WolfBrown’s 2008 Cultural Engagement in California’s Inland Regions, commissioned by The James Irvine Foundation and written by Alan Brown and Jennifer Novak (now known as Jennifer Novak-Leonard) with Amy Kitchener, aims to provide a broad view of how residents in California’s Inland Empire and Central Valley regions engage with the arts. These regions are similar to many parts of the U.S. that boomed during the aughts and were subsequently hit hardest by the 2008 recession. The Inland Empire (San Bernardino and Riverside counties) blends slowly east from metropolitan Los Angeles and Orange counties to the mountains and desert, and is a rare region of cheap housing in Southern California. Meanwhile, the Central Valley makes up a huge geographic area that includes the cities of Bakersfield, Fresno, and Modesto, the majority of California’s farmland, and a growing cadre of commuters to job hubs like Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area. Despite the recession, they continue to be rated the fastest-growing regions in California, and are home to approximately 10.5 million residents out of the state’s 38 million.

This study diverges from previous research on arts engagement in that it explores a much wider array of formal and informal settings for the arts, and more forms of participation. The home, churches, parks, and other community spaces are measured against museums, theaters, and concert halls, and the authors also start to look at activities like stitchery, social dancing, and digital photography. Differences among racial/ethnic cohorts, ages, and education levels are also parsed.

WolfBrown divided the study into two phases. In Phase 1, researchers under the supervision of the Alliance for California Traditional Arts conducted an initial door-to-door survey of 150-200 randomly-selected households in each of three Fresno area neighborhoods and three San Bernardino/Riverside neighborhoods, for a total of 1,066 households surveyed. The results from this phase were used primarily to develop hypotheses and to cross-check data from Phase 2, a non-random sample of approximately 5,000 respondents who were surveyed for the “California Cultural Census” via online and on-the-ground intercept surveys at cultural events. Phase 2, the primary focus of the Cultural Engagement study, isolated data from four racial/ethnic cohorts (White, Non-Hispanic; African-American, Non-Hispanic; Hispanic; and Native American, Non-Hispanic) and five focus samples (Hmong; Culturally-Active Latinos; African-American Faith-Based; Latino Faith-Based; and Mexican Farm Workers). Finally, the data was also viewed through the lens of Alan Brown’s five modes of arts participation below, a framework developed for a previous study on behalf of the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism.

Cultural Engagement’s major finding is that the home is a hugely important setting for arts and cultural activities across genres, and yet funders and nonprofit service providers have completely overlooked it as an arts space. Other “alternative” spaces loom large: places of worship, parks, and community centers figure prominently across genres as locations for artmaking and creativity. The wide variety of venues parallels the study’s documentation of the immense range of artistic activities. In several instances, racial/ethnic identity resulted in significant variances in venue and type of participation; I’ll highlight some of this specific data.

The responses to questions regarding arts venues revealed the significance of alternative venues for several of the genres investigated: music, theater and drama, dance, and visual arts and crafts. Two genres, reading/writing and what the authors term the “living arts” (which involve a range of informal/amateur activities like preparing traditional foods, gardening, or taking photographs) were not surveyed for venue variation, presumably because the study’s authors assumed those activities take place outside formal venues by nature. Some of the more interesting findings here include:

  • The home ranks as the most common location for three of the four arts genres measured: music (70%), dance (34%), and visual arts activities (51%). Eleven percent of respondents said theater activities took place at home, and a range of alternative venues were ranked similarly.
  • The Internet is a significant venue for music activities. Thirty percent of the total adult population experience music online, and 46% of 18-24 year-olds download music, a sign that the figures for online engagement will continue to grow (and have undoubtedly already done so since the publishing of Cultural Engagement in 2008). Visual arts show the next highest online activity level at a relatively low 8%.
  • Traditional venues still hold power. The theater ranks as the best-used venue type for drama activities (31%), museums and galleries second-highest for visual arts (26%), and theater and concert facilities third-highest for music (32%, about the same as the Internet).

