Cultural participation: the USA versus Australia

Within a matter of months, two major research studies have been released on cultural participation. How different are they, and is Australia ahead of the States?
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Last week the American organisation Culture Track released its 2017 participation report. In June this year, the Australia Council for the Arts published its own research on audience engagement, tabling the report Connecting Australians. We thought it might be an interesting exercise to examine them back-to-back.

While the geographic footprint is similar, America’s population is 13 times that of Australia (323.1 million in 2016 compared to 24.13 million). However the survey samples were a little closer: Culture Track surveyed 4,035 respondents nationally, while Connecting Australians represents a national sample of 7,537.

Culture Track’s report looks at the attitudes of cultural audiences rather than the larger population, tallying the responses of Americans who self-identified as having participated in one of 33 broadly defined cultural activities. The Australia Council’s report was less attitude driven and looked at more formally established definitions of culture, and the organisations that produce it, rather than the broader idea of what culture might mean to shifting audiences. 

Key findings

While these results differ in what the numbers are looking at, they do speak to a common swell or a zeitgeist that is worth noting. One of the key conclusions of the Culture Track 2017 report is that Americans have rethought what culture is – taking it to a much broader embedded lifestyle option. It claims that “culture” has possibly expanded to the point of extinction.

The Australia Council reports that in 2016, 17 million Australians (or 86% of the population) acknowledged the significant positive impacts of the arts. In the US, 37% of art museum visitors didn’t view such institutions as culture / a cultural experience. The figure points to the increasingly democratised definition of culture, states the report.

Australia, while its value rates for the arts read high and take a broad sweep, the “guts” of the data is still very much locked into organisation-driven, program-based activities, be that through a museum, theatre, festival or community cultural hub. Simply, the numbers are more quantitative.

Australians would not immediately consider listening to music on the radio or going to a movie as “cultural engagement” unless prompted to think more broadly. Conversely, Americans classifying dining at food trucks as a “cultural experience” sees the pendulum swinging too far the other way.

Courtesy Connecting Australians and Australia Council for the Arts

The new cultural landscape

New behaviours are driving digital engagement, loyalty, and giving. Measuring, proving, and articulating the social impact of culture has never been more important in the eyes of cultural consumers.

The Culture Tracks report states: ‘Audiences do not place priority on whether an activity is “culture” or not. Now, culture can be anything from Caravaggio to Coachella, Tannhäuser to taco trucks.

‘But if the traditional notion of “culture” is extinct, what is culture’s purpose in a new and increasingly complex world? Culture’s definition may be in flux, but its value can be greater than ever if we can re-assert its meaning in this radically changed landscape.’

Maggie Hartnick, managing director of LaPlaca Cohen – the cultural agency that developed the report – continued: ‘It’s clear that people don’t know or really even care about what is a cultural attraction or activity. The designation “culture” used to be a way of placing certain leisure activities on a pedestal – a pedestal that today’s audiences are happy to take a sledgehammer to.’

While 63% of American respondents saw art and design museums as culture, large numbers found culture outside the white cube: 54% defined public and street art as culture, while a “food and drink experience” and a night at the opera fit that bill for 51% and 48% of respondents, respectively.

‘This doesn’t mean culture doesn’t exist or is somehow vanishing,’ stressed Hartnick. ‘Rather, culture needs to be defined in new ways and from the ground up rather than the top down.’

Courtesy Culture Track 2017 and LaPlaca Cohen

Why people participate

The American report found that 81% of respondents engage in cultural experiences to have fun, and that cultural activities were viewed as a source of leisure and relaxation for many.

A desire to feel less stressed was tied in third place, along with “experiencing new things”, with 76% citing both as reasons for participation. And 71% cited learning something new as a reason to participate in culture.

Similarly in Australia, 60% of Australians believe that the arts have a “big” or “very big” impact on their sense of well-being and happiness. 67% described the arts as aiding their ability to think creatively and develop new ideas, while 69% felt the arts helped them express themselves. Furthermore, 75% agree that the arts should be an important part of the education of every Australian.

Courtesy Culture Track 2017 and LaPlaca Cohen

It is clear that the notion of cultural participation as more than just “attendance” is a rising global trend. It is about creating richer lives, more vibrant cities, and a key avenue for finding work-life balance in contemporary life.

‘To respondents, culture involved fostering empathy, expanding your perspective, building community, and educating the public,’ said Hartnick.

What is interesting is the way this data impacts programming and the whole “packaged” experience of cultural institutions today: the café, the shop, the building, the buzz… the entertainment factor that extends the exhibition, performance or cultural activity.

Ignore it and those cultural produces become mere edifices of bricks and mortar.

Is culture participation loyal?

The American report claims that only 27% of cultural audiences are loyal to cultural organisations and the phenomenon of “cultural promiscuity” is on the rise. People are more loyal to restaurants and retail stores. However, the report also found that 39% of frequent attendees are more likely to participate because they grew up with a specific cultural experience.

Courtesy Culture Track 2017 and LaPlaca Cohen

Hartnick, however, makes the point that this doesn’t mean that people aren’t loyal. Offerings have increased, so loyalty to culture might be on the rise while loyalty to an organisation might be a more fickle relationship.

‘While some in the museum sector may define loyalty as joining a membership program or making repeat visits, audiences have a more expansive definition of loyalty. Technology has also stretched the parameters of what constitutes support, with audiences defining “liking” something on social media as an act of loyalty. Meanwhile, the percentage of people with memberships to visual art institutions continues to decline, from 26% in 2011 to 22% in 2017, and the performing arts from 23% to 21% respectively,’ she said.

