Culture Clash – Communicating to your audience

audienceA couple of weeks back I took my wife to a meeting for artists to get involved with furnishing the new Cromer hospital with art installations. The room was pretty packed with 30 odd Artsits and someone from NHS giving a presentation.

A similar project had already been successfully completed in the main hospital in Norwich, about 25 miles from Cromer (for you non locals reading this).

There were some questions and slowly you could tell there was s tension building in the room. Eventually a more vocal gentleman sought clarification over something and the presenter took his comments to be hostile and dressed him down in front of the whole room.

I was an objective (innocent) bystander that night and I thought to myself ‘how on earth have we got to this point?’

Well on reflection it was quite simple. The goal of the presenter wasn’t quite aligned to the expectations of the audience.  It was, from the start, a recipe for disaster as the bureaucratic red tape driven NHS (albeit with all the best intentions) met head on with the free thinking north Norfolk artists.

Here’s the thing. The artists were ready to donate for free their work to the hospital, they were totally on-board from before they even entered the room. The NHS rep basically said ‘We want you but you stay at arms length and you do it by our rules, the rules that were formed from the Norwich project, developed by Norwich people and to be judged by Norwich people.’

There was an huge assumption on the part of the presenter that because the project had already worked once in Norwich that it was a doddle to make it work again in Cromer. You would think so wouldn’t you? But it was assumed that the culture of Norwich was identical to that here on the coast, of course it’s not. It’s totally different.

The presenter was ill informed and assumptive and the expectations of the audience were not managed. The audience came expecting to donate & give away their art for what they saw as a good cause. The presenter expected a bunch of artists to fall in line and hand over control.


  1. Don’t presume that past success is automatically a formulae for future success
  2. Do your homework
  3. Know your audience
  4. Manage and meet their expectations (hopefully exceed them)



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  1. A good post Gary – and some important points – I would add one more: never expect anything for free, even the free stuff.

    While the artists were happy to donate their work they (rightly) did not want to feel exploited – so, as you say, they should have been treated in a way that respected the value of their contribution (through involvement, public praise, respect etc).

    From what you say it seems the NHS Rep might have concluded that anyone giving stuff away was just waiting to be told what to do – nearly always a big mistake.



  2. Chris Bardell

    Genuine question: was there an element of that rather defensive “we won’t be dictated to by ‘Townies’” insular mentality involved?

    • Possibly but it was more a broad level of confusion within the room. Possible dismay I guess.

      What didn’t help was that they planned to use the same Norwich judges to decide if the north Norfolk work was suitable. The judges were all people from the public who could easily be sought locally.

      The trouble was the NHS rep was fighting a loosing battle because she was very set on one track and didn’t seem open to other ideas.

  3. Surely it makes sense to have local people judging the art that is in their local hospital?

    Are the currently appointed judges likely to visit the hospital in the future to enjoy the chosen pieces? And if not then surely they aren’t duly qualified to judge them anyway!


  4. The culture clash you observed is very deep rooted Gary. The NHS is managed in a hierarchical structure in which ‘managers’ (often, but not exclusively, practitioners who have risen up the hierarchy because of their clinical experience) tell their staff what to do and there is little if any room for negotiation. I have seen many examples of highly skilled and experienced practitioners disgruntled by management instructions because they have no ownership of the process or the decision – unquestioning compliance is an expectation. NHS clinical practice is based on evidence of what has worked before – hence the determination to reproduce the Norwich process- when often a different approach that is more suitable in a different context would be so much more appropriate but this is deemed unsafe if it is unproven. Understandable in an operating theatre of course but not in an art context!!