Within the broader venue results, a number of variations by race/ethnicity also surfaced:

  • Different racial/ethnic cohorts show a preference for certain types of venues. African Americans tend to prefer places of worship as venues across genre, with the exception of visual art. Hispanics and Native Americans are twice as likely as whites and African Americans to use nontraditional spaces for theater, likely in part because they also practice informal dramatic activities (like acting out stories) more frequently. The home dominates as a setting for dance activities for non-white populations (38-47%), compared to only 18% of white populations taking part in dance activities at home.
  • Racial/ethnic differences in participation exist for reading and writing activities. For example, three quarters of whites reported reading books or poetry for pleasure, compared to 45-55% for the other three racial/ethnic groups.

Responses to a series of open-ended questions on active arts participation (inventive and interpretive on the Five Modes of Arts Participation scale) demonstrated an incredibly wide variety of activities within each genre. For instance, musical instruments played include the autoharp, beatbox, computer, and gamelan; theater/drama activities include improv theater, skits, and Renaissance Faires; and arts and crafts activities include scrap-booking, woodworking, and creating floral arrangements.

Brown and Novak note that this variety might point to the increasing fragmentation of artistic tastes, and also describe some findings that indicate unfulfilled interest in arts participation in a number of genres:

  • Approximately a fifth of adults have some music background, but are no longer active, about as many as are currently active. The authors argue that this finding may show a reservoir of unfulfilled interest in musical participation.
  • In the visual arts, 19% indicated an interest in visiting museums and galleries more frequently, and a massive 49% would like to take part in more participatory activities like painting, making quilts, or taking a class.
  • While one third of respondents dance socially, the same number wanted to take dance lessons, more than in other genres. (Only 16% indicated an interest in music lessons, for example.)
  • Eleven percent of respondents reported an interest in taking part in a book club, in contrast to 6% who currently do it.

As with the venue measures, the data for participation and unfulfilled interest in participation reveal some significant disparities by race/ethnicity and education levels:

  • Respondents without college degrees showed higher levels of interest in inventive and interpretive modes of participation. The authors note that most public and private investment tends to focus on observational modes of engagement, and support the idea of expanding funding for the more active forms.
  • Hispanics and Native Americans showed high levels of unfulfilled interest in informal/participatory theater and dance activities compared to whites and African Americans, who indicated a much greater interest in observational engagement.
  • Spanish-speakers have a higher level of unfulfilled interest in reading, versus 20% for whites (who, according to the study, presumably don’t speak Spanish as their primary language).
  • Within visual arts and crafts, the Hispanic cohort reported the highest level of interest in making quilts and other types of needlework at 21%, with even higher levels seen in the Hmong (34%) and Mexican farmworker (48%) focus samples.

Finally, to ensure as broad a coverage of participatory arts activities as possible, Cultural Engagement included questions addressing what Brown and Novak term the “living arts.” Living arts, in the authors’ estimation, are activities that are potentially undertaken without artistic intent, do not necessitate formal education or expensive materials, fall outside activities typically labeled as “art,” and may involve easily-accessible digital tools. The list of activities they wanted to include, but could not due to limits in the study scope, is instructive: body decoration like tattooing and hair weaving, a longer list of culinary and food preparation activities like cake decorating, engagement in genealogy, more writing activities, a more detailed breakdown of digital imaging activities, and various forms of household decoration. What they were able to include, however, indicates strong engagement in several “living arts” forms:

  • Sixty-four percent watch movies, a level of engagement only exceeded by figures for listening to music on the radio and reading newspapers and magazines, and 52% of those surveyed take photographs. In both cases, whites were somewhat more likely to do so than other racial/ethnic cohorts. Forty-two percent prepare traditional foods, with relatively even participation across racial and ethnic groups.
  • Twenty-nine percent reported gardening or landscaping activities, an activity most popular among whites (42%) and Native Americans (41%).
  • Fifteen percent reported making videos, an activity least popular among whites (11%), with the other three racial/ethnic cohorts showing about 20% participation.


