the artist’s hand — photo by flickr user farhad sarykov

Expanding the reach of arts organizations is notoriously challenging, especially when it comes to people who make less money, have less education, and may identify as of lower class than the average museumgoer or dance enthusiast. Createquity readers know that cost isn’t the most important barrier preventing people of low socioeconomic status (SES) from engaging with the arts. In “Why Don’t They Come?” (WDTC), we noted that the rate of attendance at free performances actually increases as income and education levels go up.

Since that article was published last May, a few new resources have come to light addressing the question from different angles. Later in 2015, Colleen Dilenschneider of the market research firm IMPACTS shared additional data, including a proprietary survey of 48 cultural institutions, that take the conclusions from WDTC a step further. Dilenschneider shows that free admission days don’t help to engage underserved audiences; they appear to subvert cultural organizations’ intentions by attracting a higher-SES audience and more repeat visitors than non-free days. Ultimately, these misguided audience development strategies are potentially harmful to cultural organizations’ financial sustainability, since they may cannibalize memberships and ticket revenues without increasing long-term attendance.

Dilenschneider isn’t quite ready to give up on free admission entirely. She attributes these perverse effects in part to failed outreach, which she suspects tends to target existing patron or marketing bases, rather than using innovative ways to reach underserved audiences. Her posts on free admission don’t specify how that might work, but another source suggests that a better understanding of social class could provide a key.

In WDTC, we cited NEA research showing that people who self-identify as middle or upper class are much more likely to attend an exhibit or performance than those who identify as working class – even if you control for income and education. As it turns out, this holds widely: research shows that class and social status are strong predictors of cultural engagement broadly. It seems that one barrier stopping people from seeing your show may be that those people don’t see themselves as the kind of people who go in for art.

But new research conducted in England by sociologist Aaron Reeves (and ably summarized by Pacific Standard) shows that, when it comes to active participation in art-making specifically, as opposed to passive consumption of art at an exhibit or performance, class becomes irrelevant. He analyzed national survey data to investigate the correlation between arts participation and demographic indicators such as social class, social status, income, and education. He finds that active arts participation is strongly correlated with education, but not with social class or social status – and it is inversely correlated with income. It seems art-averse audiences who won’t visit your museum may be enthusiastic amateur artists in their spare time.

This result doesn’t come out of the blue for people who have been following research into demographics of participation in the “informal arts.” For example, arts participation data for California that we reviewed last summer revealed less dramatic differences across education and income for active participation than for attendance. What’s new here is the finding that, at least in England, class and status per se don’t matter at all to levels of engagement and that lower-income adults actually engage more when you isolate art-making.

The bad news for arts advocates is that, for art-making as for art consumption, education is still critical to shaping preferences. Reeves suggests a few possibilities as to why education might be a strong predictor of active arts participation in particular. Higher education may select for high-schoolers who have demonstrated a commitment to extracurricular arts (it’s another box to check on college applications); it may serve as an incubator for cultural activity (for instance, a few dorm-mates staging Othello on the quad); and, most mysteriously, it may increase one’s capacity to process information. (One potential cause we can eliminate is the helicopter parent: Reeves controlled for parental encouragement to participate in the arts). Whatever the reason, as long as access to education remains unequal, it is fair to predict that access to art-making – and even the desire to make art – will also be unequal. In that sense, there are plenty of potential artists who are underserved.

The good news is that Reeves’s sociological analysis offers insight into the challenge of engaging low-SES adults as cultural consumers. He discusses arts consumption as a status marker, symbol of group membership, and class-related lifestyle choice. High-SES adults may attend a performance or exhibit in part because they know that it will be seen as normal and even admirable or expected when they talk about it with their peers. More fundamentally, over time, their tastes may have been shaped by repeated conversations of this kind to become entirely unconscious. Low-SES adults may encounter different reactions if they try to discuss a museum show or dance piece with their peers; other kinds of cultural consumption or leisure-time activity may be normalized or admired instead. (Our current research suggests that television in particular may fill this role.)

Reeves does not go into great detail about this social mechanism of taste-formation, but his account offers a way to begin to understand why free admission alone doesn’t ignite the interest of poor and less-educated audiences. The idea of belongingness may be a crucial subjective barrier, which suggests that organizations need not only to work harder to reach those audiences in their marketing, as Dilenschneider argues, but also to think more about these social dynamics in shaping their marketing. How might we begin to make audiences feel welcome?

Well, what about tapping into the taste for art-making? Reeves’s study shows that performing or making art is less likely to be “re-appropriated as a status marker,” and thus less likely to be associated with social status than art consumption. But the line between the two is often porous: think of the easels you sometimes see set up in front of paintings in a museum. What might it look like to appeal to art enthusiasts who consider themselves working class through their love of art-making? It’s unclear how large a subset of that elusive audience this is, but it could be a starting point – especially for adults who have some education but low income.

There are two caveats to consider before taking all of this information at face value. First, class may work differently in the US than in England; while we have seen data that likewise shows a correlation between class and arts consumption in the United States, a study that examined the correlation between self-perceived class and active arts participation (not just consumption) using US data is currently missing from the literature and would provide useful information. Second, the survey Reeves analyzed included too few arts participants of color to be able to draw any conclusions about race; this raises questions about how well his findings apply on our side of the Atlantic, although it is worth noting that US data tends not to show race to be a major factor in overall arts participation choices once socioeconomic status is taken into account.

Regardless, we know that even when arts and cultural events are free, low-SES audiences still aren’t coming. Thinking harder about the social formation of taste may help the field design more effective tools for outreach – and engage a new swath of people more fully in a healthy arts ecosystem.

  • Margot Haliday Knight

    Among artist RESIDENCY programs looking to diversify participation by artists across the spectrum, there is a similar question–Why Don’t They Apply. . . At an insightful session at last year’s national conference, the floated hypothesis was that many minority artists and economically disadvantaged artists feel residency programs “aren’t for them” even when there are no residency fees. The answer, I suspect, for organizations like ours (Djerassi Resident Artists Program) AND museums and performing arts groups is meaningful/substantive collaborations that lay out the welcome mat in no uncertain terms. It is fascinating to learn what doesn’t work (e.g. “free” days) and start to build up case studies for best practices that DO result in audiences/participants that mirror the society we live in and purport to serve.