What's the Surprise Culprit Behind This Demographic's Lack of Arts Engagement?

More philanthropic dollars may be flowing to the arts, but the rising tide hasn't lifted all boats. New research suggests that people with lower incomes and less education enjoy the arts at a far lower rate than more affluent individuals. This finding may not be particularly revelatory, yet a closer look at the findings nonetheless upends key elements of conventional wisdom.

Before we take a deeper dive, let's look at the study itself, titled "Why Don't They Come?" courtesy of Createquity. The report, as you can imagine, examines the reasons that individuals with lower incomes and less education (low-SES) tend to avoid arts events. It's a tremendously robust piece of work, and we encourage you to check out the whole thing.

For the sake of brevity, however, we'll briefly look at some of the study's most astute findings and consider how they pertain to conventional wisdom. Needless to say, arts organizations will want to take these insights to heart in their efforts to reach this crucial demographic.

First is the notion that less affluent or educated individuals don't attend "elitist" art or musical events. This perception is, in fact, true. Yet this trend is consistent across all types of arts events. That is, this demographic participates in "less elitist" events—movies, dancing, sporting events—at a lower rate compared to more affluent or educated counterparts as well.


Logic suggests this demographic has less time compared with their more affluent or educated counterparts. Not true. Research suggests these individuals actually have more time at their disposal. So what about cost? Clearly, financial considerations pose a barrier to entry, right? Indeed they do. The study claims that cost limits the ability of low-income individuals to attend all kinds of events, whether an art opening or an NFL game. Cost is clearly a factor, but not the only one.

So, what's the main culprit? The Internet? Geographic location? Nope. It's television.

Createquity cites supporting research noting that "individuals with less than a high school diploma spent 3.77 hours per weekday watching TV in 2013, almost double the TV hours consumed by those with a bachelor’s degree and higher." These less-educated individuals spent twice as much time consuming television than all other leisure activities combined. What's more, the study found that "low-SES adults who don’t attend arts events watch even more TV than low-SES adults who do."

Which brings us to the $64,000 question. How can arts organizations—or any other organization, for that matter—compete with television? Well, organizations can pay for ads during, say, the Fox hit Empire, whose March debut reeled in 17 million viewers—and in the process blow through the next 20 years' operating budget.

To answer that question on a more practical level, one must first understand why this demographic chooses to spend their free time in front of the television. Needless to say, we can all posit our own theories. For example, Createquity suggests one possibility, a "'learned' and socially reinforced preference that has as much to do with identity as anything specific to the experience itself." That's something most arts organizations can't control.

Then there's the theory of self-perception and, yes, "elitism." The study proposes that, perhaps, individuals in this demographic simply don't consider themselves the "kind of person" to attend an art opening or a musical performance. The programming simply doesn't speak to them. If so, art organizations can be forgiven for feeling frustrated—yet this perception presents an opportunity. Successful, community-oriented outreach and programming that blurs the line between a classic "art experience" (e.g. going to an opera) and social or civic activities (e.g. workforce development, job training, and ongoing education) can bridge this gap of perception.

It can be an arduous, incremental process, but we see it played out day after day here at IP, whether its the Knight Foundation building an arts and culinary center to provide jobs for Gary, Indiana residents, the James Irvine Foundation helping musuems capitalize on the growing popularity of storytelling to engage new audiences, or the Rockefeller Foundation allocating $1.5 million to subsidize tickets to the smash hip-hop infused production Hamilton for low-income students.

In short, perhaps one of the reasons this demographic passes on "art events" is because the term itself—connoting passivity, a singularly fleeting experience, and yes, elitism—is anachronistic.

Perhaps some reinvention is in order.