• People with lower incomes and less education (low-SES) participate at lower rates in a huge range of activities, including not just classical music concerts and plays, but also less “elitist” forms of engagement like going to the movies, dancing socially, and even attending sporting events.
  • This is despite the fact that low-SES adults actually have more free time at their disposal, on average.
  • Cost is a barrier for some low-SES individuals who want to participate in the arts, but not as many as you might think. If we could somehow make it so that low-SES adults were no more likely to decide not to attend an exhibit or performance because of cost than their more affluent peers, it would hardly change the socioeconomic composition of audiences at all.
  • A major contrast to this dynamic is television. Ironically, the for-profit commercial TV industry is far more effective than our subsidized nonprofit arts organizations at engaging economically vulnerable members of our society. Not only do low-SES adults watch more TV, low-SES adults who don’t attend arts events watch even more TV than low-SES adults who do.
  • Where to go from here? We’d like to better understand why people make the choices they do before offering recommendations. At the very least, though, we can say that television should receive far more recognition than it does for its role in shaping the cultural lives of socioeconomically disadvantaged adults.

* * *

Arts and Economic Disadvantage - TV

Less is More – photo by flickr user Arthur Cruz

On March 18, the Empire finale aired on Fox. The two-hour episode was seen – on TV, in real time – by more than 17 million viewers nationwide. An estimated 50% of all African American households tuned in. In February, the New York City Ballet sold out its 2,500 seat house for three “Art Series” performances, as is typical of this series. (Each ticket, regardless of location, was priced at $29.) Last July, bachata star Romeo Santos sold out two nights at Yankee Stadium, performing for more than 100,000 people. (Two thirds of the tickets cost more than $100.) During the 2013-14 season, the Metropolitan Opera transmitted ten operas via satellite into some 2,000 theaters in 66 countries, including more than 800 in the U.S. Box office numbers hit $60 million worldwide. (Average ticket prices were $23.) Last summer, some 90,000 people put at least $300 and four full days (to say nothing of accommodation costs and travel time) towards attending Bonnaroo, the Tennessee rock/pop music festival. More than half of those attending came from farther afield than “the south.”

With statistics like these, it’s hard not to come away with the impression that “the arts” – from ballet to Bonnaroo – are alive and kicking, well-attended and avidly consumed by every demographic imaginable. A closer look at the data, however, surfaces evidence that individuals of low socioeconomic status (“low-SES”) – generally defined in our reading as those with at most a high school education and in the bottom half of the income distribution in the United States – consume the arts at a much lower rate than their more affluent counterparts. The latest Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA) in the United States shows that in 2012, probability of arts attendance tracked closely with level of formal education: college graduates were more than two and a half times as likely to attend a so-called “benchmark” arts event in 2012 as those with no more than a high school education. Looking at income levels shows a similar correlative relationship: those earning between $20,000 and $50,000, who make up one-third of the US population, made up just a quarter of 2012 benchmark arts audiences in 2012. Statistics from the UK, Ireland, and the Netherlands tell a similar story.

Arts & Economic Disadvantage - NEA graph

Source: National Endowment for the Arts, “A Decade of Arts Engagement: Findings from the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, 2002-2012.”

Historically, research into the demographics of arts consumption has used a rather narrow lens to define “the arts.” The NEA’s benchmark arts activities, which have been measured in every edition of the survey since 1982, include only live attendance at ballet, opera, musical and nonmusical plays, classical music, jazz, museums, and galleries. However, the most recent edition of the SPPA makes clear that it’s not just benchmark activities that are at issue. Data from the survey shows that fewer low-income individuals attend pop and rock concerts than their wealthier counterparts, and significantly fewer of them attend visual arts festivals and craft fairs. In fact, people with lower incomes and less education are less likely to read books, go to the movies, take an arts class, play a musical instrument, sing, dance socially, take or edit photographs, paint, make scrapbooks, engage in creative writing, or make crafts.

In the past 12 months, fewer socioeconomically disadvantaged Americans participated in a variety of activities. Image by Angie Ma.

All told, the data paints a consistent portrait of lower participation by low-SES adults in a breathtaking range of visual, performing, literary, and film activities. While this definition of “arts” doesn’t include everything (more on this later), it is broad enough, and the differences of sufficient magnitude, to be cause for significant concern. If those differences reflect disparities of access to more “common” arts experiences like participating regularly as an audience member, they represent a significant challenge to Createquity’s conception of a healthy arts ecosystem. When large numbers of people face barriers to participating in the arts in the way they might want to, we know that we’re missing opportunities to improve people’s lives in concrete and meaningful ways. What’s really behind this phenomenon of lower participation rates among economically disadvantaged people? And what can, and should, we do about it?


