FEATURE25 October 2013

The art of consumer understanding

Features Impact

Marc Sands tells Jane Bainbridge how research and insight is helping the Tate achieve its goal of bringing modern art to the masses.


For anyone who tried to get tickets for the Damien Hirst retrospective last year, or who has squeezed past the crowds to peak at Lichtenstein’s pop art in all its glory, the fact that Tate Modern is one of London’s top tourist attractions will come as no surprise. Art has become a mass mainstream pastime in a way that was unthinkable 20 years ago; and the Tate has been a pioneer in this movement.

But from a research perspective it is an interesting and unusual outfit. It isn’t chasing market share, trying to beat its competitors, or aiming for ever-increasing profits like so many commercial organisations. The role of research at the Tate is not to help dictate future strategy but rather to refine it, and to be constantly vigilant that the organisation understands its audience.

And make no mistake; the Tate takes its audiences very seriously. To demonstrate this, when Marc Sands took over as director of media three years ago his job title was changed to ‘director of media and audiences’. “It sounds like just a name change but it represents a significant change of approach,” says Sands. “It’s a very good idea to set up a department where you operate as a media owner, creating content across all platforms, but we found the audiences weren’t really represented in that discussion. It meant I was asked less for my own opinion and more to bring the views and opinions of multiple audiences to the table. And if you are representing audiences you’d better do some research to find out what they think, otherwise you’re just making it up.”

The rational and the creative
The role of research has grown within the Tate from what Sands acknowledges as a “relatively low base some time ago”. Central to research’s place is the Tate’s clearly defined remit: ”to increase the public’s understanding, knowledge and enjoyment of British contemporary and modern art”. And as Sands says, the moment you put ‘public understanding’ in the mission statement, then there’s an imperative to do the research to prove that the public are gaining that understanding. In addition, education is a large part of what it does – from school visits to adult learning programmes – and you can’t run that without audience insight.

“If you’re representing audiences you better do some research to find out what they think”

Last year, Tate further reinforced its research credentials when Sands hired a dedicated research and insight person. “She used to be at Procter & Gamble, and she brings the rigour of one of the leading FMCG organisations to our research. That rigour, and Proctor’s way of approaching things, is hard in an organisation like the Tate because the language and terminology is not well understood by the majority. But if you can align that skill with an understanding of how an art organisation works then that’s a very powerful combination,” says Sands.

Sensitivity is required in the manner in which research is presented, he says. The research might be brutally rational, but the organisation isn’t necessarily so. “Don’t colour the truth, but be sensitive to how you say it; hard data is not where arts organisations come from and it’s not entirely where they should be going either, but they need to bolt on some of the better bits, as it helps them make better decisions,” Sands explains.

No painting by numbers
As it stands today, there are multiple strands to the Tate’s research programme. It’s primary source of data comes from working with Morris Hargreaves McIntyre, which conducts baseline studies on audience numbers, appreciation and understanding of the free collection and paid-for shows, among other things. “That’s rear-view mirror research; it’s saying in that year, we did this, this amount of people came, and they thought this; it doesn’t really assist too much in future research and planning,” says Sands.

So to bolster this baseline research and add more forward-looking work, Sands lifted a concept he’d used during his time at The Guardian and introduced an audience panel at the Tate.

“We thought it would be interesting if we could dip into a sub-set of the larger Morris Hargreaves McIntyre research pool and look at the audiences, dive in and segment different audiences with different questions along the way. That’s been in operation for about 18 months and we look at pretty much everything on that. The questions could relate to anything: What is the audience recognition of the artist? What is the likelihood to come based on a certain price point? If we called the show this rather than that, would it increase your propensity to come?” says Sands.


One role research doesn’t have is in selecting which artists are given exhibition space because that would lead to only the big, famous and familiar artists being picked and shown. “I think it would be wrong to do that. Art is not chocolate bars. If the audience says yes I want more chocolate, then I’d put more chocolate on because that would give me greater market share. Here you are trying to create an ecology of stuff that you show, that can cover many different bases.” And so it is that while on the one hand Tate’s exhibitions have included pre-Raphaelites, Lichtenstein and, coming up, Lowry; on the other it has lesser knowns such as Schwitters and Saloua Raouda Choucair.