As with the definition of what comprises “culture”, so too do we need to rethink what “loyalty” means in our times. This graph presented by Culture Track charts some of those opinions in America, and it is instructive regardless of location.

Courtesy Culture Track 2017 and LaPlaca Cohen

Cultural and racial diversity

More Australians now agree that the arts reflect Australia’s cultural diversity (75%, up from 64% in 2013) and that the arts shape and express Australian identity (57%, up from 45% in 2013).

Two in three Australians believe that the arts impact their understanding of other people and cultures (64%) and allow them to connect to others (64%).  

In 2016, almost seven million Australians attended the arts or created art as part of engaging with their own cultural background (35%). Four in five Australians agree that Indigenous arts are an important part of Australia’s culture (80%), with 35% of the population attending First Nations arts in 2016 – double that of 2009.

In contrast, the American report found that 82% of ‘people of colour’ were more likely to stay away from the arts because cultural activities don’t reflect people with a range of backgrounds. The same American report states that over 80% people participate in cultural events to connect with their community. Clearly there is a gap.

The Australia Council has made closing these kinds of gaps a core goal in its strategic activities, as well as broadening arts participation across disability and regional sectors through support and funding. Consequently, the numbers are starting to reflect that committment.

Among respondents with disability, arts attendance increased from 61% to 73% between 2013 and 2016, with increases in particular for dance and theatre. And recent numbers show that seven in ten people attend the arts in regional Australia (69%) and metropolitan Australia (73%).

How technology is impacting cultural participation

What is clearly in sync across these two reports is the increased role played by technology in cultural participation. The arts are more accessible than ever in the digital age.

The Australia Council reports that eight in ten Australians engaged with the arts online in 2016, an increase from 2013 (73%) and 2009 (49%). Music streaming was the largest contributor to both the volume and growth of online arts engagement in Australia.

Courtesy Connecting Australians and Australia Council for the Arts

The American reports digs a little deeper into the motivations behind technology use. It notes: ‘Across all respondents, 81% said digital integration would enhance art and design museums, with 38% of that group saying that is because it “gives me tools to access more detailed information. Parents are 52% more likely to say that hand-held technology enhances a cultural experience.’

At the time of the last Culture Track study in 2014, only 66% of audiences had smartphones. Significant shifts in the social, digital and media landscapes have fundamentally changed the way that audiences are defining and consuming culture. It is not just about finding out about arts events; digital platforms provide a medium for people to share their cultural experiences, and the flow on affect of cultural participation is beyond traditional measure.  

Participation is also a financial contribution

The Australia Council’s report states that in keeping with the economic concerns in the ‘national mood’, there is a downward trend in the proportion of Australians who are donating money, however this trend is not seen in arts giving.

One in four Australians gave their time or money to the arts in 2016 (27%).

The proportion who donate to the arts has remained stable and the proportion who contribute to crowdfunding has increased to almost one in ten in 2016 (9%, up from 7% in 2013).

Private giving and philanthropy in America has always been a step ahead of Australia. Culture Track reports, however, that “social impact” is becoming a more pressing consideration for how people give.

38% of respondents cited that they joined loyalty programs because their money was going to a good cause. The figure perhaps explains why only 18% of cultural audiences donated to cultural organizations, as opposed those who donated to causes dedicated to aiding children (42%), animal welfare (32%), and humanitarian relief (28%).

But all is not on the slide. 41% of Americans said that they plan to donate to culture in 2017. Again, there is a gap in the American figures between the intention and the delivery.

Back-to-back with Australian figures it would debunk the myth that cultural giving in Australia is behind the States (in percentage not dollars).

Hartnick warned that if audiences don’t donate to cultural organisations, those organisations might increasingly turn to wealthy and elite donors for multi-million-dollar contributions, which in turn gives the impression that museums are for the isolated few, which in turn reinforces the idea that cultural organisations have little impact on the broader world.

Social media plays a big role here in telling those other stories.

Courtesy Culture Track 2017 and LaPlaca Cohen

The barriers to cultural participation

Here, the Australia Council’s report found that the main barrier for attending cultural events were cost (for 39% of people surveyed) and difficulty in finding time (34%).

In America the top two drivers were: “It’s not for someone like me” and “I didn’t think of it”. Hartnick said that both responses were thought of as a proxy for the perceived relevance of a given cultural activity.

Courtesy Culture Track 2017 and LaPlaca Cohen

Breaking down those comments by non-participants in culture: “It’s not for me” sat at 23% for both popular music and street fairs / festivals, 28% for non-musical theatre and 46% for art galleries and museums.

The comment “I don’t think of it” was similar: 17% for both popular music and art galleries; 21% for non-musical theatre and 22% for street fairs and cultural festivals.

Interestingly for those who had participated in a cultural event, those numbers flipped pretty quickly. “It’s not for me” dropped to 5% for art galleries and museums, 7% for both popular music and non-musical theatre, and 8% for street fairs and cultural festivals.

Major barriers to perception can be flipped around through engagement, the American study shows; a heartening find.

Increased and varied outreach about cultural programs could bring that figure down without the need to fundamentally restructure programs to make them appeal to a broader audience, said Hartnick.

The upside of these two reports is that cultural participation is on the rise. If the sector continues to strengthen its stories and deliver them outside their silos, then a more embedded understand of, and engagement with, culture will result.

We are perhaps our own worst enemy in bolstering those silos and holding on too tightly to sector-prescribed definitions of culture. Open that up and, simply, the numbers increase.

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina