When going gets tough: Barriers and motivations affecting arts attendance

Margaret E. Blume-Kohout*, Sara R. Leonard, Jennifer L. Novak-Leonard

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

2 Scopus citations


Audience development profits from asking the same basic questions that guide a journalistic or police investigation. And yet, while arts marketing and outreach efforts have long engaged with all "5 Ws," national surveys have tended to focus on two, maybe three. Who attends the arts is an obvious starting-point. For three decades, the NEA's Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA) has sketched the demographic and socio-economic profile of U.S. art-goers. The what is a trickier prospect. In 2012, the survey asked about a broader range of arts activity than in any past year, but it's impossible to know which artists or organizations were responsible for the content enjoyed (or disliked) by the self-reporting attendee. Despite this limitation, we have respectable trend data for adults' attendance at several types of events, by art form or genre. Where one goes to experience these live arts activities is less documented. But even here the SPPA has made strides in collecting valuable information-about both formal and informal venues of attendance. Knowledge about when the attendance occurred is far more restricted-although, based on the SPPA design, it would need to have been in the past 12 months or (starting in 2012) an event recalled from childhood. This leaves us with why and its distant cousin how. When, in the past few cycles of the SPPA, the data showed significant declines in attendance for certain art forms, it was natural to seek culprits. Did the drop-off in attendance suggest widespread apathy for those art forms? To what can we attribute reasons for not going-and how many deciding factors lay beyond the control of the survey respondent? As for the how: to ask whether the event was free of charge, and who if anyone accompanied the art-goer, would offer a kind of circumstantial evidence-or, so the rationale went- thus pointing to motives or barriers that otherwise would stay hidden. The 2012 General Social Survey (GSS) gives arts researchers a way in. The SPPA's more inflexible design does not permit multiple questions about attitudes or opinions (one exception being a series of questions about adults' music-listening preferences). The 2012 GSS, however, incorporated a NEA module about perceived motivations and barriers in live arts attendance. The multiple-choice items constructed for these variables benefited from a scan of literature about arts participation, from research necessarily not derived from the SPPA, as well as from the informal feedback of survey methodologists and social science researchers. Although arts-related questions have surfaced repeatedly throughout the GSS' history, there is no direct precedent for the 2012 items. No precedent, that is, among prior GSS questions about the arts. (A National Science Foundation module testing the public's appreciation for science offered a kind of analogue.) This report takes the extraordinary blend of demographic, socio-economic, and attitudinal variables that compose the GSS, and uses it as a backdrop for discussing the NEA module findings. The authors hone in on the 13% (roughly 30 million Americans) who they describe as audiences in waiting-people who would have gone to a specific event in the last year if not for a barrier they identified. What might sway these non-goers? The answers are presented here and visualized in Arts Data Profile #4, on the NEA's website. W.H. Auden wrote, "To ask the hard question is simple." What matters finally is the practical use of this information, concerning not only who goes or who doesn't, and to what event or activity, but why they care and how they view their choices. This report begins a long process of collective learning about such inestimable factors.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationArts Attendance in the Nation
Subtitle of host publicationBarriers, Motivations, and Survey of Arts Participation
PublisherNova Science Publishers, Inc.
Number of pages82
ISBN (Electronic)9781634823890
ISBN (Print)9781634820066
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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