Earlier this year, the National Endowment for the Arts published “When Going Gets Tough,” a report that for the first time offers extensive insight into the reasons why people do or do not attend arts events. Drawing from a special cultural participation module within the 2012 General Social Survey (GSS), the survey asked respondents whether they had attended an exhibit or performance in the past year, and if not, why not. More than half of respondents had indeed attended at least one exhibit or performance during that time, and another 13% shared that they had wanted to go but decided not to for whatever reason. The report refers to this latter group as “interested non-attendees.”

The most common factor keeping people away from arts experiences, cited by nearly half of interested non-attendees, was that they “could not find the time.” This makes sense: before ponying up for a three-day festival in Tennessee or a five-hour opera, we first have to decide if we can afford the hours.

But while lack of time is undoubtedly an obstacle for many, it does not disproportionately affect lower-income and working class respondents. “When Going Gets Tough” notes that “not being able to find the time, including due to work conflicts, is increasingly mentioned…at higher incomes. [Only] 31% of those in the lowest income quartile mention time constraints, compared with 53% of those in higher income quartiles.” While perhaps surprising, this finding is not isolated to the arts: the phenomenon of less perceived time at higher incomes is well documented in the literature. According to Daniel Hamermesh and Jungmin Lee’s analysis of time use datasets from several countries for their cheekily-titled study “Stressed out on Four Continents: Time Crunch or Yuppie Kvetch?,” “complaints about insufficient time come disproportionately from well-off families.

Is this just a matter of perception? Do low-SES individuals feel less time-poor only because time pales in importance to other barriers they face? In fact, the preponderance of evidence suggests that low-SES people really do have more time at their disposal on average. According to a longitudinal study of time-use data by Almudena Sevilla, Jose I. Gimenez-Nadal, and Jonathan Gershuny, discretionary time has increased for all Americans over the last fifty years, and while hours of leisure time were once fairly equal across education levels, low-SES people have since enjoyed dramatic gains. By their estimation, low-SES men with at most a high school education have gained an hour more than their college-educated peers during that time; the corresponding differential for women is 3.4 hours.

Bottom line: all signs point to low-SES people having relatively more free time at their disposal and lower rates of arts attendance than their high-SES counterparts. That would seem to offer pretty strong evidence against the notion that time constraints are the primary factor keeping this demographic away from live performances and exhibits.

* * *

What about cost? For decades, our field has offered free concerts, outreach programs, and other engagement efforts that all rest on an assumption that the price of admission is a barrier to arts consumption for low-SES individuals. Taken literally, that assumption is supported by data from “When Going Gets Tough,” which indicates that cost was a barrier for nearly 40% of interested non-attendees. While the report itself does not go into detail on the extent to which cost is felt as a barrier across income strata, our own analysis of the underlying survey data indicates that low-SES individuals are indeed more likely to mention cost. Among interested non-attendees, 43% of people in the lowest income quartile were not able to attend an exhibit or performance because of cost, compared to 30% of folks in the highest quartile. Viewed through the lens of education, the difference is even more dramatic: those who had progressed no further than high school were almost twice as likely to see cost as an obstacle than respondents with a bachelor’s degree.

Arts and Economic Disadvantage -Inc and Ed Cost Barriers

Source: 2012 General Social Survey. ICPSR National Archive of Data on Arts and Culture

Looking at the motivations of people who did attend arts events, we see a similar dynamic. Adults in the lowest quartile of household income were twice as likely as those in the highest quartile to indicate that low cost or free admission was critical to their decision to attend an event. Even at events that were free for everyone, 29% of low-SES attendees said that low (or no) cost was a major reason for their attendance, versus 17% of those in the top income quartile.

So the way to get everyone participating in the arts is to invest more in free events and outreach programs to underserved populations, right? Not so fast. While it is clear that cost does affect the ability of some low-SES adults to engage with the arts, or at least live exhibits and performances, it’s not at all clear that removing cost as a barrier would make that much of a difference.

Consider this: “When Going Gets Tough” reports that there is only a 6 percentage-point gap between the lowest and highest income quartile for those who had free admission to the most recent arts exhibit they’d attended (64% in the lowest income quartile vs. 58% in the highest income quartile). While the difference in attendance at free performances is more pronounced in the GSS data, the most recent SPPA survey tells a different story: the rate of arts attendance at free music, theater, or dance performances actually increases as income and education levels go up. Moreover, this phenomenon has been observed in arts research going back at least half a century. For their seminal early 1960s investigation of cultural economics, Performing Arts: The Economic Dilemma, William J. Baumol and William G. Bowen surveyed more than 30,000 attendees at 160 events in the US and UK and found that not a single free performance was able to draw an audience that was more than 10% “blue-collar.”

Screen Shot 2015-05-02 at 4.07.01 PM

Source: National Endowment for the Arts, “A Decade of Arts Engagement: Findings from the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, 2002-2012.”

