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Definitions of participation in the arts and culture

Measuring Cultural Engagement amid Confounding Variables

August 20, 201420 August 2014

Special Issue: Arts participation and engagement

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The symposium tackled some large and challenging questions, such as “what counts as ‘the arts’? and “what do people consider culture?” Concern was expressed that current survey analysis may place too great a focus on certain kinds of arts participation (subsidized art forms) to the exclusion of the “informal arts” or “everyday arts participation” (i.e., hobbies and pastimes, rather than conventional categories of arts participation). One participant noted that the “maker movement” (group participation in the creation of crafts and other items) is becoming quite popular.

In many jurisdictions, there has been a broadening of the types of cultural participation or engagement factors measured via surveys. For example, the Ontario Arts Engagement Study measured “both audience-based and participatory, or personal practice, activities”. Some participants questioned whether this might be due to a desire to downplay reduced participation rates in the U.S. in many traditional art forms. However, in many other jurisdictions (e.g., Canada, the U.K., and Australia), there are increasing participation rates in many art forms, yet there still appears to be a broadening of the measurement of engagement in the arts and culture. Some participants wondered whether the arts field would be comfortable with this broader definition, or whether it would challenge some groups’ standing regarding public interest and funding.

The complexities of cultural participation in a digital world were discussed at the symposium. Technologies are rapidly changing, and arts engagement is evolving with these technological changes (e.g., e-books, online consumption, streaming of music and films, creative co-production). In addition, some art forms and genres are rapidly evolving, and national and regional demographics are also changing, leading to changes in cultural participation. Participants questioned whether current surveys of cultural participation are properly worded to capture these evolutions.

The importance of places and spaces to cultural participation was also discussed. Private spaces (rather than public ones) are central to many people’s cultural participation. Participants wondered if participation surveys are adequately capturing activities in non-traditional places and spaces.

The complicated reality of cultural participation is difficult to measure. Participants asked questions such as: What do we really need to measure? How will the information be used? Who should collect the information? Does the diversification of cultural participation (and engagement) require different measurement tools?

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