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Dear Arts: It’s Not Your Challenge Alone

Last week Createquity published an analysis looking at why people in lower socioeconomic status (SES) don’t attend arts events. Their research challenges the common assumption that price, lack of time and geographic proximity are the main factors in the decision not to attend, at least among this demographic.

Unfortunately, the real impediment might be deeply instilled cultural behaviors that present a problem in areas beyond the arts.

The piece, Why Don’t They Come? is thought provoking and occasionally surprising. It has started a good deal of conversation both on the Createquity site, and also on economist Tyler Cowen’s Marginal Revolution blog where it dominates the discussion on a post of assorted links.

I say that instilled cultural behavior is an potentially an impediment because overcoming it will take more than programming changes, lower prices/free events and taking events to different neighborhoods.

Createquity’s questioning of the argument that arts are elitist is somewhat depressing as it points out the lack of low SES involvement in even low cost and solitary pursuits.

Data from the survey shows that fewer low-income individuals attend pop and rock concerts than their wealthier counterparts, and significantly fewer of them attend visual arts festivals and craft fairs. In fact, people with lower incomes and less education are less likely to read books, go to the movies, take an arts class, play a musical instrument, sing, dance socially, take or edit photographs, paint, make scrapbooks, engage in creative writing, or make crafts.

Granted, if an effort to change programming, address costs and increase geographic access is made over a long period of time, attitudes may change in the direction arts organizations hope. Even if those measures aren’t effective in influencing low-SES people, the barriers they respond to may be decisive for people in other socioeconomic strata and therefore important for arts organizations to continue to address.

But when it comes to people in low SES, this relationship/outlook is not unique to the arts. Two days after “Why Don’t They Come?” was published, the New York Times had a story about low SES people and food that had many elements in common with the Createquity piece.

The Times story talked about efforts to bring grocery stores to “food deserts,” places where residents didn’t have easy access to high quality food and produce. The idea was that if people didn’t have to walk miles or ride the bus for hours to get to a grocery store, they would make better choices about what they ate. However, it didn’t work out that way. People continued to buy what they were in the habit of eating. (my emphasis)

It turned out that food preferences dominated. When the researchers looked at shoppers with lower levels of income and education living in richer neighborhoods with more accessible healthy food, their shopping mimicked that of low-income, less educated people in poorer neighborhoods. (And the reverse was true, too: Richer, more educated shoppers in poor neighborhoods looked more like rich shoppers in rich neighborhoods.)

“When we put supermarkets in poor neighborhoods, people are buying the same food,” said Barry Popkin, a professor of Nutrition at the University of North Carolina, who participated in an Institute of Medicine review of food desert research in 2009. “They just get it cheaper.”


It’s possible that poverty itself explains a lot of the shopping variation. In general, fresher, healthier food is more expensive to buy than less healthy processed food. It also takes more time and resources to cook, and keeps for fewer days.

If people can’t afford healthier foods, then it would be reasonable to think that just giving them a better store wouldn’t solve their problems. But Ms. Handbury’s paper found that the education of the shoppers was much more predictive than their incomes. Poorer families bought less healthy food than richer ones. But a bigger gap was found between families with and without a college education. Those results, Ms. Handbury said, suggest that improving people’s diets will require both making food accessible and affordable and also changing people’s perceptions and habits about diet and health.

Like the NYT story, Createquity also mentioned that education level is generally a predictor of participation in an arts event. Though the folks at Createquity state that income is also a predictor of arts attendance, they later note that cost is not terribly significant in keeping low-SES people away.

Roughly speaking, this simulates what would happen if every exhibit and performance in existence could be attended for free. The result? Only 7% of the chasm in attendance rates between rich and poor, and between college-educated and not, would be bridged.

Though by now we know that “if you build it/perform it, they will come” is an unwise approach, even removing other barriers in addition to convenience and proximity isn’t enough:

Indeed, according to our model, even if all barriers to participation were removed for low-SES populations and every person who wanted to attend an exhibit or performance in the past year were able to do so, it would still not close even half of the gap in attendance rates.

The authors of “Why Won’t They Come?” acknowledge no one knows why low-SES people make the decisions they do. Among the reasons they suggest are that it could be the group appreciates TV more, it may be a matter of learned behavior, a belief that they are not the type of person who likes the arts or that the general perception that arts are too expensive keeps them from seeking low cost and free opportunities.

The lemonade out of lemons takeaway from this is that it isn’t a problem unique to the arts. Look back at the sentence I bolded earlier- accessibility, affordability, change perceptions – all sentiments familiar in discussions about the arts.

Anyone working on helping low-SES people make better decisions about their lives is a potential ally and partner. (Though the adjuration against defining what is good for people found in Createquity’s post after the art gallery picture is well taken.) A social service organization can help an arts organization gain more direct access to the demographic and an arts organization can help the social service partner structure their training in an engaging manner. Often people in the arts feel like they are going it alone and face challenges no other sector faces, but that is not necessarily so.

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Info You Can Use: It Is Possible To Be Too Thankful To Volunteers

As your performance season ends, like me you may be looking to thank all the volunteers whose hard work made your projects possible over the past year. You might feel a little guilty about all the effort they put forth on your behalf and want to spend a little more money than you planned in showing your appreciation.

However, according to a post by the For Purpose Law Group, there is such a thing as being too appreciative and you can create more problems for your volunteers than you intended.

For example, technically giving a volunteer a $25 gift card is taxable and you as the organization are supposed to withhold taxes.

Stipends or cash gifts of any amount (even allowable “nominal” stipends to bona fide volunteers) are generally taxable income. The volunteer recipient must report the amounts on his or her tax return and pay applicable taxes AND the organization must withhold taxes and make FICA payments – just as it does for employees.