Admittedly, we don’t know the whole story here. Perhaps affluent adults are more likely to hear about free events, or have relationships with people who can get them free tickets. And even “free” is not necessarily free, if it still costs money to get to the location or pay for child care. Whatever the reasons, though, the data suggests that simply offering a free option is not sufficient for arts institutions to ensure a socioeconomically representative audience. In our own analysis of the survey data from which “When Going Gets Tough” was sourced, we modeled a scenario in which low-SES people were no more likely to face cost as a barrier in attending an exhibit or performance than their high-SES counterparts. Roughly speaking, this simulates what would happen if every exhibit and performance in existence could be attended for free. The result? Only 7% of the chasm in attendance rates between rich and poor, and between college-educated and not, would be bridged.

Arts & Economic Disadvantage - Cost barrier table

Source: 2012 General Social Survey via ICPSR National Archive of Data on Arts and Culture, author analysis

“When Going Gets Tough” does find one other barrier to access that’s correlated with income: ease of getting to the venue. According to the report, “44 percent of adults in the lowest income quartile said the exhibit or performance was too difficult to get to….In contrast, only 24 percent of those in the highest income quartile mentioned this issue.” Yet, like cost, this factor on its own is not enough to explain the disparity. Indeed, according to our model, even if all barriers to participation were removed for low-SES populations and every person who wanted to attend an exhibit or performance in the past year were able to do so, it would still not close even half of the gap in attendance rates.

Arts & Economic Disadvantage - Barrier removal effects

Source: 2012 General Social Survey via ICPSR National Archive of Data on Arts and Culture, author analysis

Clearly, there is something else going on. If none of these barriers fully explain the low participation rates among the socioeconomically disadvantaged, what else is keeping them away?


Createquity’s definition of a healthy arts ecosystem imagines a world in which “each human being today and in the future has an opportunity to participate in the arts at a level appropriate to his/her interest and skill” (emphasis added). Our concern about disparities of access to the arts stems from the potential for life circumstances to interfere with such choices. The revelations in this research, however, suggest that there is a significant proportion of economically disadvantaged people who do not take the initiative to experience the arts, even when time and cost are not issues.

Arts & Economic Disadvantage - GSS Figure III-1

Source: National Endowment for the Arts, “When Going Gets Tough”

Our analysis of the GSS data underlying “When Going Gets Tough” shows that a lack of explicit interest is far and away the dominant factor keeping low-SES populations away from arts events. Just under a third of the overall sample neither attended an exhibit or performance in the past year nor could recall one they wanted to attend but couldn’t. Among the bottom income quartile, however, this number was nearly half – and for people who hadn’t finished high school, it was over 65%!

Amid the litany of arts-related activities for which participation correlates with increased income and higher education, one notable exception looms large. Aside from eating, television is about as close to a universal American pastime as exists today. A whopping 93% of us spend time in front of the tube on a typical day, according to the GSS, and nearly 97% of American households own a TV set. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’s American Time Use Survey (ATUS), watching TV was the leisure activity that occupied the most time (2.8 hours per day) in 2013, accounting for more than half of leisure time for those age 15 and over. John P. Robinson and Geoffrey Godbey in “Busyness as Usual” show that television consumption has increased dramatically in recent decades across all populations, noting that TV has eaten up six of the eight hours of the discretionary hours we’ve gained on average since 1965.

While almost everyone watches television, it turns out that low-SES people watch more than most. A closer look at the Time Use Survey numbers shows that individuals with less than a high school diploma spent 3.77 hours per weekday watching TV in 2013, almost double the TV hours consumed by those with a bachelor’s degree and higher. What’s more, these less-educated individuals spent twice as much time consuming television as on all other leisure activities combined–including reading, socializing and communicating, sports and exercise, relaxing, and playing computer games.

A similar dynamic can be observed in the spending patterns captured in the BLS’s Consumer Expenditure Survey. Although individuals in the top income quintile spend only a little bit more of their budgets on “entertainment” on the whole than those on the bottom (5% vs. 4%), the distribution within this amount is quite different. In the lowest income quintile, more than half of spending goes to “audio and visual equipment and services” (which presumably includes TVs), while just over a tenth goes to “fees and admissions.” The top bracket, by contrast, spends more on fees and admissions than on A/V equipment and services.

It seems likely that quite a few low-SES adults are essentially substituting television for other forms of engagement with the arts and entertainment. Our analysis of GSS data offers strong evidence to support this hypothesis. It turns out that even within low-SES groups, a lack of expressed interest in attending an exhibit or performance over the past year correlates with more hours spent watching TV. Whatever sustenance people are seeking from live arts attendance, it seems the folks who don’t go are getting it (at least in part) from the small screen.

