(Note: this is the second of a series of four issue briefs on topics Createquity has covered in depth over the past several years. To share via email or social media, please use this link.)
One of Createquity’s primary areas of investigation centers on disparities of access to the benefits of the arts: we believe that large numbers of people face barriers to participating in the arts in the ways they may want to. Not only are those people unfairly missing out on 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.
Why We Care
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 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 be deeply consequential, even life-changing. While we do not assume that everyone will or needs to benefit from having the arts in their lives, we do believe that the only way to determine who can gain the most is through widespread and varied exposure to the arts. Thus our model of a healthy arts ecosystem envisions a basic level of access to the arts for everyone.
Furthermore, we believe that opportunities requiring an investment on the part of society – like preparation toward being a professional 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 opportunities to experience art as an audience member; we also include access to artistic training and related resources.
Below we outline what arts research has shown us about the broad frame of arts participation, encompassing who participates, their motivations and barriers – and what we can do to identify disparities of access and close the gaps.
What We Know
… about the role of economic disadvantage in mediating access to the arts:
Research data paints a consistent portrait of lower participation by people with lower incomes and less education (low-SES) in a wide range of artistic activities – including not just attending classical music concerts and plays but also less “elitist” forms of engagement like going to the movies or dancing socially. (Indeed, surveys show that education is the strongest factor in determining arts engagement rates – more so than income, race/ethnicity, geography, or other demographic variables.) This is despite the fact that low-SES adults, on average, have more free time at their disposal. While cost is a sometimes a barrier to participation, it isn’t the only one: if we could somehow make it so that low-SES adults were no more likely to decide not to attend an arts event because of cost than their more affluent peers, it would likely not greatly change the socioeconomic composition of audiences.
With that in mind, free admission is not a silver bullet to reducing barriers to participation and increasing access. In the museum world, available research suggests free admission doesn’t do much to engage underserved audiences, and communication strategies play a more crucial role than price itself driving attendance patterns.
What about active arts participation (i.e., performing or making art as opposed to passive audience engagement as a spectator)? Research shows that active arts participation is also strongly correlated with education: in other words, while less-educated adults are more likely to sing to themselves or dance with friends than see the opera, the same is true of people with college degrees and well-paying jobs. The evidence for a relationship with income is less clear – data we’ve uncovered from United States indicates that so-called “informal” arts activities do not see proportionally more participation from low-income adults, but research from the UK shows lower-income adults actually engage more when you isolate art-making.
A major contrast to this dynamic is television. The for-profit commercial TV industry is far more effective than 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.
… about motivations and barriers to arts participation:
Motivations to participate in the arts vary greatly between different people for different types of cultural experiences. In one survey, more than half of attendees of performances such as music concerts say they went to see a specific artist; less than a tenth of attendees of art exhibits said the same, instead citing a desire to learn something new.
For “interested non-attendees” at arts events, barriers for participation include time, cost, transportation, and social support. Nearly half blamed a lack of time as a reason, almost 40% cited cost, 37% indicated difficulty in getting to the venue, and 22% didn’t have anyone to go with.
Despite a strong interest in arts participation, many retirees, empty nesters and older adults in poor health are disproportionately missing out. Among the chief factors keeping them home: transportation issues (difficulties in getting access to the venue) and social isolation (not having someone to go with). Meanwhile, the opportunity to socialize is paramount among motivators for participation among seniors. These findings are of particular concern given that there is a healthy body of evidence expounding on the benefits of arts participation for older adults.
… about how to measure engagement:
There are many ways to define arts participation, and broadening the definition can be revelatory. Providing an open-ended query about interviewees’ creative activities opened up the playing field about what could and should be considered in a study on “The Cultural Lives of Californians,” which helped to reflect a much broader range of arts participation than even the national Survey of Public Participation in the Arts.
Different results between these similar surveys might be explained by a range of other factors, including data collection methodology and sampling. The SPPA was part of a larger survey led by the U.S. Census Bureau – the Current Population Survey (CPS) – and respondents agreed to participate without knowing they would be asked about their arts engagement habits. By contrast, “The Cultural Lives of Californians” synthesizes lessons from a statewide telephone survey that transparently communicated its interest in people’s cultural lives, so people who engage more in cultural activity may have been more likely to respond.
What We Don’t Know
Using the broadest definitions, we can confidently say that most people do participate in arts and culture – it’s just that not everybody participates in the range of activities that intersect with the work of nonprofit arts organizations. Many people get their primary cultural fix from things like listening to the music soundtracks of popular TV shows or attending their child’s band rehearsal – activities that do not involve the nonprofit sector at all. The big unanswered question: would nonprofit arts organizations offer a better or more varied type of experience for the people who aren’t currently being reached by them? Does watching a popular television program like Empire foster the same benefit to those audience members that attending a live stage play does? And if it does, what is the policy justification for subsidizing the cost of providing the latter, but not the former?