Overall, Cultural Engagement both challenges the traditional arts infrastructure and provides encouragement for the expansion of arts services to traditionally underserved places. The data shows that a great deal of arts engagement falls well outside the traditional boundaries of arts nonprofits; at the same time, it also indicates relatively high levels of unfulfilled interest in the activities currently provided by these organizations. However, the fact that the study relies heavily on a non-random sample of people already interested in the arts makes it difficult to extrapolate conclusions to the wider population, undermining one of the study’s five major goals. In addition, surprising results for some of the racial/ethnic cohorts indicate some interesting opportunities for further analysis.

Brown and Novak reason that the use of two data collection phases–the smaller, randomized sample from Phase 1, and the larger, non-randomized sample from Phase 2–allows them to eliminate a great deal of pro-arts bias from the report. Indeed, most of the questions from the two phases are nearly the same, and one might assume that the Phase 2 dataset is strengthened by similar results in Phase 1. They also weighted the Phase 2 data according to known characteristics of the surveyed counties in an attempt to eliminate potential bias. However, a close look at the report raises questions as to how effective these strategies ultimately were in eliminating pro-arts bias from the study.

First, the randomized Phase 1 component may include some pro-arts bias of its own, weakening its usefulness as a control. Brown and Novak mention in quite a few places that the door-to-door Phase 1 survey asked the respondent to reply in reference to any adult in the household, not simply him/herself. It’s unclear whether this instruction led people to respond for multiple arts participants as a single person with a high level of arts interest (as in the case of a someone who plays an instrument, but lives with a brother who attends plays), and if WolfBrown researchers accounted for this issue by filling out multiple forms for each represented person. In addition, even though data collection was attempted from a randomized sample pool, the respondent set might have suffered from some selection bias—the report refers to some difficulty in attaining cooperation from neighborhood residents, and in one neighborhood researchers had to abandon efforts to conduct door-to-door surveys and send mail-reply questionnaires instead. Those who did respond may have had more of an interest in the arts than those who did not.

Second, some of the Phase 2 results don’t stack up with arts participation figures from the NEA’s 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA), which does use a random sample. While most of WolfBrown’s measures cannot be compared with those in the SPPA, many that do show significantly higher levels of activity. For instance, 30% of Cultural Engagement respondents said they “regularly” attend stage plays; only 12.5% of SPPA respondents in the Pacific region claim to have done so even once in the past year. Six percent of Cultural Engagement respondents perform dances, but just 2.1% of Pacific region SPPA respondents do. Meanwhile, 14% of Phase 2 respondents indicated they earn some income from their art, a data point that was not collected in Phase 1 or in the SPPA. This figure strongly suggests pro-arts bias, since the NEA’s estimate of 2.3 million full- and part-time arts workers in the United States represents only about 1.5% of the total labor force.

The survey bias may significantly undermine one of the five goals of the study, to “measure levels of cultural engagement, broadly defined” in the Inland Empire and Central Valley. Given that both Phase 1 and Phase 2 display signs of pro-arts bias, it’s difficult to take the reported levels of overall cultural engagement at face value. The four other goals don’t require as broad a view of the data, and Cultural Engagement serves them much better. They include exploring and defining what arts engagement means for the target regions; understanding differences in engagement across demographic cohorts; investigating the settings in which people engage with the arts; and developing recommendations for how Irvine can more effectively support arts and culture. Even if the report’s numbers for the general public represent an already arts-interested population, results showing an expansive definition of arts and culture, differences in engagement among racial/ethnic cohorts, and a wide variety of arts settings are likely relatively unaffected. WolfBrown’s recommendations to adjust Irvine’s funding to reflect these findings seem to rest on a fairly strong foundation.

The results for two subgroups merit further exploration in future studies: the Asian/Pacific Islander ethnic group and the Mexican farmworker focus sample. Surprisingly, the researchers were not able to survey enough Asian/Pacific Islander respondents to include them as an independent racial/ethnic cohort, other than the Hmong focus sample, despite the fact that Asian/Pacific Islander residents make up a significant population group in many surveyed counties. Because the Hmong are a minority ethnic group in several Southeast Asian countries, and maintain a unique set of traditions and cultural activities, it is potentially misleading to rely on the focus sample results to describe the tendencies of larger, mainline Asian populations in California.

