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.

Community Engagement: The Game (Brought To You By Helsinki)

If you keep hearing how great Finland is, the results they are having might be due, in part, to the problem solving processes they are using.

The city of Helsinki developed a board game to facilitate conversations and decisions about public participation. There is much about their gamification approach that might be applicable and usable by non-profit organizations.

I was especially struck by the following passage in the article, (my emphasis).

Printed on each card is a participation tool the city of Helsinki has used in the past — hosting resident meetings at City Hall, opening city datasets for public use, or allowing public uses in city-owned spaces, for example. Working in pairs, the group identifies tools they have used and places those cards on the board. This is an important part of the game, Laitio said.

“It builds confidence in the teams that things they have been doing are already part of the engagement work,” he said. “The idea that you’re not starting from scratch is important when you’re pushing through change in an organization.”

This resonated with me because so often when a new endeavor is proposed, especially in terms of engagement, there seems to be an unspoken sense that existing processes have failed us and the new innovative solution needs to be generated whole cloth. The idea that you need to reject all that is in order to be successful can be a pretty intimidating prospect.

Even if you don’t think an entire revamp is required, just trying to determine a starting point of the conversation can feel insurmountable. If the game process helps get the conversation rolling, it can be valuable on that basis alone.

A fair portion of the article cites the head of Helsinki’s Division of Culture and Leisure, Tommi Laitio, who talks about how the game helps his staff cut through jargon and buzzwords like “Citizen Engagement.”  Since community engagement seems to be the hot topic in the US arts and culture sector these days, I had to wonder if we weren’t all facing similar challenges and making similar assumptions.

Other benefits of the gamification approach Helsinki has embraced I appreciated (my emphasis):

The game is structured to surface ideas even from shy or quiet participants, she said, which adds to the sense of shared ownership at the end.

“Participation cannot be dictated,” Miettinen said. “That’s why a tool like the Participation Game is so useful. It encourages players to find their own way to put participation in practice. The game presents participation as a collective responsibility of a team rather than just a singular action or something that needs to be done to ‘tick the box.’”

The Helsinki Participation Game is freely available for anyone in the world to use. However, as you might imagine, a process that demands participation and collective responsibility does require some investment:

“…but he cautioned that it can’t simply be “copy-and-pasted” into another organization. “You need to run a design process in your own organization to adapt the game to meet your needs,” he said.

All That Great Research Ain’t Any Good If You Are Reading It Wrong

If you are like me, you have been excited by the increased quantity and quality of research being made available about arts and culture issues and practices!

Even if you aren’t as excited as I am, you may be finding some research reports to be helpful and interesting to your daily operations.  The format and presentation of information over the last five years or so has really made dense concepts easier to understand.

I encourage you all to head over to a post published today on Arts Hacker where I talk about the potential to misread and misinterpret research findings.

Earlier this month Colleen Dilenschneider wrote about some really egregious misreadings of research findings by cultural executives.  While these anecdotes were entertaining, I thought maybe she was exaggerating the problem a little bit.

However, when I was reading Board Source’s Leading With Intent study in preparation for writing a blog post earlier this month, they had a section which specifically cautioned about misreading their graphics and emphasized the need to carefully read captions explaining what was being depicted.

The Arts Hacker post deals with all of this in greater detail and illustrations. Whether you think you are apt to following into the trap of misinterpreting data or not, it is worth the quick read to help be more mindful of this tendency.

With Great Research Comes Great Responsibility


If You Like Taking A Shower, You May Like Nudism

As soon as I saw the first four lines of a post Seth Godin made last month, I knew what I wanted to write.

Then he wrote a lot of it for me.

Want to go visit a nudist colony?

I don’t know, what’s it like?

You know, a lot of people not wearing clothes.

Show me some pictures, then I’ll know.

Well, actually, you won’t.

You won’t know what it’s like merely by looking at a picture of a bunch of naked people.

The only way you’ll know what it’s like is if you get seen by a bunch of naked people. The only way to have the experience is to have the experience.

He goes on to say that we often try to put a new experience in a familiar box in order to insulate ourselves from the fear of a new experience.

My initial impulse was to write about how seeing video of performance or pictures of objects in a museum doesn’t provide the actual experience of encountering these things live. I was also thinking of writing about how in recent years even those people who do travel to see something live use an electronic device to mediate the experience for them.

But I also got to thinking that the reverse is also true.

We in arts and culture like to criticize participants and potential participants for avoiding an authentic experience and deciding they know about the experience after accepting some form of substitute.

The truth is, the arts and culture sector reinforces to this by talking about their work in the context of other work. While this does provide a frame of reference for entirely unfamiliar experiences, it does the experience and the creators a disservice to frame their work in terms of “just like artist Y,” “if you liked Z, you will love X.”

It is done to sell an experience and we all gotta eat right? People increasingly look for this type of information since their online buying experience so frequently features this form of recommendation. Replicating this process helps people make decisions about participating in an arts and culture event.

But then you can’t turn around and accuse people of being averse to trying something unfamiliar if you continually use the simplest common elements to frame complex and nuanced experiences.

There were stories in November about the works of Jin Yong being translated into English, each which proclaimed him the J.R.R Tolkien of China. Amateur translations of those works have been a guilty pleasure of mine. I can tell you the comparison is only true in the broadest terms.  (Like showers and nudism.)

Likewise, if you decide changing expectations and perceptions about what an artistic/creative/cultural experiences are will require rethinking the whole experience, simply scaling down current practices and placing them in novel settings isn’t ultimately going to be the answer.

In the article upon which I based my post yesterday about a health clinic in Minneapolis that started experimenting with pop-up arts offerings I saw some parallels with arts engagement practices.

Neighborhood clinics like the one depicted in the story are an attempt to bring health services offered at places like hospitals closer to the people who need to be served. That has helped up to a point (not to diminish the work of a clinic that has served a community for 45-50 years). The executive director identified barriers for people: disinterest in health classes/discussions, anxiety, distrust, etc.

Clinics like the one in the story have started to expand their definition of what health entails.

You’re doing the art sitting next to people and you start talking to each other,” Shella said. “It creates community and is therapeutic in the sense that the hospital becomes less sterile—it gives it a sense of beauty and helps people feel more at peace and connected to others.”

Shella said that such activities have emerged from health care providers’ desire to give patients a positive experience. This means seeing them as “whole people,” not just a specific problem or organ that needs fixing. “It’s the recognition that people also have psycho-social needs,” said Shella.

One of the tactics they started to employ is using the pop up arts events as a conduit for information, discussion and lowering of barriers with the focus less sharply on health and more on creating community.

In the same way, the recent trend in arts and culture has been to broaden the definition of what constitutes arts, culture and creative activity. As we have seen in the recent CultureTrack report, the general population has already changed their definition of these things to focus more on food trucks and less on museums.

In the long run, arts and cultural organizations are going to have to continue to re-imagine what it means to have a creative experience. I suspect that means a transition from doing things like scaled down pop-up performances in bars, shopping malls, airports, etc and manifesting in a way that builds community.

I am not saying there is anything particularly wrong with these type of experiences. Obviously, the intersection between health services and a scaled down creative experience has had significance in Minneapolis. I just don’t think that the concept of taking activities to where the people are should represent an end point. There is a next step and new manifestation(s) that haven’t been realized yet.

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