Title: When Going Gets Tough: Barriers and Motivations Affecting Arts Attendance
Author(s): Margaret E. Bloume-Kohout, Sara R. Leonard, Jennifer L. Novak-Leonard
Publisher: National Endowment for the Arts
Topics: audience development, participation, diversity, disparities of access
Methods: analysis (mostly descriptive statistics) of a topical module on arts participation in the 2012 General Social Survey (GSS)
What it says: The main purpose of this report is to better understand the motivations for participation in the arts and the barriers faced by people who want to participate but choose not to. Just over half of respondents had attended a performance or art exhibit within the past year, and an additional 13.3% said they were interested in attending a specific offering during that time but hadn’t followed through. According to the report, socializing with friends and family members plays a central role in motivating attendance, and about 22% of “interested non-attendees” cited not having anyone to go with as a reason for their lack of engagement. Other frequently-cited barriers to attendance include a lack of time (particularly an issue for parents with children under 6), cost (cited by fewer than 40% of interested non-attendees but a major barrier for those individuals), and the venue being too difficult to find or get to. Some differences in patterns among racial and ethnic groups were observed, with blacks and Asians being more likely to attend performances supporting community events, and first-generation Hispanic immigrants more interested in celebrating their cultural heritage, among other findings. Implications from the report’s findings suggests that “finding time” and reducing the cost of attending arts events is only part of the problem that arts organizations face in addressing declining attendance.
What I think about it: The GSS uses a large, representative data set that contains rich information about respondents, so it’s safe to treat these findings as reasonably authoritative as far as they go. One important limitation to note, however, is that “participation” for the purposes of “When Going Gets Tough” is defined purely as attendance at a performance or art exhibit during the past 12 months, and thus excludes the disciplines of film and literary arts as well as remote and home-based participation modes; furthermore, personal creation or performance is not considered. One additional wrinkle is that the report is motivated by declining attendance at arts performances and events, but investigates why certain people currently do not attend arts events. These seem like two separate, but related questions.
There were lots of interesting, if somewhat expected, variations by discipline – for example, art exhibit attendees are far less likely to care about specific artists than performance attendees, and theater patrons are more interested in learning new things than music fans. Furthermore, while socializing was the primary motivator for performance attendees, exhibit-goers were even more likely to value learning new things.
What it all means: This report suggests that, while practical barriers (cost and time) are strong deterrents for interested people going to arts events, perceptual (expectations of the event, perception from family, not having friends to go with) barriers can also play an important role. These perceptual reasons, particularly what people in different demographic groups are looking to get out of arts experiences, are likely an area for further research questions and exploration. Overall, this lends credence to the notion that the reasons for non-attendance are pretty complex and that it’s not just about people facing unambiguous barriers between what they want to do and what they can do. For example, even though socializing with others was the most common reason for attending overall, only about 20% cited it as a reason for not going to an event.
In addition, this research strongly suggests that people have different relationships to different disciplines and get different things out of them, which is a potentially important finding for arts funders and policymakers taking a discipline-neutral approach to achieving their aims through the arts.