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Research into action: Pathways to new opportunities

February 9, 20119 February 2011

Performing arts finances, attendance and participation

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“In May 2008, the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance announced an ambitious goal to double the region’s cultural participation in a dozen years.” This report works toward this goal of the “Engage 2020” project by providing research into how Philadelphia area residents engage with the arts. The strategies for audience engagement and development outlined in the report provide a “springboard to action to adopt a consumer-focused, organization-wide approach to product and market development”.

The report synthesizes the findings of five qualitative and quantitative studies conducted over a two-year period: Cultural Engagement Index; Demographic Trends and Forecasts in the Philadelphia Region Study; Culture & the Arts Survey; Paid Patronage Study; and Engage 2020 Focus Groups.

Ten key findings are presented:

  1. Philadelphia’s cultural attendance rates are above the national averages in 18 of 20 measurements, but “there’s still room to grow”.
  2. The “bucket is leaking”: the cultural sector was found to be “good at attracting customers, but not so good at keeping them”. In fact, two-thirds of new patrons did not participate in any activity of 17 cultural organizations in the year following the original activity. The report suggests that “there is a major opportunity to increase engagement simply by increasing our retention rate”.
  3. Personal practice of an art form is a gateway to attendance.
  4. “People of color are more engaged & growing in population”. In fact, both African Americans and Hispanics were found to be more culturally active than white respondents, based on a broad definition of cultural engagement (encompassing 57 cultural activities covering “a wide range of curatorial, personal creative practice and audience-based activities”).
  5. “Families with children have the highest engagement index of any life-stage cohort.” A large majority of respondents indicated that the arts are important to children, but less than one-half of respondents felt that most cultural organizations are child-friendly.
  6. Role models are very important: “Adults who report having had mentors both inside and outside their family who introduced them to culture when they were children are more than twice as culturally engaged as those who had no role model.”
  7. A variety of marketing channels are needed to reach consumers, including newspapers, word of mouth, emails and social media.
  8. “Product matters”: Personal interest in the particular exhibition or performance and interest in the genre, period or style were the top two reasons for attending a cultural event, ahead of a convenient time or location and the cost of admission. However, “many people did not feel that the arts were consistently relevant to them personally, or felt that the experience was a letdown”.
  9. “Social connection [at events] is a huge, undermarketed benefit”. Three social reasons ranked among the top four motivations for attending an event. The report argues that “connection is central both to the experience itself (the way we share it with others) and to the way we learn about it (word of mouth)”.
  10. “Service is central” in many respects, including logistics, welcome, information-gathering, ticket purchasing, customer service, transportation, parking, safety, and social activities before or after an event.

The study highlights “four principles of change for programming”, including relevance, quality, the “power of the personal”, as well as participation and interactivity. In terms of relevance, the focus group and survey work revealed that “there are four key values that drive how people spend their leisure time. People want to de-stress, recharge, connect and become (i.e., advance personal growth.).” The report argues that “quality is a combination of both product artistry and logistics competence” and that there is “a strong connection between personal identity and arts interest”. Participation and interactivity are seen to enhance the arts experience: “when the barrier between artist and audience, between professional and amateur, between performer and observer breaks down, people get excited, they want to participate more and they feel more engaged”.

The report indicates that, for potential audience members, “being aware of a cultural event is different than feeling invited”. Marketing information in the report includes an analysis of demographic trends in the Philadelphia area, retention of first-time attendees, as well as online and offline marketing. Women are found to be “the key to leveraging a family’s or couple’s attendance and to building audiences for the future through their role as mentors to their children”.

In order to improve access, the report highlights seven areas to work on: “1) Varied performance, show and exhibition schedules; 2) Socializing opportunities; 3) Planning made simple; 4) Cultural role models; 5) Family-friendly options; 6) Friendly and welcoming service; [and] 7) Diversity”. In terms of barriers to access, many focus group respondents emphasized “the sometimes intimidating nature of arts and culture venues (not knowing the standards for how to behave, the need to sit still and be quiet)”.

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