Taking Note: Accounting for Taste in Arts Participation Habits

Endowment for the Arts's picture
By Sunil Iyengar, NEA Director of Research & Analysis

This year, the NEA will commission a series of monographs about arts participation, drawing from two or more nationally representative data sources. It's all part of the agency's five-year research agenda, now in Year Two. Among topics to be examined by those reports is the relationship of tastes and preferences to one's arts-participation patterns.

Upon first glance, the connection is self-evident. After all, what factors other than personal likes or dislikes would guide a decision to attend a dance or theater performance, to visit a particular gallery, to download a music-recording app, or to spend an afternoon curled up with a novel?

Plenty of other factors, it turns out. Decades of research on arts participation, both here and abroad, have attested to socioeconomic status—notably education and income—as powerful predictors of arts participation rates among adults. Other studies have pointed up generational or age-related trends (although, as seen in this NEA monograph, authored by University of Pennsylvania's Mark Stern some years ago, age probably takes a backseat to other variables).

More recently, the NEA has investigated self-reported motivations and barriers for arts attendance, singling out responses such as cost, lack of time, difficulty of getting to the location, and other widely perceived hurdles, all of which are stronger or weaker for different demographic subgroups, or for different types of arts event (e.g., visual versus performing arts).

Personal taste or preference is yet another variable shaping arts participation habits. Preferences can be gauged not exclusively from survey checklists asking respondents to rate different art forms or genres, but also from self-reports about the types of arts activity a person did or refrained from doing over a one-year period.

For example, one could look at the tendencies of certain adults to engage with Latin or salsa music—across all platforms or vehicles for participation—and relate those behaviors to other types of art-going, art-making, art-sharing, or art-learning. What other art forms or genres does this subgroup engage with? How often, compared with Latin/salsa music itself? Does Latin/salsa music participation predict the likelihood of these adults engaging with the other art forms or genres? Why or why not?

Beyond pursuing these and similar research questions, such an analysis would go a long way toward helping arts managers and cultural policymakers understand whether the so-called omnivore theory of arts participation—describing a profile of cultural consumer whose artistic preferences range high and low and across the board—applies to today's U.S. public, given the diverse opportunities and media for participation that now exists.

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Just in time for this exploration, then, comes a new research article out of Spain. Authored by Juan Prieto Rodriguez, et al., University of Oviedo, it is titled “Cultural consumption: a question of taste or of price?” Rodriguez and colleagues analyze 2015 data from the Spanish government’s Survey on Living Conditions in Spain. The survey allows the researchers to bracket respondents who did not attend arts events into two categories: “absolute” non-attendees or “recoverable” non-attendees. An absolute non-attendee, by the researchers’ methodology, is someone who, among other characteristics, has reported a lack of interest as a reason for not having gone to an arts event in the past year. This group, the researchers argue, “is impermeable to cultural policy.”

Recoverable non-attendees, meanwhile, have not attended an arts event in the past year, but have characteristics “similar to those of other people who have attended and, in consequence, the statistical models consider that they could have participated.” In the case of a couple with small children, for example, “as the children grow, the barrier will gradually be diluted,” the researchers claim. Further, “the provision of services such as nurseries, workshops for children, or simply a readjustment of timetables could be effective in incentivizing the participation of the couple.”

Congruent with NEA research, the Spanish study finds that education is perhaps the strongest predictor of arts attendance. The study examined survey data for three types of activity: movie-going; attendance at live performing arts events; and visits to places of cultural interest. 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.

Given this factor, what about self-reported interest in arts attendance? The researchers conclude that as education (and, as a closely related variable, income) grows, lack of interest wanes as a barrier to arts attendance. This finding leads the team to conduct probability testing to determine the relationship between education/income and the different categories of non-attendee.

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.

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.

Positive changes in education and income also affect the probability of movie-going—reducing the probability of being an absolute non-attendee, but also (unlike the case for cultural-place visits or live performing arts visits) reducing the probability of being a non-recoverable attendee. For movie-going, age emerges as an important variable. Spaniards over 65 have a ten times’ greater probability of being absolute non-attendees than do their 30-and-below counterparts.

From this study we conclude that personal interest (taste, if you like) is closely linked to education for all three types of arts-going. For the performing arts and places of cultural interest, it remains the primary barrier to attendance. Only for movie-going does lack of interest not seem to be a significant barrier; income and age seem more relevant.

“If the aim is to deal with the problem represented by lack of interest,” the authors assert, “cultural policy should be integrated into educational policy in order to improve people’s taste for the arts.” They advocate for “early and compulsory education to develop artistic interest and tastes among the population.”

This emphasis on policy-relevant research about the arts is on display at the website where the full paper can be found. A project of Victoria Ateca Amestoy, Universidad del Pais Vasco (lead editor of the 2017 book Enhancing Participation in the Arts in the EU: Challenges and Methods) with Anna Villarroya, University of Barcelona, this cultural research webpage is hosted by “la Caixa” Foundation. If you’ve stuck with me throughout this read, then I recommend you take a look!

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