn Theatre – which programmes work for young audiences – says: “I don’t know that I believe in asking audiences what they want from the theatre – I think that the nature of theatre is that it’s a conversation between artist and audience. When you’re sitting in a theatre, that’s where that conversation is happening and that’s where it’s valuable. You can invest in audience research, but I think it very rarely tells you anything useful to you programming the theatre.”

Ross thinks that the arts sector is “tuning into digital in a much more focused way… What we’re trying to do increasingly is to put arts work in an arena where young people can see it alongside the myriad other things that they can access. There are lots of really interesting ways that young people can interact with the arts online, but there’s something very special and immediate about the tangible live experience, and the arts need to continue to champion that alongside exploring digital and other platforms.” Alice King-Farlow, Director of Learning at the National Theatre, points out that you don’t have to choose between the digital and the live. She uses the example of listening to music on your phone compared with going to a festival; different ways of enjoying music that are appropriate to different times and places – and budgets.

There’s also work to do teaching young people how to use already-existing platforms and digital resources for themselves. Hassan explains that Knowle West very much focuses on encouraging people to try things out: “Young people want to make stuff. It’s about making the content not just consuming it. The arts are about doing.” MacAndrew agrees: “Young people, especially teens, tend to want to set things up for themselves, they don’t want other people to get involved.”

By remaining flexible and innovative, arts organisations can make work and resources for young people that suit the needs of different groups and ages at different times. Perhaps we can have our cake and eat it, too – with or without ketchup.

Image courtesy of Zara Rush of Akram Khan with the National Youth Dance Company


Eleanor Turney

Eleanor has worked for clients including the British Council, the BBC and Creative People & Places. She is also Co-Director of Incoming Festival.