Taking Note: Revisiting Baseline Assumptions about Arts Engagement

By Sunil Iyengar, NEA Director of Research & Analysis
Pictogram of graphs and charts

Here and abroad, cultural researchers are doing their level best to track the arts participation habits of the general public during COVID-19. These insights will help the sector adjust more effectively in the near term. They also will help arts organizations better anticipate shifts in creative and consumer behavior that may last well into the post-pandemic age.

Some of this research includes “Culture + Community in a Time of Crisis,” a mixed-methods research project of the consulting firms LaPlaca Cohen and Slover Linett, involving multiple funders. Another arts consultant, WolfBrown, is leading the “COVID-19 Audience Outlook Monitor,” a longitudinal study in various U.S. locations, Australia, and Norway. A third project, TRG Arts’ and SMU DataArts’ “COVID-19 Sector Benchmark Dashboard,” analyzes ticketing data from hundreds of arts organizations in the U.S. and U.K and produces a series of “monthly insights” reports, with funding from the Arts Endowment.

We’ll return to these in a moment. Last month, the Australia Council for the Arts released Creating Our Future: Results of the National Arts Participation Survey, a report based on the Aussie equivalent of the U.S. Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA). (The National Endowment for the Arts conducts the SPPA every five years with the U.S. Census Bureau.) Based on 2019 data, the Australian report is spirited and eminently readable for a statistical product. All the same, I sympathize with my peers among cultural research organizations that now are in the position of writing up results from surveys fielded before the pandemic struck.

(Over the next several weeks, for example, the Arts Endowment will release two such reports based on pre-COVID-19 arts data. The first is Why We Engage: Attending, Creating, and Performing Art, a sequel to our 2015 report, When Going Gets Tough: Barriers and Motivations Affecting Arts Attendance. The new report will merge data from two surveys: the 2017 SPPA and the 2016 General Social Survey. In addition, the agency soon will post a research brief on demographic and urban/rural characteristics of art-making in the U.S. Those data stem from the 2018 Arts Basic Survey, a short-form version of the SPPA.)

In her preface to Creating Our Future, the Australia Council for the Arts’ executive director for advocacy and development, Wendy Were, makes a case for the timeliness of this report despite recent historic events. She writes: “The survey results provide a benchmark of Australians’ arts engagement before the impacts of the pandemic, providing much needed information as doors reopen, audiences are rebuilt and the cultural and creative industries are reignited.”[1]

By extension, Were’s comments justify the utility of other cultural data collections that occurred prior to the pandemic, but which now are being packaged for our peculiar moment. In the case of Creating Our Future, the survey asked not only about self-reported arts behaviors, but also about Australians’ attitudes concerning the arts’ relationship to the economy, greater social cohesion, and health and well-being. Accordingly, we know that in the year before COVID-19 went global, 84 percent of Australians “acknowledged significant positive impacts of arts and creativity…. a substantial increase from 75 percent in 2016,” the report states.

Methodological differences between the Australian survey and the Arts Endowment’s SPPA prevent easy comparisons. The SPPA’s questions hinge on adults’ reported rates of participation in distinct arts activities. (For the most part, attitudes and perceptions about the arts in general are not examined in the U.S. survey.) Yet for all of us in partial or full quarantine, at least one similarity in the Australian and U.S. numbers may stand out. Both surveys showed superlatively high rates of electronic and digital participation in the arts pre-COVID-19. The 2017 SPPA finds that 74 percent, representing 175 million U.S. adults, used these media to “consume artistic or arts-related content.” The 2019 Australia survey reports 82 percent of people aged 15 and older engaging with the arts online, as creators or consumers.

Australia is partnering with WolfBrown on the arts consulting firm’s COVID-19 Audience Outlook Monitor study. Creating Our Future discusses findings from WolfBrown’s “snapshot” study of Australians in July 2020. According to the report, “three quarters of arts audiences are participating in online arts and culture activities during the pandemic…. [M]ore than half of audiences (54 percent) said they were engaging online more frequently than before the pandemic and many say they plan to continue doing so after the pandemic (72 percent).”

Meanwhile, the ongoing study by LaPlaca Cohen and Slover Linett finds that between late April and mid-May 2020, more than half of U.S. adults surveyed (53 percent) reported participating in one more “digital cultural activities.” But a couple of other findings should give greater direction to arts organizations pursuing this route to engage audiences and artists during the pandemic.

First, “many respondents who are using online cultural offerings had not physically visited the same kinds of cultural organizations in the past year,” the firms’ report notes. In a recent podcast, LaPlaca Cohen CEO Arthur Cohen expanded on this observation: “Not only that, but we actually have some supplemental research that's starting to indicate that the people who are accessing cultural content online and have not physically been to those places…also tend to be much more diverse than the physical audiences that are coming.”

This message is hopeful for the future of broadening arts access and participation through electronic and digital media. Still, a second finding from LaPlaca Cohen and Slover Linett is likely to complicate the picture. For arts organizations seeking to channel this new demand into earned income streams, caution abounds. Only 13 percent of the April/May survey respondents who reported accessing “digital cultural content” said they had paid for it. If the data are at all representative of virtual arts participants in general, then arts managers must begin to navigate these expectations.

As for data points concerning live arts attendance in physical spaces during the pandemic, we admittedly have less to go on. All the same, the COVID-19 Sector Benchmark Dashboard—a project of TRG Arts and SMU DataArts—has reported some noteworthy developments.

Based on daily box-office data from performing arts organizations, the dashboard finds proportional gains in season ticket subscribers and donor income coming from Gen Xers and Millennials, with corresponding declines in the shares of older adults (specifically those in the “Silent Generation”) who subscribed or donated. The dashboard also finds that “single ticket buyers for 2020/21 are proportionately more ethnically diverse…compared to the previous year.”

On its website, SMU DataArts reflects on the dashboard results for the U.S. and UK. “While the prospect of an audience return to ‘normality’ with a younger average demographic would be welcomed,” SMU DataArts says, “it presents potential challenges to the financial viability of arts organizations since the combined average value of ticket purchases and donations is far higher for older patrons.” In this climate, increasing “the number of younger patrons engaging with alternative artistic product while also retaining older generations’ philanthropic support seems to be an emerging best practice for finding resiliency through COVID-19.”

Currently, just over 200 U.S. performing arts organizations are either active participants or are readying to participate in the dashboard. TRG Arts and SMU DataArts have set a U.S. target of 1,000 participating organizations.

[1] Were continues: “Elevating diverse voices and the centrality of First Nations arts in Australia’s culture, and understanding and promoting diverse arts engagement is crucial at this moment in time.” To that end, the Council also has released a field scan of indigenous artists working in theater and dance. See https://www.australiacouncil.gov.au/research/creating-art-part-1/.