If your events and exhibitions have seemed just a bit…emptier lately, you’re not alone. The National Endowment for the Arts’s Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA) reveals that only 33.4% of U.S. adults attended one of seven “benchmark” arts activities—ballet, opera, musical plays, nonmusical plays, classical music, jazz, and visiting museums or galleries—in 2012, down from 41% in 1992. Though many a tooth has been gnashed over these statistics since they were released a year and a half ago, on their own they don’t provide much guidance for arts managers desperately trying to stem the tide. In an effort to better understand the reasons for the decline, the NEA decided to sponsor a set of questions on the arts as part of the 2012 General Social Survey (GSS). Administered by the National Opinion Research Center based at the University of Chicago, the highly-regarded GSS has been collecting data on a random sample of nearly 3,000 adults biennially since 1972.
The resulting report, titled “When Going Gets Tough: Barriers and Motivations Affecting Arts Attendance” and released last month, provides an unprecedented level of insight into the motivations of “interested non-attendees,” that is, individuals who indicated interest in attending a specific performance or exhibition in the given twelve-month period, but ultimately did not follow through. (It’s important to note that the definition of arts participation used in the study excludes film and literary arts, as well as remote and home-based participation modes. A survey with these disciplines and contexts included might tell a different story.)
Just over half of survey respondents had attended either a performance or an exhibition within the past year, and an additional 13.3% fell into the category of “interested non-attendees.” Among attendees, performance patrons were most likely to credit socializing with others as the reason for attending an event, while nearly nine in ten exhibit-goers indicated that “learning something new” was a motivator for their attendance.
Among people who didn’t attend an event or exhibit but would have liked to, nearly half blamed a lack of time as a reason for their lack of engagement (particularly an issue for parents with children under six), 37% indicated that the venue was too difficult to get to, and 22% just didn’t have anyone to go with. Almost 40% of these interested non-attendees cited cost as an issue, and although it was not mentioned as often as time, the people who were concerned about affordability were much more likely to see it as a major obstacle than other barriers. Importantly, this figure enables us to arrive at a reasonable estimate for the number of people in the United States who are impaired from accessing one form of common arts experience due to economic disadvantage: just over 5% of the adult population, or 12.4 million people.
That fun and intrigue motivate participation in anything an arts event seems pretty obvious, and that cost, convenience and time are barriers to attendance will not be news to administrators who for years have struggled to address these very obstacles. Where the report really gets interesting – and concretely useful to the field – is in the somewhat unexpected variations between disciplines and among categories of attendees that it surfaces. This research supports the notion that individuals have different relationships to different disciplines, and get different things out of them. For example, 65% of performance attendees, and an even higher proportion of those attending music events, were motivated by the opportunity to see a specific performer, whereas just 6% of those attending art exhibits went to see artworks by a specific artist. Instead, as noted above, the vast majority of exhibit goers were motivated by the desire to learn something new – almost twice the rate of performance attendees. There were some interesting variations in motivation for audience members within the performing arts themselves, as well: 64% of theater-goers cared about experiencing high-quality art, compared with 52% of both dance patrons and music fans. Performance attendees were also more likely to bring somebody along. Interestingly, the number of respondents citing socializing as a motivating factor was much higher than the number attending with a friend of family member, implying that many patrons went to these events with the intention of seeing or meeting other people without necessarily bringing anyone with them.
Finally, the report shows that attendance patterns can be shaped not only by perennial cost and time issues, but also by cultural context. For example, African Americans and Asians are more likely than other racial and ethnic groups to attend performances supporting community events, and 79% of first-generation Hispanic immigrants saw performances and exhibitions as an opportunity to celebrate their cultural heritage. (By contrast, only 4.4% of US-born non-Hispanic whites mentioned cultural heritage as a motivating factor.) Several intriguing education-related findings included the fact that more than three-quarters of individuals with less than a high school diploma or GED indicated “learning something new” as a motivation for attendance, compared to 63% of those who had finished high school.
“When Going Gets Tough” confirms that reasons for non-attendance are complex and personal, and even (or especially) when armed with lots of data, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to improving participation across all disciplines and individuals. The “arts” are not “The Arts,” a homogenous monolith with homogenous strategies. Rather, “the arts” are a mosaic of disciplines and sub-disciplines, of artists and thinkers, of administrators and producers and curators, of venue owners and critics, and of audience members – each with their own unique relationship to the field. Still, there is much practitioners can learn from the statistics unearthed here by the NEA. The Venn diagram of sorts that emerges from the data put forth can be extremely specific, if we want or need it to be, and we now have an actual idea as to why, for example, a first-generation, retired, working-class Hispanic individual might attend a community concert, or what spurred the mid-thirties, middle-class mother of two to bring her kids to the MOMA. The first step, of course, is figuring out where in that Venn diagram our audience for a particular event sits (or where we want them to sit.) And the second, that of addressing the needs and expectations of interested non-attendees – and actually getting them in the door – might turn out a bit more successfully when armed with reports such as these.
Cover image of a gallery show by flickr user Brainfloat, via flickr Creative Commons license.