Our research has revealed several other “known unknowns,” including:
- Are arts organizations that are relatively free of commercial considerations – i.e., having to constantly fundraise, trying to sell tickets, aiming for a blockbuster – able to take more artistic risks? Do they create and offer a greater variety of programs that provide more value for more people?
- What strategies have been most effective in attracting “interested non-attendees,” and why? Are any of these scalable solutions that could ultimately serve a greater proportion of the population?
- What is the real value of infrastructure – i.e., funding, formal organizations, etc. – in contexts and locations that have historically flourished without it? What strategies are most appropriate to support arts participation in settings that are infrastructure-poor, but culturally rich? Who is best positioned to carry out those strategies?
What You Can Do With This Information
Questions to consider and actions to contemplate:
For arts administrators and artists
- How can you connect to leisure activities that people already engage in, particularly near-universal ones like watching television? Although you might view the couch as competition, it is also a potential connection point.
- How can you ramp up the social component of the experience, either through communications and marketing, or through adjusting programming or setting?
- What are ways you might address barriers such as transportation for audience segments that may not have easy access to their own?
- If your goal is to make your work more relevant and accessible to a socioeconomically diverse audience, consider that a blanket free admission policy may not yield the results you’re looking for.
- How might you support an ecosystem that recognizes a broader range of activities in its definition of arts and cultural participation? Are you unintentionally privileging certain modes, venues, genres, and cultural traditions in your current programming?
- Commission research to promote greater understanding of the benefits to audiences of different types of arts participation (particularly broken down by sectoral context – i.e., for-profit vs. nonprofit), and the distribution of those benefits across different populations and places.
- Be wary of supporting audience engagement programs that rely on free or reduced prices as the primary strategy for expanding access.
- Ask questions about arts participation broadly, avoiding the term “arts” if possible, and encourage open-ended responses to get the fullest picture. “The Cultural Lives of Californians” shows how being expansive in defining arts activities, even letting the respondent lead the conversation, allows for a richer and more nuanced picture of participation.
- Engage in research about the benefits of different kinds of arts participation, especially as it relates to nonprofit arts organizations as providers.
Why Don’t They Come (2015)
It’s not just the price of admission that’s keeping poor and less-educated adults away from arts events.
This article explores arts participation rates of people with lower incomes and less education; motivations and barriers among participants; the realities of television engagement; and where we can go from here.
One Size Fits All Does Not Fit “The Arts” (2015)
An NEA report looks at motivations for and barriers to arts attendance.
In probing the motivations of “interested non-attendees” – people who expressed participatory interest in arts events but did not follow through – this report reveals barriers including cost, convenience, and time; it also reveals cultural patterns across artistic disciplines.
Learning from “The Cultural Lives of Californians” (2015)
A survey of Golden State residents reveals lessons in arts participation and how we measure it.
With its broad scope in defining arts activities and use of open-ended prompts, this survey shows the range of ways Californians engage with culture and the significant effect of age on art-making (as distinct from attendance of arts events).
Taking Art Into Their Own Hands (2016)
Audiences who won’t visit your museum may be enthusiastic amateur artists in their spare time.
This article indicates that arts participation is strongly correlated with education, but not with social class or social status – and active participation in art-making is actually inversely associated with income.
Capsule Review: Taking Charge at Museums (2017)
A research study on the effects of charging or not charging for admission on attendance, visitor experience, and funding among UK museums.
This study explores the differences between museums that charge and those that don’t, and emphasizes the importance of effectively communicating changes in charging policies.
Arts Policy Library: Cultural Engagement in California’s Inland Regions (2012)
A survey of rural and suburban populations exposes participation in a broad range of cultural activities.
Among other things, this study shows that while the home is a hugely important setting for arts engagement, funders and nonprofits have virtually ignored it as an arts space.
Arts Policy Library: 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (2012)
A summary, history, and analysis of the influential NEA survey.
This article traces how the SPPA survey tracked various kinds of arts participation for both audience members and creators.
Arts Policy Library: Gifts of the Muse (2009)
A close look at the implications of a far-ranging report on the benefits of the arts.
Gifts of the Muse laid out one of the first frameworks for understanding the effects of arts participation, as well as the evidence supporting that theory.
The Myth of the Transformative Arts Experience (2010)
If we are searching for a life-transforming experience at an arts event, we may have come to the wrong place.
This essay explores the idea that we often place overly high expectations on the effects of the average encounter with art.