Yeah, I did not know that either.

The other wrinkle is if you pay volunteer a stipend. A volunteer can’t be paid a stipend in return for their services, but you can use it to help offset expenses they might incur. This is something community theater groups often do with their cast and crew. Even in this case, there are some strict guidelines which apply.

Pay particular attention to the last paragraph.

“Although a volunteer can receive no compensation, a volunteer can be paid expenses, reasonable benefits or a nominal fee (or any combination) to perform … services.”

“…(A) fee is not nominal if it is a substitute for compensation or tied to productivity.” And “… determining whether the expenses, benefits or fees would preclude an individual from qualifying as a volunteer under the FLSA requires examining the total amount of payments in the context of the economic realities of a particular situation.”

The agency “presumes that fees paid to volunteers are nominal as long as the fee does not exceed twenty percent of what an employer would otherwise pay to hire a full-time employee for the same services.”

But – and this is a big “but” – if the “volunteer” receives anything of value exceeding $500 a year, that person must be treated as paid staff or as an independent contractor and relinquishes important liability protection under the federal Volunteer Protection Act (as well as becoming potentially liable, in the case of independent contractor classification, for a whole slew of self-employment taxes).

I point out that last paragraph because it is easy to hit that $500 threshold. Paying someone $100 for six weeks of rehearsal and a performance as gesture of acknowledgment and to help defray gas doesn’t come close to really paying them what they are worth. But it is so very easy for a really dedicated person to hit $500 over the course of a year. (And remember, there is supposed to be a reporting of income and withholding on each of those $100 payments.)

It appears that the prohibition against tying the stipend to productivity means you can’t provide a larger stipend to crew heads than to the crew or give everyone who did 250 volunteer hours a $25 gift certificate and everyone who did fewer hours a $15 gift certificate.

“A test to help evaluate whether a payment to a volunteer is a compensation substitute is “whether the amount of the fee varies as the particular individual spends more or less time engaged in the volunteer activities.”

In their suggestions at the end of the post, authors May Harris and Linda Rosenthal, say the best solution may be a bouquet of flowers rather than a gift card. I think other modest gestures like appreciation meals probably qualify as well, assuming you aren’t serving caviar.

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Earning The Right To Sell

We often hear that our social media posts shouldn’t be heavy on self promotion, but rather seek to engage people with information that might be useful or interesting to them. But I think it is hard to conceptualize what that really looks like. What should you be offering? What is a good ratio?

Since every business is different, it is impossible to provide a solid answer. What type of informational posts you make should be a reflection of your organizational personality. The ratio of information to self-promotion that people will tolerate is also characteristic to each organization.

However, in a video posted on Entrepreneur, Guy Kawasaki provides 4 rules about the content of your posts.

“good stuff” comes in four forms:

Information. What happened?
Analysis. What does it mean?
Assistance. How can I do that?
Entertainment. Posts that amuse and surprise.

The video has examples, but you can probably think of dozens more from recognizing award nominations to sharing how-to tips for art projects.

What was most interesting was his philosophy about self-promotional posts. He used the example of NPR which provides news, information, analysis and entertainment for about 49-50 weeks out of the year and then does fund drives for the other 2-3 weeks out of the year.

By providing content people find valuable for most of the year, in Kawasaki’s estimation, NPR earns the right to sell itself for two or three weeks out of the year.

Now, the one flaw I see in his logic is that NPR’s core product and mission 50 weeks out of the year is news and information. Every so often they ask you to pay for it. Following these guidelines, a museum would be providing news and information which is off-mission, in addition to their own core product. This practice can obscure the museum’s identity a little whereas NPR’s is always on display every moment and only gets slightly diminished during fund drives.

But the general idea that you have to earn the right to ask for money is sound. The earned right to ask extends beyond just offering diverse content on social media. The transaction of time and money happens in a small moment, but the right to ask for that exchange is earned across every other moment through customer service, the delivery of a quality product, the social enjoyment and dozens of other factors, including social media and other online content.

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Arts and Survival

This article on CNN about the role music is playing in the aftermath of the earthquake in Nepal caught my eye. There were similar stories and videos after the 2010 Haitian earthquake of people creating a bond of community through singing and music.

The singing isn’t getting anyone fed, clothed or sheltered, neglecting the very bottom tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy of need. But it does help with the next step up by providing a sense of love and belonging.

Though no one wants to see disasters like this happen, the fact that people’s basic instinct is to turn to music and dance to create community illustrates that the arts are not a frivolous luxury. They are an essential part of our identity.

Being able to participate with a group provides you membership in a culture. It doesn’t even necessarily have to be your birth culture. Insisting people speak English and be able to sing the “Star Spangled Banner” using the correct signifiers may seem overbearingly chauvinistic, but it also identifies what songs provide you entree to a community.

The other thing it illustrates is that not only does everyone have the ability to participate and practice an artistic discipline, it is important that they be able to do so. To a degree it is a basic survival tool mentally, spiritually and perhaps even physically if the sense of community it generates gains you food and shelter.

In a less dire circumstance, we had Garrison Keillor do his solo show about a month ago. He had the audience singing at the beginning and end of his performance. While I have read some criticism of his singing voice, it was sufficient to get everyone started. As the show was drawing to an end, I wondered if someone would be able to do the same thing in 20-30 years. With the ability to choose between disparate channels of information, there may be fewer common cultural touchstones in the next few decades.

Potentially it may be good for international relations if people thousands of miles apart can find 10 points of common ground. It may be less beneficial to local relations if neighbors can only find 10 points of common ground.

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