Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Art Works: Sowing Data Seeds

Last week, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) released three new reports that provide much good information for a number of critical discussions and are examples of a rich and flourishing NEA research agenda, which potentially could have a great impact on our national dialogue about the arts and culture. Whether the timing is coincidental or not, these reports join a number of other reports and studies that, like the NEA reports, provide hard data about the impact of the arts in our culture or dig into what is happening to audiences. Taken together, they all form a solid foundation for arts leaders and advocates to plan their strategic directions and arguments. As these data releases show, we can finally begin to rely on hard data to discuss the impact and contribution the arts make to our economic life.

The NEA reports provide deep analysis of audience engagement with the arts through 2012, look at the reasons people interested in the arts do not actually participate, and provide some macro data on how the arts fit within our larger economic environment here in the United States. While one of them, A Decade of Arts Engagement: Findings From the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, 2002-2012, identifies trends in existing NEA data, the other two sets, the eight ACPSA (Arts and Cultural Production Satellite Account) Issue Briefs and When Going Gets Tough: Barriers and Motivations Affecting Arts Attendance, represent a significant advancement by integrating NEA data with data drawn from other government sources. The result is a broader cultural overlay and contextualization of the NEA research and its implications. Similar to its strategy to leverage funding for the arts through collaboration with other governmental agencies and funding sources, the NEA looks to be pursuing a similar plan to leverage resources with regard to its research and the dissemination of information.

A Decade of Arts Engagement, tracking trends in the 2002, 2008, and 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA), confirms that there has been a steady decline in participation by the audience in the traditional arts. Additionally, the data show that a core cohort of audience members who purchased the vast majority of tickets are not only declining in number, but are purchasing far fewer tickets when they do attend performances or go to exhibits. This trend is supported by the same trends in other reports, like the Philadelphia Cultural Alliance’s just-released 2014 Patron Loyalty Study: Loyalty by the Numbers. This study looked at 17 Philadelphia cultural institutions and found that 3% of their patrons provided 62% of the group’s earned revenue. Furthermore, when donations were considered as well, this group’s spending declined by 12% during the seven-year analysis of the data. The Philadelphia study, going beyond the NEA report but consistent with other studies (such as the 2008 Oliver Wyman study commissioned by nine leading symphony orchestras), also shows that while significant numbers of new audience members are coming to cultural events, they do not return.

This apparently endemic issue of churn, when considered in conjunction with the declining numbers of audience and the decline in revenue generation that the continuing audience provides is one of the most critical threats to the business model of our arts organizations. While not directly aimed at this dilemma, the NEA’s new When Going Gets Tough (NEA Research Report #59) offers data that is likely to be helpful in plotting a strategy to address this continuing issue of audience engagement.

Overlaying SPPA data on the 2012 General Social Survey (a regular sociological survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago), this report specifically looks at the motivations of both the attendees and those who do not attend the arts. It has deep analysis of a cohort that arts managers will naturally consider to court: those people who express interest in attending arts events, but don’t actually attend. The data is analyzed in every way imaginable and reveals that acquiring such audience members is likely to require niche-driven campaigns that address each target group’s particular but different motivation for attending or not. Put another way, there is no one single marketing or communications strategy that will successfully engage the diverse audience that exists because different cohorts are motivated by different reasons and desires.

For example, socializing with friends or family members was the most common motivation for those attending exhibits or performances and was mentioned by 76% of those attending performances and 68% of those attending exhibitions. However, for those who expressed interest but don’t attend, only 22% of the respondents expressed the lack of someone to go with as the barrier to their attendance. One might conclude, therefore, that socializing is important for those already attending, but this would not be the most impactful strategy with which to engage newcomers. This socializing motivation was confirmed in the Culture Track ‘14 study (the most recent edition of a periodic study done by LaPlaca Cohen) that surveyed 4026 arts participants from all 50 states and found that socializing and relaxing were the main reasons respondents participated in culture.

Despite this large interest in socializing as a motivator for participation, When Going Gets Tough found that amongst racial and ethnic minorities, and first-generation immigrants, other motivating reasons were more important. For those already attending, non-Hispanic blacks and African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Pacific Islanders most frequently attended performances to support community events and organizations. Non-Hispanic blacks and African-Americans less frequently mentioned socializing among their reasons for attending the arts. But for those interested but not attending, the lack of someone to attend with was cited by a higher proportion of non-Hispanic blacks and African-Americans (32%) and Mexican-Americans (42%) than other ethnic groups (17%). For Mexican-Americans, difficulty in getting to the venue was cited at an even higher rate (47%) than lack of someone to go with.