Ats & Economic Disadvantage - TV Hours

Source: 2012 General Social Survey. ICPSR National Archive of Data on Arts and Culture

Is that something to be worried about? At least one group of researchers argues that it is. In their previously-mentioned study on leisure inequality, Sevilla et al. find that in contrast to previously mentioned increases in the quantity of leisure time, the quality of leisure time has declined across the board for people at all income levels, with an especially steep decline in leisure quality for low-SES individuals. In other words, even though low-SES individuals have experienced the greatest increase in number of discretionary hours since 1965, they have also experienced the greatest decline in the “quality” of how those hours are spent, as measured by their relative levels of different types of leisure. Sevilla et al. see increased TV watching as a prime culprit behind this decrease in leisure time quality, as watching TV is a passive, one-way communication medium that doesn’t require the presence of others.

On the other hand, TV is relatively cheap for the quantity of programming available and can be delivered on demand via devices we likely already own. And in the midst of what many are calling a new golden age of television, claims on the part of egghead researchers about “low-quality” leisure time might ring hollow to the folks who tune in every day.


The truth is that we don’t know much about why low-SES people make the choices they do about how to spend their free time. Are they watching television because they truly enjoy it and happen to find it more fulfilling than going out to a concert, a museum, or a movie theater? Or are they doing so as a reluctant concession to circumstance, with TV being the only art form they can afford to consume (or the only one they don’t have to schedule in advance)? Or perhaps something in between – a “learned” and socially reinforced preference that has as much to do with identity as anything specific to the experience itself?

“When Going Gets Tough” offers some support for the last of these propositions. Survey respondents who self-identified as middle or upper class were much more likely to attend an exhibit or performance than those who identified as working class. This finding held even after controlling for income and education:

For example, among individuals whose household income was around the national median, approximately 60% identified as working class and 36% as middle class. Despite having very similar household incomes, only 48% of those identifying as working class attended at least one exhibit or performance, compared with 67% who identified as middle class.

Perhaps some low-SES individuals don’t attend arts events simply because they don’t think of themselves as the “kind of people” who attend arts events. Which brings us back to the question: is that a problem?

Art Gallery - photo by flickr user LWYang

Art Gallery – photo by flickr user LWYang

We would urge would-be social engineers to tread carefully when it comes to deciding for poor people what their consumption preferences should be. (An instructive example here is the movement in New York City and elsewhere to reduce soda consumption, which has faced pushback from the very low-income communities it’s intended to help.) How far can one go to increase participation by underrepresented audiences before those efforts stop being perceived as generous and start coming off as patronizing? Until we know more about low-SES people’s subjective experience of their free time — whether they would spend their time differently if they had the opportunity, and whether there’s a place for the arts in those dreams — we advise against making too many assumptions.

There is a rich irony lurking just beneath the surface here: television, a largely for-profit commercial industry, routinely does a much better job engaging the most economically vulnerable members of our population than our supposedly charitable nonprofit arts institutions that receive tens of billions of dollars annually in government-sanctioned subsidy. As TV becomes increasingly untethered from broadcast networks and big cable channels and increasingly experienced on laptops and handheld devices, the nonprofit arts sector would do well to let go of its historical marginalization of the small screen. For better or worse, television is a powerful cultural force, and ignoring it is no longer tenable in an era of increased attention to cultural equity and community relevance.


In the meantime, however, let’s not forget that we have identified one constituency that is clearly suffering under the status quo. More than 45% of low-SES adults who were interested in participating in an exhibit or performance over a 12-month period did not do so because of cost – a figure that is more than 10 percentage points higher than their high-SES counterparts. According to our analysis of the GSS data, roughly 1-1.5 million people in the United States over the age of 18 fall into this gap. Not only does cost of attendance matter more for low-SES individuals and families with less discretionary income, with income inequality in the United States exploding, the number of people who face economic barriers to their desired level of participation in the arts is likely to multiply if current trends continue. And remember that these numbers apply only to exhibits and performances, but there are lower rates of participation by low-income and less-educated adults in numerous other activities as well, including going to the movies and many types of art-making and arts learning. The SPPA even reports that the same education and income correlations we’ve been talking about apply when it comes to attending a sporting event, playing sports, and physical exercise. It’s likely that cost limits the ability of low-income and less-educated individuals to participate in all of these to some extent.

While it’s not surprising to see lower participation by socioeconomically disadvantaged adults in arts activities that they perceive as too expensive, it’s important to keep that gap in perspective. Our investigation has uncovered evidence that although this problem is real, it directly impacts the choices of a much smaller number of people than we might have guessed. As we continue our core research process at Createquity, we’ll be looking to understand better why poor people and those who have not attended college seem much less likely to even be interested in participating in the arts, as well as weigh this particular disparity of access alongside others that we have yet to examine closely or even identify. We look forward to sharing what we find.

  • Robin Middleman

    Much is made of level of education and impact on arts participation, but what about the extent of arts learning within that education? The Wallace Foundation conducted years of research on arts participation in the US and in the final report concluded that the lack or presence of the arts as part of K-12 education impacted future and life long arts participation. As this relates to income level – a wealthy community that does not support the arts in its public schools can provide private arts lessons and trips and visits to cultural institutions for their children. This is an issue of access and equity to a complete education that includes the arts for all children. If we as a community, including the non-profit arts sector, unite behind arts for every child then everyone will benefit.

