Money May Make The World Go Round, But Education Drives Participation

In a recent “Taking Note”, National Endowment for the Arts’  Director of Research & Analysis,  Sunil Iyengar mentioned that in the coming year the NEA will commission some monographs exploring the role of taste and preferences in arts participation.

He later points out a study conducted in Spain that touches on this very notion.  With the obvious disclaimer that the cultural norms of Spain differ from that of the U.S., I wanted to point out a couple interesting observations the Spanish researchers made.

They categorized study participants as either “absolute” or “recoverable” non-attendees. The absolute non-attendees were those who were “impermeable to cultural policy” and would not attend for any reason whatsoever. Recoverable non-attendees were those who had not attended recently but  shared characteristics with people who did. Among the “recoverable” are people who might have had children and will become increasingly open to participating as their kids got older.

The researchers categorized willingness to attend across cultural events, visits to historic/cultural sites or attend cinema.

In all three cases, education works independently of income, in positively affecting attendance. Even the effect of income on arts participation is shown to be “more significant” for people at the higher versus lower education levels.


The researchers conclude that as education rises, interest in arts attendance grows dramatically. For example, changing a respondent’s education level from “primary education”-only to “higher education” would cut his or her likelihood of being an “absolute non-attendee” by 50 percentage points—for all three arts activities.

Again acknowledging that Spain and the US are different situations, I was pretty astonished to see a 50% reduction absolute non-attendance closely associated with education level. In the conclusions, the researchers suggest cultural policy should be more closely integrated with education policy with an eye to the way technology changes expectations and mode of content delivery.

What I also found interesting was that income level doesn’t seem to have the same impact on attendance that education does for arts events and cultural site visits. Cinema is more price sensitive.

At the same time, the category of “recoverable non-attendee” (that is, a person who just feasibly might have attended an arts event) remains inflexible when income levels are raised, for both cultural-place visits and live performing arts attendance. The authors thus remark on the “clear polarization” among Spaniards when it comes to either high demand or absolute non-interest in these activities.

The way I read this was that people with high levels of education are more likely to attend regardless of income level. Whereas people of low education level don’t take on the characteristics shared by “recoverable” attendees as their income level rises. The first section I quoted above appears to say people with high levels of education become more likely to attend frequently as income goes up, but people with high levels of education and low income will have a tendency to attend at some point.

I scrutinized the original research report (which is in English) for a plain statement either supporting or refuting my reading of this, but I didn’t find a statement that clarified the matter for me.

What I was ultimately hoping to find was something that showed preference (or lack thereof) shaped by education was a greater barrier to participation than price. This would resonate with recent research results from a number of sources that suggest price isn’t as large a barrier as has been assumed.

A caveat to my caveats: While I continue to assert the differences between Spain and the U.S., the Spanish researchers themselves say their findings match that of U.S. researchers so don’t read my disclaimers as a diminishing the validity of the Spanish research on U.S. behavior.  I am just making it clear that I am not ignoring the distinction.

In the three activities, a very large group of absolute non-attendees is observed that it will be difficult to interest in cultural activities, especially in live performances and sites of cultural interest. This result is very general and similar to that obtained by Ateca Amestoy and Prieto Rodríguez (2013) for the United States.

Has Cost Suddenly Become Less A Barrier To Participation?

Back in October I wrote a couple posts about the newest iteration of the Culture Track report.  The operative word there is iteration. The study is conducted every three years in an attempt to track the shifting trends in perception and participation in cultural activities by the general population.

In my excitement to talk about the findings, I didn’t really take the time to examine the “shift” element that is intended to make this data so valuable. While preparing to do a presentation on the current findings, it occurred to me to take a look at the past finding as a point of comparison so I downloaded the 2014 data.

Even in a superficial scan of the 2014 materials, this next graph jumped out at me.

The legibility is a little tough at full size so I cropped it down to the top 10 responses about barriers to participation. The blue bar is the 2011 responses and the mauve is the 2014 responses.  A mauve only bar indicates they only started asking the question in 2014.

Now look at a representative sample of the top responses for the 2017 survey. One caveat – as best I can tell, the 2011 and 2014 didn’t break out these results by discipline as they did in 2017. Nor did they break it out by barriers for attendees and barriers for non-attendees. That may skew the results in some manner.

In the 2017 responses, regardless of discipline, among those that participate. The number one barrier was “inconvenience.” For the majority, number two and three were “didn’t think of it” and “rather spend time in other ways,” respectively

Among those that didn’t participate, every number one barrier, again regardless of discipline, was “Its not for someone like me.” For the majority, number two and three were “inconvenient” and “didn’t think of it.”

For nearly every discipline, with both participants and non-participants, “It’s Value Is Not Worth the Cost” is number five. (Except for zoo participants where it is fourth and dance participants where it is sixth.)

This significant change in placement really left me wondering what happened in the last three years.

Is cost no longer as big as factor? Does separating out the responses by discipline and participation level provide a truer picture of what presents a barrier to people? Did the researchers ask the questions in a different way that lead to different responses?

This last issue might have been an influence. In 2011 and 2014 they asked if the economy had impacted respondents’ cultural participation and how that manifested. These questions, which seem to have been absent from the 2017 survey, may have primed people to think about costs and their ability to pay.

There was also a question on 2011 and 2014 asking how cultural organizations could make it easier to participate. Lower cost of admission was number one. This question also doesn’t seem to have been included in 2017.

The lack of questions in 2017 suggesting economic factors were a problem and part of a solution may have diminished frequency with which people agreed or strongly agreed that cost was a factor as a barrier. From the information I have been able to find about how each survey was created and conducted, I can’t say if any of these things could have been an influence.

