Gold Lock - by Flickr user Mark Fischer, Creative Commons license

Gold Lock – by Flickr user Mark Fischer, Creative Commons license

Overview

In our view, a healthy arts ecosystem maximizes the arts’ capacity to improve the lives of human beings in concrete and meaningful ways. While the evidence base for the benefits of the arts is continually developing and evolving, we feel confident in our core operating assumption that participation in the arts offers value to a large majority of human beings, and that arts participation (especially more active forms of participation such as creation or performance) can in some cases be deeply consequential or even life-changing. While we do not assume that everyone will or needs to benefit enormously from having the arts in their lives, we do believe that the only way to determine who can benefit the most is through widespread and varied exposure to the arts. Because of this, our model of a healthy arts ecosystem envisions a basic level of access to the arts for everyone (and, yes, we realize that’s a lot of people). Furthermore, it specifies that “scarce” opportunities that require an investment on the part of society (like being able to make one’s living as an artist) should be distributed as fairly as possible – by prioritizing those who would create the most value for others through their participation. Thus, when we speak of “access,” we do not just mean to opportunities to experience and appreciate art as an audience member; we also include access to professional training and the resources that can sustain a career in the arts.

Unfortunately, we believe that large numbers of people may face barriers to participating in the arts in the way they might want to for reasons other than the ones described above, representing a major loss of potential for the ecosystem. As a result, not only are those people unfairly getting left out of opportunities for a higher quality of life, but the quality and diversity of the cultural products and experiences available to the rest of us – and to our descendants – suffer as well. We group these barriers under the general heading of disparities of access to the benefits of the arts.

We see the disparities of access theme as most likely to be reflected in three arenas:

  • The challenges that economically disadvantaged people face in pursuing opportunities to participate in the arts, especially when it comes to maintaining a sustained and public identity as an artist;
  • Widespread inequality in the amount and nature of school-based arts education opportunities offered to children;
  • Disparities by race and gender in various contexts, including representation in mass media and in the investment that the nonprofit sector makes in supporting various cultural traditions.

Economic Disadvantage and the Arts

We’ve begun our investigation by focusing on the role of economic disadvantage in mediating access to the benefits of the arts, particularly for adults in the United States. You can read our research hypotheses relating to this research area here. Here’s what we’ve found so far:

While there are some people who choose not to engage in the arts because of price, the cost of arts events is clearly not the main driver of the correlation between arts participation and socioeconomic status. We’d like to better understand why people make the choices they do, and we are currently working on a follow-up article to explore more fully the role of television in shaping the cultural lives of socioeconomically disadvantaged adults.

We are also interested in the role of economic disadvantage in mediating opportunities for people to have public identities and professions as artists, and in discouraging people from engaging in the arts due to social pressures. The results of a shallow investigation of the research literature on these topics are available here.

Arts Education

Our work in this issue area is only just beginning. The results of a shallow investigation of the research literature on this topic are available here.

Race and Gender

Our work in this issue area is only just beginning. The results of a shallow investigation of the research literature on this topic are available here.

Next Steps

We are working on a follow-up article to explore the role of television in shaping the cultural lives of socioeconomically disadvantaged adults. We expect to publish this feature in early 2016.

As our research process moves forward, we’ll update this page with findings, links to relevant articles, and more. We hope you’ll stay tuned and come back again soon. (If you’d like to participate more actively, see our Get Involved page.)