    • Robin, I’d agree that arts education likely has a major role to play. We kept our focus on adults for this article in order to keep our scope manageable, but we intend to investigate arts education more fully in a future series, and it’s a good bet that we’ll revisit the findings in this article once we have better information to work with there.

    • richardkooyman

      I think Robin is hitting on what should be the obvious to those in the field- education. Do we scratch our heads and wonder why low-ses populations don’t know as much about science, philosophy, and even nutrition?
      Contrary to the myth that most arts organizations believe not everyone is creative. You are not born automatically artistic. And you certainly don’t just wake up one day valuing what art can do in your life. You have to be taught. Art has to be fostered. The issues we face today are a direct result of the lack thereof.

  • I am so glad you looked at data for TV-viewing in relation to the GSS data. The classical arts have been losing audience for several decades to commercial entertainments’ willingness to appeal to the “lower angels of our nature”. I would even wager that participants believe the TV is interactive, more than any other “art form”: we can change the channel and we DO talk and yell at it and it won’t yell back. Inserting art here is nec. and was once more common (PBS, A&E, Boston Pops), but it can’t be presented as restrained, academic and aloof if it is to again benefit the working/middle class: it has to become a HELL YEAH experience and answer burning questions like Why the hell would anyone prefer classical to say a Prince concert. This is what some of us are working on.

  • M_B_W

    Let’s not forget the issue of relevance. Think about what gets put on stage in most regional theaters:

    Examples of subject matter of plays in recent years:
    -Wealthy people sitting around debating about art
    -A family at their house in the Hamptons brought to crisis when a devastating secret is revealed.
    -Scores of plays and musicals about people going to the theatre (or involved in the theatre).
    -Musicals that feature, you guessed it, glamous wealthy or middle class white people.
    -A white family wrestling with their own racial biases.

    I certainly don’t suggest here that low SES audiences can/should/or do like the same kinds of theatre. Their tastes and opinions are diverse too.

    But let’s stop fooling ourselves that american Theatre puts on shows that have relevance for low SES folks. We don’t. Most non musicals are usually plays about middle or up SES folks sitting around intellectualizing about 1st world problems.

    • Fair enough, M_B_W. But then how do you explain the fact that we see similar demographic patterns among people who go out to the movies or to sporting events? Both of those are more similar to the type of programming that typically is shown on TV, which does reach low-SES people. So maybe the real issue is more about getting out of the house for anything.

      • M_B_W

        I don’t doubt that that is part of the issue. As you mention in the article, I think there is a *perception* of not having enough time.

        Part of that may be that people are often reminded that live performers must be “respected” particularly in “high art” situations like opera, dance, theatre or symphony…..whereas there is no social shame in walking out of a movie or large sporting event if you’re not satisfied. So perhaps it’s a fear of being “trapped” in something that you may not like.

        That combined with price….not so much because it’s unaffordable, but because it’s a bigger gamble than a $8-10 movie. Punking down $30-100 on something you’re not sure you’ll like is a big reason why some probably avoid it too.

        In all likelihood, it’s probably a combination of ALL of these things, plus the lack of social or cultural relevance.

      • M_B_W

        One more thought about relevance:

        One thing that makes people enjoy movies and TV is that there is a shared cultural experience.

        If you talk about a particular TV show or popular movie, chances are that at least some of your friends have heard of it.

        But when you go so a play, usually the only ones who can relate are the people who saw it with you.

        • You keep coming back to this argument that movies and TV are more accessible than theater. If that’s the case, then we should see a different demographic distribution in theater audiences vs. movie audiences. But we don’t. Look at the first two graphs in this article. The data tells us that you’re going to find (on average) just as many affluent people with a bachelor’s degree, proportionally, in that movie theater as you’d find at a typical play. By contrast, the typical audience for TV looks radically different than the typical audience in a movie theater. That is what is mindblowing about this data. We’ve always thought it was about the content, but this research makes an awfully strong case that it’s about the setting.

          • M_B_W

            In this case, I wasn’t really making a point about the content itself.

            My point was more that movies/sports, because of their availability through a variety of outlets, are more likely to become part of pop culture.

            So my point is less about accessibility than it is about the fact that you can talk about movies and sports more easily with your friends. Lots of people see movies and watch sports…so the number of people you can share that experience with is much larger. Unless your daily acquaintances have gone with you to the theatre, they won’t know what you’re talking about and it becomes harder to have a conversation about it.

            I’m not trying to contradict anything you’re saying in your article. I think you’re article is very thoughtful….particularly about investigating long-held assumptions. My comments are really just saying “Yes, and..”

