Johanna Blakley

Media | Entertainment | Fashion

Tracking “Culture”

culturetrack

I’ve been ODing on data about the arts and culture sector lately, participating in an event at the NEA and another at Disney Hall last week (you can watch the video here). I think that the arts are seriously undervalued in the U.S. and so I’m always looking for data that helps us better understand how and why humans are attracted to certain melodies, visuals and stories, and what they think they’re accomplishing when they settle into a cushy seat to soak up an opera, a ballet or a  concert.

At Disney Hall, a packed house heard top line results from Culture Track, a 13-year tracking survey of arts and culture audiences in the U.S. There’s a huge amount of data here: the 2014 survey (you can download a report) includes responses from over 4,000 people in all 50 states who are “culturally active” – they already attend some array of museums, theaters, music, dance or opera programs.

I’d say the big take-away for me is that arts audiences are not particularly loyal to arts institutions any more – they’re loyal to their own taste. Instead of subscribing to a museum or a theater, they prefer to pick and choose from the options available. Arthur Cohen, who presented the findings, described audience members as “culturally promiscuous:” they’ll have a good night at a theater and then never call for a second date.

I think that new media plays a big role in this sea change. People who use the Internet (and a vast majority of this group does) have become accustomed to seeking out what interests them rather than sitting back and being told what they might like. And so one thing you see in the Culture Track report is that attendance is down, people are going less frequently, but they are visiting a wider array of cultural offerings.

Oddly enough, it seems like arts patrons are moving in the same direction as cable TV subscribers, who are threatening to cut the cord if they can’t get à la carte programming. Twenty-first century audiences are getting very comfortable with the notion that they should be in control and that they should be allowed to customize their own entertainment experiences, exploring the parameters of their own taste uninhibited by gatekeepers.

In terms of conventional cultural activities, Culture Track found that visiting museums was by far the most popular, followed by theater, classical music, dance and opera. They found upticks in the number of respondents who attended most of these activities, except for dramatic theater (opposed to musical theater), classical dance (opposed to modern dance) and opera, which lost almost a quarter of its audience since 2011.

Cohen made an interesting point about the patterns of participation and arts education: his view is that art forms that require knowledgeable audience members are the ones that are losing audience share. He ties this directly to the decline in arts education funding.

I’d be curious to see further research on this point. Generally, I would argue that just about every art form benefits from an informed audience, whether it’s classical ballet or heavy metal music. Even the most disparaged popular art form (think WWE wrestling, for instance) has a complex history of performance and reception, including a “canon” that is no doubt disputed and defended by passionate fans with encyclopedic knowledge of the form.

One thing I really like about this study is that it asks audiences what they would include as a “cultural activity.” Here were some of the results:

  • 79% said that visiting a park counted
  • 64% said that street art – graffiti – counted as well
  • 64% said that food and drink experiences could be cultural activities

Given this latitude, I was a little surprised by what didn’t count. The vast majority of respondents don’t think that playing games, watching commercial TV or films or listening to radio or podcasts count as “cultural activities.” But what if that podcast is about Mozart’s Requiem? And what if the film is based on The Great Gatsby or The Life of Pi? The underlying assumption for many respondents may be that a mediated experience of art simply doesn’t count. Otherwise why on earth would a full third of this sample believe that watching a simulcast of a performance at the Metropolitan Opera was somehow not a cultural experience?

Of course we all have our own definitions of what qualifies as culture. While some people may think that watching an opera on TV is a cultural activity, they might believe that watching a soap opera on the same device is not. Both have melodramatic storylines and music, but one is perceived as a product of popular culture while the other is not (though opera used to be popular). Perhaps more salient is the fact that opera was originally intended to be experienced live (there was no other option at the time), while the soap opera was concocted specifically for radio and TV. Clearly, medium still matters to many of us as we contemplate what counts as “culture.”

Because of my research on social media, I was especially interested to see what this survey revealed about trends in this arena. Here are just a few tantalizing tidbits:

  • Social media is the number one way that Millennials  find out about cultural events.
  • Almost 70% of mobile phone visitors are taking pictures at cultural events (I knew I wasn’t alone.)
  • Almost 40% of mobile phone owners say they want behind-the-scenes info about the performance they’re attending.
  • 79% use YouTube to watch content from performing arts venues.

As arts institutions struggle to adapt to this new environment, arts audiences are spoiled with an overwhelming array of options. A decent Internet connection is all they need in order to sample arts and culture performances that used to require expensive travel or great patience, as they waited for something to show up on vinyl or on local radio, or, in the TV era, on PBS or on VHS or DVD.

I’m curious to see how our attitudes toward culture shift as we grow more accustomed to our digital reality, and as the technology becomes more adept at simulating reality. Oculus Rift for ballet? I, for one, can’t wait.

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