The Diversity of Performing Arts Audiences: Weighing Organizational Factors and Business Decisions

By Sunil Iyengar
A shot of a crowd at an outdoor music festival taken from the back of the crowd

DC JazzFest at the Yards. Photo by Frits PhotoGraphics

A year ago this month, Zannie Voss and Jill Robinson produced one of the first action-oriented research reports about COVID-19’s impact on arts organizations. In the report, titled In it for the Long Haul, Voss and Robinson—who head, respectively, the academic think tank SMU DataArts and its industry partner, TRG Arts—predicted that “the communal nature of arts participation will be a strength to communities hungry to come together again and affirm existential meaning after prolonged isolation.”
In other words, community members after the pandemic will crave more interaction around shared cultural experiences. Yet it is also true that, in serving this need, arts groups will grow increasingly reliant on the communities themselves, Voss and Robinson reasoned.

Noting travel restrictions then in place, the authors declared that “local audiences, local talent, indeed, the local supply chain will reign supreme.” It so happens that the Arts Endowment’s own report from last January, The Art of Reopening, shows local community needs and partnerships as having played a leading role in the strategies of arts organizations that successfully re-engaged with in-person audiences or visitors during the pandemic.

But if survival for many arts organizations will come to depend on how well they connect with the neighborhoods, towns, and cities in which they are based, then surely closer attention to the demographic and income characteristics of those communities will prove essential.
Apart from advancing larger societal goals around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), the pursuit of audiences and artists who come from—and speak for—various subgroups can enrich any shared arts experience at the most fundamental level: aesthetically, emotionally, and socially. Longer term, greater representativeness can translate to broader support and buy-in for arts organizations working in communities—in short, to more staying power.

Still, it’s not always clear which business decisions can drive this objective. Re-enter SMU DataArts. In a new report, Voss and her colleagues analyze financial, community, and audience data from 24 large performing arts organizations serving “traditionally Eurocentric” art forms from 2011 through 2017.
Some of the findings validate common assumptions. For instance, market segmentation through diverse promotional packages does seem to have a positive impact on audience DEI—as does a greater relative investment in advertising.
Changes in ticket pricing also can make a difference: “Our analyses indicate that a 10 percent targeted price discount can increase income representativeness [among audiences] by nearly 3 percentage points,” the authors write. (Lest this finding be received as a no-brainer, it is worth sharing that a previous literature review by the Arts Endowment found only “mixed evidence” that ticket price reductions boost arts attendance in general.)

Marketing, advertising, and ticketing strategies all offer hope to performing arts groups seeking to build DEI among audiences. The problem is more deeply rooted for larger organizations with limited flexibility. Many of them lean on a subscription model to cultivate patron loyalty, to ensure a steady cash flow, to fill seats, and to trim marketing expenses. “However, our findings reveal a dark side to having a large subscriber base,” the authors warn.

The report flags a significant, negative association between large subscription bases and audience DEI. From interviews they conducted with performing-arts organization leaders, Voss et al. identify the principle of homophily at work, creating “psychological barriers for historically underserved segments. Subscribers can form an in-group to which non-subscribers do not belong.”
“Visual cues and physical separation reinforce in-group-out-group dynamics along racial and income lines in performing arts consumption because subscribers typically receive the best seats closest to the stage,” they add.

Sources of contributed income—not just box-office revenue—are also tied to different DEI outcomes, according to the report. For the period studied, large organizations with relatively high levels of corporate support were linked to lower income representativeness of audiences over time. Conversely, low levels of corporate support were associated with progressively higher levels of racial and income representativeness among audiences.

Among organizations receiving high levels of support from individuals, audience income representativeness did grow over time, but there was virtually no impact on audiences’ racial representativeness. (In the study, racial “representativeness” is measured by the share of audience members—relative to the community—who were BIPOC, or Black, Indigenous, and people of color. Income representativeness hinges on the share of audience and community members from households earning less than $50,00 a year.)

Only performing arts groups with relatively high levels of foundation or government support were found to show increasingly positive outcomes in terms of both racial and income representativeness. Considering reasons for this trend, the SMU DataArts authors cite foundations’ growing commitment to DEI and social justice issues, and similar values guiding local, state, and U.S. government agencies.
The authors even quote a “cross-cutting” objective from the Arts Endowment’s current strategic plan: “Ensure that NEA-funded activities reach Americans throughout the country by making awards for projects that address a diverse spectrum of artistic disciplines, geographic locations, and underserved populations.” According to Voss et al., the study findings indicate “considerable progress on this objective.”

Again, noble intentions aside, some organizational factors may lead to more intractable challenges. Take the choice of location. The study authors write that performing arts groups dwelling in “more racially and/or income diverse neighborhoods have an audience base that is more reflective of that diversity.”
“When people travel within [a] city, they tend to select destinations where sociodemographic characteristics are similar to their own,” the report notes, finding that “BIPOC households with incomes less than $50K are less likely” than their counterparts to travel long distances to arts venues.

Even in prior research, an inability to access venue locations has emerged as a significant barrier for would-be participants in the arts. Amid the pandemic, the problem has been compounded by a widespread aversion to travel. As large performing arts organizations reorient themselves to become sources of healing and renewal in their communities, they can seize the chance for a fresh start: to consider whether “business as usual” will enhance or diminish audience DEI.

Sunil Iyengar is the National Endowment for the Arts Director of the Office of Research and Analysis.