          • Fair enough, and you’re not saying anything that’s untrue. I think the disconnect is that you’re talking about why audiences for TV, movies, and sports are larger than theater. There’s a difference between larger and more diverse, though. I just wanted to make sure that point was getting through.

          • M_B_W

            Gotcha. Agreed.

  • M_B_W

    Personally I agree that attracting diverse audiences is highly important for a variety of reasons

    But let’s play devil’s advocate for a moment….

    Why expend tons of time and resources going after audiences who can’t afford to attend in the first place? Why not spend time going after the audiences that CAN afford to come, but choose not to??

  • AnnFeeney

    Fascinating study!

    Did the data include the presence and age of children as a variable? When parents stay home and watch television, they can do that with their children (depending on the show) and don’t have to worry about the small incremental costs that add up when taking children out.

    Wealthier parents are also (I’m assuming) more likely to believe that children should be exposed to the arts and so be more likely to take and engage children, and also their children are far more likely to be exposed to arts, crafts, music, etc., in the classroom.

    • A couple of people have brought up childcare. One of the two main reports we analyzed, “When Going Gets Tough,” does look at families with children under 6 and arts participation rates, though not extensively through a socioeconomic lens:
      Basically you’re right that there’s an effect there, but it doesn’t seem drastic enough to explain that much of the gap in terms of lower arts attendance/more TV watching. One reason for that is that adults with small children almost certainly make up a minority of the overall low-SES population. Of course, the interaction of interest and possibility is complicated and isn’t fully captured by the data. But that’s why we want to learn more about the “non-interested non-attendees” as it were.

      Also agree that arts education has a role to play. We haven’t gotten to that point in our research process of examining arts ed in depth, but it’s definitely on the list.

      • AnnFeeney


        Does the data take the relative density of arts opportunities (within reasonable walking or public transportation distance) into account? For example, in Chicago, some neighborhoods are quite rich in opportunities, including some mixed- and low-income neighborhoods, while others are not.

        • Sort of. As mentioned in the article, low-SES populations who were interested in an arts event but didn’t go were more likely to cite difficulty in getting to the venue as a reason, and there’s other research (like this)
          that demonstrates a lower concentration of cultural assets in
          low-income neighborhoods, so this makes sense. But again, we’re talking about a very small slice of the low-SES population here – people who were interested in attending a specific exhibit or performance and did not. A far larger number of people couldn’t think of a time when they even wanted to go to an exhibit or performance in the past year.

          • mulp

            Setting up an “arts” event in a dense low income community without resources would likely “solve” a number of issues. A kids arts event with face painting and tagging to bring together “pros” with the community to connect arts to everyday life. An event to get acapella singing going within the community, which is what rap is; add in beatbox and other improvised instruments to accompany: washboard, washtub bass, PVC pipes a la blueman.

            I grew up in the 50s and 60s and while I hated the tonete, I loved singing although I sucked and people told me to stop singing along, but in the good weather “everyone” was making music or dancing. Think woodstock san fran generation.

            The arts are a community affair – few people have the essential nature to do it in isolation. An event with most people singing off key or dancing erratically is more fun than sitting quietly watching perfection.

          • aloke mukherjee


            The Tonette is a small, end-blown flute made of plastic, which was once popular in American elementary music education.

  • Madelaine Coffman

    Something I don’t see mentioned here is comfort level. I recently read “Hand to Mouth,” which is a terrific first hand account of living on the edge of poverty, and so much of it rang true to me. As someone who went through the foster and group home system (and then studied opera as an adult with the help of family), I remember vividly the embarrassment and discomfort I experienced as a teenager when I went out to dinner with one of my few remaining middle class friends and her mother. I didn’t have the right clothes for a “fancy” pizza place (they had lasagna! and sit-down tables!), no idea how to act or what to order, and I was well aware of my friend’s mother’s disapproval of my thrift store clothes and lack of ease in that situation.

    Another example: a friend of mine who is currently in a PhD program (and works for a major regional museum in development and program evaluation) was participating in a class discussion about how poor people spend money. Coming from a poor/blue collar background herself, she attempted several times to share her perspective, only to get repeatedly shut down by a colleague who kept on telling her about a website that apparently had all of this super cool data about how the underclass lives. “No, really, you can just go look it up!” I think sometimes people who grew up with even a modicum of privilege have no idea how uncomfortable and intimidating it can look from the outside. Newcomers definitely feel the pressure to flash some sort of class status (educational attainments, professional skills, etc.) in order to belong. And then there’s the question of relevance, as other people have mentioned below. Why should people with far less money and social capital invest (whether in appropriate clothing, babysitters, ticket prices, transportation, or other assorted costs) in art forms that were designed without them in mind? Maybe it’s on us to start creating work and occupying spaces that are interesting and comfortable for the people we are trying to reach.