Some of the other highlights of this report include the conclusion that life stages of people is a better predictor of participation than age alone and that socio-economic status and people’s self-identified class identity have an impact on participants’ motivations to attend or not. Rich with great detail on the complex nature of our audiences, When Going Gets Tough should provide much detail and strategic information to plan how to approach existing and potential audiences by providing some understanding of their motivations and desires.

When Going Gets Tough is not the first time the NEA has looked at barriers to attendance at arts events. In 1982, analyzing that year’s SPPA, the NEA released Age, Desire, and Barriers to Increased Attendance at Performing Arts Events and Art Museums. Although that report does not overlay on the GSS, it does show that the top barriers to attendance were the same as they were in 2012: not enough time and the high cost of attendance. In the thirty years since the first report, however, the occurrence of these leading barriers to attendance has only increased. Similarly, not having a companion with whom to attend the event has increased as a barrier, though much more dramatically, as shown in this chart.

1982 Barriers
2012 Barriers
1. Not enough time
1. Could not find the time
2. Too expensive
2. Costs too much
3. Art form not available
3. To difficult to get there
4. Too far away
4. Could not find anyone to go with
5. Poor performance time
5. Did not want to go to that location
6. Lack of motivation
7. No one to go with
8. Traffic, transport, parking issues

Looking at the reports mentioned above and others, such as the Wallace Foundation’s The Road to Results: Effective Practices for Building Arts Audiences, it would seem that there is a growing body of data and literature that can be marshaled in the critical discussion of audiences and how to deal with their evolution. Perhaps of greatest impact, these analyses reveal information about the motivation of then current audiences in terms of why they attend and, more interestingly, what drives those interested in attending that never do, providing tools for planning by arts and civic leaders.

At the same time that the NEA released A Decade of Engagement and When Going Gets Tough, it also released a series of seven issue briefs that provide macro economic analysis of the contribution the arts make in our culture and economy. The briefs summarize data generated in the first-time Arts and Cultural Production Satellite Account, a partnership between the NEA and the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Detailing the contribution to the gross domestic product (GDP – Brief 1), data on arts and cultural workers and their compensation (Brief 2), the impact of tax-exempt cultural organizations (Brief 3), and the sector’s contribution to the nation’s imports and exports (Brief 5), amongst others, we begin to see the arts and culture sector through the economic lens used to consider other industries. This should provide, or at least be the beginning of developing a vocabulary for the arts and culture sector that will allow us to engage in the conversation on equal footing with other participants in economic and policy discussions.

Though not explicitly stated as a policy, we can see the NEA efforts in this and similar areas to leverage its resources and assets taking root and beginning to sprout. The NEA Our Town funding initiative, along with its sometimes partner ArtPlace, occupies a prominent place in the recently released Community Development Investment Review: Creative Placemaking from the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank. Together, these two programs are recognized for the effects their concerted efforts have at integrating the arts into our civic planning, which is the focus of this entire issue of the Investment Review.

From all of this, it seems clear that the NEA has a rich and activist research agenda. Some of the current research goals are: quantifying the efficacy of NEA-funded programs, “advance[ing] public knowledge about the arts’ contributions to American life,” “track[ing] the long-term relationship between the arts and livability in communities throughout the nation,” and “address[ing] knowledge gaps concerning the arts’ link to human development at every stage of the lifespan.” In looking at these research questions of great import to the cultural life of the country, one might begin to conclude that the endowment is looking to seed a foundation for a national cultural policy, or at least to ensure that the data necessary to form such a policy exists. What is most exciting about these initiatives and focus is that in the absence of a governmental body to argue for cultural policy, the research and its conclusions are helpful for arts advocates to acquire the ammunition necessary to make their case for greater funding and acceptance of the arts in the United States.

Over the past two decades, we have lived through enormous changes in our arts industries. They continue to evolve at breakneck pace, turning upside down the relationships between creators, distrbutors, and consumers of the art we are creating. Only now, however, through the issuance of government reports such as those mentioned above and the research being reported by private and other public sources, are we beginning to have a picture of motivations of new cohorts of arts creators and consumers. At the same time, and possibly in response to the increasing demand for metrics, we are beginning to see economic analysis in a format that is consistent with that of other industries, allowing the arts and culture sector to engage on an equal footing. In this way, we are joining the likes of other countries, such as Canada, Australia, and Spain, who are ahead of us in striving to understand the contribution the arts make to their economic and cultural life, acknowledging the critical role the arts play in the life of their society. All in all, it is a welcome development that can only bode well for advancing our sector and its place in our society.