- Date: 12 January 2011
- Artform: None
- Area: South East
Arts Council England works in partnership with local authorities to help us achieve our mission of great art for everyone. Through our funding, brokerage and development role, we aim to maximise our investment in the arts by building positive relationships with local councils and working with cultural organisations to increase engagement in the arts.
Essex County Council has run a marketing campaign and created a website to reach new audiences as local research over the past 10 years indicated a narrow audience base for the arts across the county. A target set in 2008 to increase adult engagement in the arts provided the impetus for a better understanding of who attended or participated in the arts and a drive to open up the arts to a wider audience. Launched in June 2009, the Explore Culture brand and website was Essex's answer to raising awareness of the arts, attracting new audiences - and showing that the arts are fun.
The Explore Culture website is a one stop shop for all cultural activity across Essex, Thurrock and Southend. Events listings searchable by postcode provide details on everything from major exhibitions and performances in cultural venues to activities in local pubs or clubs. The website is highly interactive. The Explore Machine creates bespoke cultural trails by offering suggestions of cultural activities based on personal preferences. The Explorers' blog offers inspiration by sharing information about what other bloggers have been doing and seeing. The website has 2-3,000 hits every month.
Essex has reinforced the Explore Culture concept through:
routinely involving artists in architectural design, from bus stops through to major new developments, helping to achieve a high quality environment where people want to live, work and visit
To avoid high commercial advertising costs Essex focused on promoting Explore Culture through existing networks and social media, with dedicated pages on Facebook and Twitter. It may have taken longer for Explore Culture to take off as a result but this approach has benefits. For example, the Council can now reach hundreds of promoters who are signed up as Facebook friends and invite them to apply for funding or other support.
Although the costs of maintaining the website are low they have to be met each year. The Arts Development Officer for Essex County Council maintains the site, including quality assuring every new event and venue entry. The direct maintenance costs are £200 a year.
Because the website has a high profile both internally and externally, and is a cost effective and highly visible form of advertising, the Council is likely to continue to meet the ongoing costs. It may also be possible to generate future income from selling the Explore Culture brand and services to other councils. Past investment in supporting community arts groups to improve the quality of the information they submit means less time is now spent on quality assurance.
Local research (Creative Consequences: understanding the value of the arts in Essex, 2010) shows more than 1.8 million attendances to 315 arts organisations in the 12 months to May 2010. In the same year around 2,500 people actively volunteered in the arts in the county, and the arts sector spent over £5.3 million with local businesses.
Engaging with district councils and the voluntary arts sector from the start ensured partners bought into the Explore Culture concept and made it work in practice.
Setting a clear target for increasing engagement in the arts prompted analysis and a better understanding of who was and was not attending or participating in the arts in the county.
Buying an off-the-shelf website cut costs, hosting it externally helped overcome council restrictions and branding it as Explore Culture avoided negative municipal associations.
It proved difficult to market the site electronically only, and it took much longer to get the message through to consumers than anticipated.
Future plans are to sell space on the Explore Culture website, as well as the brand and branded products, to other councils.
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