  • Madelaine Coffman

    Something I don’t see mentioned here is comfort level. I recently read “Hand to Mouth,” which is a terrific first hand account of living on the edge of poverty, and much of it rang true for me. Definitely recommended for those interested in outreach or equity issues. As someone who went through the foster and group home system (and then studied opera as an adult with the help of family), I remember vividly the embarrassment and discomfort I experienced as a teenager when I went out to dinner with one of my few remaining middle class friends and her mother. I didn’t have the right clothes for a “fancy” pizza place (they had lasagna! and sit-down tables!), no idea how to act or what to order, and I was well aware of my friend’s mother’s disapproval of my thrift store clothes and lack of ease in that situation.

    Another example: a friend of mine who is currently pursuing a PhD in Education Evaluation and Research (and works for a major regional museum in development and program evaluation) was participating in a class discussion about how poor people spend money. Coming from a poor/blue collar background herself, she attempted several times to share her perspective, only to get repeatedly shut down by a colleague who kept on telling her about a website that apparently had all of this super cool data about how the underclass lives. “No, really, you can just go look it up!” I think sometimes people who grew up with even a modicum of privilege have no idea how uncomfortable and intimidating it can look from the outside, or how condescending it can feel to be studied like bacteria in a petri dish rather than engaged directly. Newcomers definitely feel the pressure to flash some sort of class status (educational attainments, professional skills, etc.) in order to be treated like equal participants.

    And then there’s the question of relevance, as other commenters have mentioned below. Why should people with far less money and social capital invest (whether in appropriate clothing, babysitters, ticket prices, time, transportation, or other assorted costs) in artistic expressions that were created without them in mind? Maybe poor people don’t have a unique pathology that leads them to avoid the fine and performing arts. Maybe it’s on us to ask whether we are creating work and occupying spaces that are interesting and comfortable for the people we are trying to reach.

    • You’ve hit on some key elements here, Madelaine. To me, the major word in this study is STATUS. It’s directly related to self esteem, confidence & open-mindedness that can only come from a higher status background, or from the opportunity & ability to gain the experience and support to increase your status – this is commonly found through both formal & self education.

      My dad was an Italian immigrant who came to Canada as a very young child in the 1920’s. He did not complete high school, & although not a stupid man, he refused to step out of his comfort zone even when his more educated children would attempt to introduce new things to him. I would think that this is a common problem amongst immigrant families, with the children gaining far more status than the parents could ever hope to achieve.

      In discussing status, I have also found that studying social animals, especially primates, can lend some fascinating insights to our own understanding of the biological & psychological workings of social status & dominant hierarchies. (We are primates, after all!) I recommend reading some of Barbara King’s studies – here’s one that relates to rhesus monkeys being able to recognize high status individuals through watching tv:

    • Madelaine and Judy- I so appreciate your contributions to this discussion- as I do the content of the post. In my experience, coming from a working class background, the arts have a significant “not me” problem which would be really rich to explore. Whether its teaching the Western canon as ‘art’ (and having a young Ethiopian friend say, ‘I can’t be an artist because my skin is brown”), or the residue of shock from the Culture Wars (and the impenetrable language of artspeak), or having to overcome the silence and alienation one has to walk through to view work in a museum or gallery (no ambassadors or connecters)- it would be great to learn more. One insight I have is that the feeling of ‘not belonging’ often has shame attached to it and I am not sure how well surveys support people in revealing things they may not want to admit to themselves or others.

  • Deni

    Here’s a thought, instead of providing statistics that prove the already proven a thousand times…why don’t you ask us? I’m in love with the arts and have been exposed to different artists. I had elementary teachers to thank for that and my parents as well. But I’m one of the few who do in my neighborhood. I find that it mostly depends on how you were educated at an early age. But of course, affordability and time play important factors as well. ON THE OTHER HAND, most entertainment such as art exhibits and museums–don’t relate to the upbringings of general underserved communities. Here’s something I would like to see a lot more of–diversity of people who perform and paint–where is all the Black and Latino representation in museums and art exhibits? Until then, you won’t see most of us there.

    • To your point, Deni, one of the very few activities in the NEA data other than TV that had a pattern of higher participation at lower income and education levels was Latin music. Both seen live and experienced via TV, radio or internet.

      Re: “Why don’t you ask us” – actually, we’ve been thinking about doing just that for our next article. Would you be willing to help?

      • Chrissy Deal

        Couldn’t help but note what I considered to be a glaring omission in this piece which is how racial/ethnic identity of potential participants plays a role in engagement especially given poverty rates cited even by even the US Census ( in recent years. I agree wholeheartedly with Deni’s last comment – until offerings begin to resonate with racially/ethnically diverse audiences, and diverse populations consider these experiences as particularly relevant to their lives, folks will simply find more enjoyable things to do – even if it IS watching tv.