The Mexican farmworker focus sample results were reported along with all other subgroups, parsed by arts activity and mode of engagement. Looked at as a single group, however, a number of surprisingly high engagement results indicate that this cohort may be ripe territory for further, more detailed study. They report higher arts engagement than the general Hispanic population in several areas:

  • A much higher frequency of reading books or poetry for pleasure, at 68%, compared to the general Hispanic population, at 49%.
  • A higher level of participation in many dance activities, including performing dances as part of a group (28% vs. Hispanic population at 6%), going to community ethnic or folk dances (28% vs. 13%), and social dancing at night clubs or parties (65% vs. 42%).
  • In the visual art sphere, 48% responded that they make quilts or engage in other needlework, vs. 21% of the wider Hispanic population.
  • In the living arts, they also reported by far the strongest participation among all focus samples or racial/ethnic cohorts for almost every category: 32% reported making videos, 42% design clothes, 77% prepare traditional foods, and 49% garden or landscape.


Cultural Engagement takes a big step toward recognizing the multitude of ways in which people engage with the arts. By including activities like preparing traditional foods, making videos, home decorating, and social dancing, the study expands the definition of an arts activity to include almost anything that involves some level of creativity on the part of the participant. The living arts section, in particular, hints at the massive range of activities that could conceivably be considered art. In light of the pro-am revolution, amateur and hybrid forms will likely continue to come to the fore.

Cultural Engagement records high levels of unfulfilled interest across a wide range of activities and racial/ethnic cohorts, but because no questions were included asking why people don’t participate as much as they want, we are left to speculate. Some sections of the report seem to imply that if only arts organizations can provide the right kinds of services, the one third of adults who desire dance lessons will come around. But why haven’t they already? Arts organizations might be tempted to dramatically re-imagine the types of activities they support on a broad scale, but perhaps it’s of more utility to think about how to expand their work to include amateurs without losing focus. For instance, an organization might move to support amateur drama activities by providing a venue free of charge, or send budding visual arts curators to tour decorators’ homes and provide advice to help them realize their visions. At the same time, if a gardening-specific arts organization appears, perhaps funders should consider supporting it, rather than rejecting it for falling outside traditional guidelines.

The James Irvine Foundation has responded to the results of Cultural Engagement with a few funding initiatives. Most recently, it created the statewide Exploring Engagement Fund, designed as risk capital to help nonprofit arts organizations produce programs outside traditional venues, for underserved audiences, and better utilize participatory forms. The foundation also cites the Inland Empire and Central Valley as priority regions, thereby aiding the growth of arts organizations within these communities. Irvine recently announced its first round of grantees, which includes support for the Center for the Study of Political Graphics’s effort to launch a new format for traveling exhibitions, Memoir Journal’s memoir-writing workshops hosted in nontraditional venues, and many other projects focused on experimenting with new forms of engagement.

But there’s plenty of room to discuss how to expand on Irvine’s work. Given that so many arts activities take place outside of the nonprofit arts, it’s worth considering how other foundations might support these activities more directly. For instance, a funder could create a micro-grant program directed towards things like book clubs, online video production, in-home crafting and decorating groups, or community-based folk dancers. This type of program would certainly seem risky from a foundation perspective, but what grantees lack in institutional knowledge regarding funder requirements, they might make up for in direct community connection and authenticity. Programs that expand funding eligibility beyond traditional 501(c)(3) organizations would allow foundations to respond more nimbly to an arts landscape that continues to grow more diffuse with every passing year.

Further Reading

  • It’s great to see more efforts at cultural engagement. As someone who runs a dance studio, I’ve seen my fair share of kids who come in resisting their parent’s efforts at introducing them to something new, but eventually come to love the new ways in which they can express themselves.