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Why Don’t They Come?

It’s not just the price of admission that’s keeping poor and less-educated adults away from arts events

February 24, 201624 February 2016

Arts attendance and participation

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This article, based on a variety of reports and data sources, indicates that “there is a significant proportion of economically disadvantaged people who do not take the initiative to experience the arts, even when time and cost are not issues.” Furthermore, the article argues that “a lack of explicit interest is far and away the dominant factor keeping low-SES [socioeconomic status] populations away from arts events”. Low socioeconomic status is defined “as those with at most a high school education and in the bottom half of the income distribution in the United States”.

People in lower socioeconomic groups are much less likely to participate in a wide “range of visual, performing, literary, and film activities”, and “simply offering a free option is not sufficient for arts institutions to ensure a socioeconomically representative audience”. In fact, the report cites data from the National Endowment for the Arts showing that only about 10% of people with a high school diploma attended a free performance, while more than 20% of Americans with a college degree did so. The results were similar for different income levels: higher income households are much more likely to attend (even free performances).

The article explores whether a lack of time (the most commonly identified barrier to arts attendance) really is a key underlying factor in non-attendance. The article cites data showing that, on average, low-SES people actually have more free time than higher-SES people. Television appears to be a much preferred entertainment option for low-SES individuals: “less-educated individuals spent twice as much time consuming television as on all other leisure activities combined”.

In the end, the article’s authors admit that “the truth is that we don’t know much about why low-SES people make the choices they do about how to spend their free time…. Perhaps some low-SES individuals don’t attend arts events simply because they don’t think of themselves as the ‘kind of people’ who attend arts events…. Until we know more about low-SES people’s subjective experience of their free time — whether they would spend their time differently if they had the opportunity, and whether there’s a place for the arts in those dreams — we advise against making too many assumptions.”

Overall, the authors argue that, “when large numbers of people face barriers to participating in the arts in the way they might want to, we know that we’re missing opportunities to improve people’s lives in concrete and meaningful ways.”

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