“You don’t give the audience the keys to the safe. You absolutely involve them in a sort of progressive involvement rather than a yes or no. Because there are curators here who aren’t doing it for fun but for the remit of the Tate, and to get a balance of exhibitions over a year,” says Sands.

How research can be used to good effect is illustrated with a show coming up later this year called Iconoclasm. “It actually means the destruction of art and there’s a famous history of it from Henry VIII in the reformation to Rothko recently. It’s a fantastic subject; but you call it ‘Iconoclasm’ and I guarantee hardly anybody will go because they don’t know what it means. I had a feeling it was a brilliant show but a disastrous name, so we researched some different names. Now, you call it ‘Art Under Attack’ and people are fascinated – no difference to the show, no dumbing down, but packaged in a way so that it’s not just people who know art who will understand it.”

Tate is faced with a similar quandary with a show coming next year, showing works by a “leading European artist”. Through research it has found that although the name recognition of the artist is high, people can’t recall a single image of their work. Sands acknowledges that creating the promotional poster for that show will be a challenge, and there’s a risk it won’t meet the targets initially hoped for.

Artistic vision
Alongside the research panel, the Tate also has 105,000 members who provide a valuable source of insight: as well as ongoing feedback to specific shows, they are surveyed twice a year.

Added together, all this research – be it from members, the audience panel, or online ticket purchasers – helps Sands bring the voice of the audience to the table. “If I’m arguing a point with a curator, it helps if I can point to research and say ‘Well this is what people actually said’. We can choose to ignore it if we want to, you cannot be a slave to this stuff; this is a highly creative organisation with extremely creative people. So you need to know when to apply the principles and when not to.”

Going forward, there are some significant projects that research will help with. Pricing is one area Sands has started to investigate. Tate went free in 1992 and “it was a tipping point in the world of museums,” he says. “It moved from the fringes of a middle class sport to something mainstream.”

But even though access to the main gallery is free, the Tate does charge for its special exhibitions. “Most museums and galleries are priced in a similar way,” says Sands. “No-one has stepped out of the £14-£16 blockbuster. But should we be looking at differential pricing? Should we be looking at the way airlines price – so for early and online bookings you pay less? There’s lots of room for manoeuvre, and while we’re not trying to extract more money out of people, we’re trying to ensure more people come and see the shows,’” he says.

And Tate Modern, with its five million plus visitors a year, is going through a very significant change. It has opened a new performance space in its disused oil tanks (the gallery is based in the former Bankside Power Station) and it is adding an 11-storey building attached to the present one. “The vision for that is being tested now,” says Sands. “That is a massive strategic play that Tate Modern is putting together and that we are currently finalising: in terms of what will go in there, how we will position it and how we will promote it. I don’t want people to think that it is simply an extension to Tate Modern. I want it to be understood that when you put the two pieces together that’s a new Tate Modern.”

Wherever the new Tate Modern takes the organisation, it has the benefit of being an incredibly strong brand with a core of devoted customers. And while the organisation has a clear sense of itself, Sands says this view will always need to be tempered or informed at points with research and insight. “Otherwise you just end up talking to yourself and that’s the real danger,” he says. “You have to be careful you don’t end up looking inwards all the time.”


This article was first published in Impact, the new quarterly magazine from the Market Research Society. Follow the link to read the digital version of Impact.


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10 years ago

a show coming up later this year called Iconoclasm. “It actually means the destruction of art..." Now, you call it ‘Art Under Attack’ and people are fascinated... Actually that is not the meaning of iconoclasm, which term dates from the 18c. Nonetheless, the Tate proves the point about how to sell a show.

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10 years ago

great case study, illuminating on enlightened audience-centric approach, which is all too rare in businesses, so thanks for the article

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