  • mulp

    Here’s my snarky comment posted at Marginal Revolution in response to Tyler Cowen’s short comment: “1. “Why don’t they come?” It’s not what they like, I would say, plus they are worse at planning and time management, and they enjoy TV more. “Why should they go?” is maybe a better question than “Why don’t they come?” – See more at:

    1. The difference is in political-economy ideology.

    Video and audio is increasingly serving the individualist conservative. The individual chooses without having some central planning elite dictate what you must sit through.

    Going to events like concerts, ball games, art galleries, free concerts in the park are socialist-communist. They are group events with the program dictated by either central planner elites or by the group you are with picking the program and everyone contributes to the best of their ability and if you try, you get what you need.

    btw, I’m an old boomer who grew up when all sorts of events were common everyday things, school and community concerts and plays, lots of church related events, and church draws many with “arts”. The community action drew crowds with the arts. Burning Man grew out of older festival traditions from traditional harvest to antiwar protests in the 60s. Woody Guthrie at labor rallies Pete Seeger and Peter Paul and Mary leading group sings. Watching PBS concerts from the fund raising oldies to the Austin City Limits, the audiences that are the happiest are singing along, and a number of performers go out of their way to get the audience involved.

    I might answer “cost” if the question limits me to multiple choice, but by cost I mean
    – figuring how to get there and back
    – figuring out who and how I could get others to go
    – judging whether the enjoyment will be limited by my participation being passive

    If it requires a lot of work, addressing the above, to go to something and be passive, well, I can be passive watching TV, and engaged by doing what I’m doing now.

  • Katherine Gressel

    I think some of the comments below about setting being the main factor are especially interesting. Also I assume you are primarily concerned in this article with whether people participate in the arts as a distinct leisure activity, rather than whether the arts are integrated in other ways into people’s daily lives (for example, listening to music or podcasts while they work or commute). It would be interesting to look at a) how arts organizations accustomed to the “produce an event/show in a physical space and get people to come” model could actually be reaching more people through online content or apps– and how much of the TV-watching is actually taking place through the internet, youtube, etc. And b) studying other informal cultural or social activities (besides TV watching) that these “SES” populations are already engaging in, as well as specifically what they’re watching on TV, and figuring out how arts organizations can tie their work to those existing activities. Finally, I am curious how much social factors play a role–i.e. even if an event is free it’s hard to justify spending the time and energy going unless it can be coupled with a social (or professional) experience.

    • Katherine, we discussed informal arts a bit in an endnote to the piece. As we wrote there, there does seem to be some evidence that informal arts do a better job of engaging low-income and less-educated populations, though some of those findings are in conflict with data from the SPPA that suggest otherwise. This is something we’re planning to explore further in the coming weeks. As for social factors, “When Going Gets Tough” did look at this and here’s what it says: “Inability to find someone to go with, while most commonly cited by the lowest income quartile (32 percent), is least commonly reported by individuals with incomes in the third quartile (12 percent), while over one in five (22 percent) in the top quartile report this barrier.” If respondents with less education were significantly more likely to have decided not to attend an arts event because they didn’t have someone to go with, the report didn’t say so. So, it’s a factor, but again even if you removed all barriers you still would be left with a nonrepresentative audience.

      • Katherine Gressel

        I think I missed the endnote. Thanks! I look forward to future discussions of this topic.

  • JaziZilber

    A central reason might be “Flow” theory

    To enjoy an activity we need to feel challanged by it, but not too challanged to become overwhelmed. Hence, for complex experiences (art, classical music) there is a learning stage. Which high SES folks get one way or another early. But low SES do not get it, hence they cannot start to enjoy the experiences

  • On page 43 of When Going Gets Tough there is a discussion of the correlation between personal values and attendance levels. Interested non-attendees are “significantly” more likely than attendees to support public expenditures on law enforcement, crime reduction, welfare, assisting the poor, and education. The report did not break down support for such expenses per SES, but it did indicate that support for spending on law enforcement and crime prevention is higher among people identifying as Black or multi-racial, and support for welfare and assistance to the poor “significantly” increases in inverse proportion to household incomes overall. This puts me in mind of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. From Wikipedia: “Maslow’s theory suggests that the most basic level of needs must be met before the individual will strongly desire (or focus motivation upon) the secondary or higher level needs.” I wonder if motivation to attend arts events is weaker in low-SES people because more of their fundamental needs of living have not been met. It is also worth noting that “wanting to learn” is the highest motivator among low-SES attendees (76% of adults who hold no high school diploma and adults in the lowest income quartile: p. 20). Implications for arts marketers trying to capture this missing audience: In programming and communications, stress the educational, social-justice, and community-building benefits of the arts.

  • Jane Nation

    “The people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions and all else, now meddles no more and longs eagerly for just two things, bread and circuses.”

    Juvenal, (Carcopino, Daily Life in Roman Times [New Haven, Yale University Press, 1940], p. 202.)

  • colleen

    …nothing new the intelligencia and elitist enjoy too many tax dollars (grant money) from the many for the enjoyment of the few.