Cost isn’t the only category that make a significant shift. Look at where “I’d rather spend my leisure time in other ways” falls. In 2017 it is usually third or fourth but it was ninth in 2014. I can’t think anything so compelling that has emerged in the last 3 years that has caused people to shift it up in their priorities.

I would like to think that we can attribute these differences to the fact that the researchers are getting a lot better about the way they ask these questions and parse the data.

There Isn’t A Template For That

I was really grateful for Aaron Overton’s very first post on ArtsHacker last week.  Aaron is a programmer with a lot of experience in website development for performing arts organizations. (Disclosure: He did some work on the ticketing integration for my day job website.)

In his ArtsHacker post, he talks about how much work goes into making it easy to keep an arts organization website updated and looking good. I had a conversation about that very subject the day before his post appeared. Had I know his piece was coming out, I would have delayed my meeting a day and used the post to bolster my argument.

Because performing arts organizations have an ever changing cycle of events, it can take a lot of work to keep your website current, attractive and put the most relevant information in front of site visitors’ eyes.   Publishing platforms like WordPress make creation and maintenance of websites much easier than it was even 5 years ago, but there is still A LOT of coding that has to occur to make the process of adding and removing content quick, painless and in many cases, automatic.

The back end of my day job’s website has a nice set of orderly field that I can plug event information and images in to and everything appears in its proper place on the website.  About a year ago, I noticed a less than ideal placement of some information and asked my web guy if he could fix it. I was sitting next to him when he made the fix and even though it was easy to accomplish, I got enough of a look under the hood to realize how much work went into making things so simple.

At the time I even remarked that all those ads for build your own website in minutes services like Wix and Squarespace probably made people underestimate how much work went into making websites work well.  Certainly, those sites provide a great service to people and businesses to help them get up and going. But there may come a time in your personal/professional/organizational development where they won’t be enough.

And I made a similar comment in the meeting I had last week.

If you take a look at the first example in Aaron’s post, he mentions desired features that are likely common to many performing arts organizations:

…display headshots of the cast for an event. The set of headshots might have color-tinted photos with the actor’s name displayed on the bottom and some sort of rollover effect that slides in from the bottom when the user hovers or taps.

The client needs to have a pool of actors and be able to build “teams” that can be attached to events. The headshot photos may have many purposes, so they won’t necessarily have a uniform size or aspect ratio.

But to make that happen, he had to consider the following factors:

  • Provide a way for a site manager to create team member profiles with a large headshot photo.
  • Provide a team builder to group team members into ordered lists and note their roles on that team.
  • Create a way to easily place that team on a page for display, along with a few options to allow for different usages.
  • Crop the provided headshots to the right size and aspect ratio.
  • Style the output to account for converting the photos to tinted grayscale.
  • Accommodate different screen sizes and devices so that the final output looks good whether on a desktop or a mobile device.

These are only some of the tasks. During development, many other tasks have revealed themselves as necessary, most of which may have little to do with the final display seen by the site visitor but are necessary to making sure the feature not only works, but is efficient and doesn’t slow down the user experience.

The purpose of Aaron’s post isn’t to tell people to be prepared to pay a lot for a good website. He provides a number of tips about how to approach the design process and conversations you should have with your programmer early on so that you don’t end up paying too much.

Stuff To Ponder: Expanded Approaches To Pay What You Want Pricing

A few weeks ago economist Alex Tabarrok wrote about a strange “pay what you want” promotion a shoe company was running. It struck him and many commenters of the Marginal Revolution blog as a psychological experiment with a goal of getting most people to select the set middle range price.

In that same post he linked back to 2012 post where he provided an analysis for why “pay what you want” can make sense for charities and performing arts organizations. The analysis may be difficult to understand, but the bottom line is:

Probably more importantly, pay-what-you-want pricing is going to be advantageous when the seller also sells a complementary good, such as concerts, which benefit from consumption spillovers from the pay-what-you-want good.

Basically, when you offer an option to pay what you want, there should be accompanying options like food, merchandise, other participatory activities that you can earn revenue from. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the movie theatre model where a bag of popcorn is $10. Offering pay what you want simply because you think it is a good idea without any sense of how you can offset the loss of revenue isn’t prudent. If end up with a higher per ticket price than you had before, that is great, but don’t plan on it.

One of the commenters on the 2012 post noted that the site HumbleBundle allows you to pay what you want, but also posts the average price paid in real time.

Currently, if you pay more than the average of $4.14, you can unlock additional content and if you pay more than $14 there is another level of content you can receive.

Having some sort of bonus content or access people will receive for exceeding the average is a smart idea. It rewards those who act early before the average increases as a result of people paying to receive that content (or just being generous). This content or access could be better seating, merchandise, concessions, meet and greet opportunities, invites to other organizational activities, etc.

I got to thinking about how my ticketing system can tell me what the average selling price of my tickets are on demand. I could theoretically manually update that information on the lobby screens simply as a point of information at various intervals just as a bit of psychological social pressure on people to pay close to that or a little more. While I might also choose to update that information on our website, I am not sure the sense of social pressure would be as significant for online sales.

However, if ticketing software providers created a way to export that information to update in real time like HumbleBundle does, it might be possible to create a sense of tension and excitement in lobbies just prior to performances. (Or if handled correctly, even online). Granted, it could be done manually but I know I have better things for my staff to do than constantly run reports and post data to a public screen.

Watching it tick steadily up with every purchase is much more interesting. Especially if you are experience the dual satisfaction of seeing how much money was being raised for the organization while knowing you got access cheaper than a lot of other people – “Whoo hoo!! We collectively moved the price to $15.63 (but I got mine for $4.85!)”

Thoughts? What experiences, if any, have you had? I know a number of places are doing pay what you want/can, but I am not clear if they are supplementing their income with related goods and services or if they have found a way to energize audiences around the practice in a productive manner.

Send this to a friend