New Fundamentals and Practices to Increase Cultural Participation and Develop Arts Audiences

Jerry Yoshitomi

Attending arts events is exhilarating, inspiring, and full of meaning. For years I've wished more people could have that experience. Why don't more people enjoy and appreciate the work that means so much to me? It's not just those who have different values, but people who are similar, with the same educational and demographic attributes — even members of my own family. If I can't convince them to become active participants, who can I convince?

Speaking with administrators, artists, and grantmakers, I found others who were worrying about and developing programs to address the same concerns, sometimes with success but often without. Diversification strategies, outreach programs, community advisory committees — all were tactics that had meritorious goals but didn't seem to be working. We didn't have an encompassing framework to help us utilize specific strategies well or to reach specific objectives. We had a passion for the art we produced and presented, and we had a desire to reach more people with the art. What we lacked was an understanding of how to do it.

A conceptual framework is now being developed that provides a new understanding and foundation for increasing participation in arts and cultural activities. This framework is based on recent research, writings on past practice1, pilot projects, and the application of theory from related fields. This work is supported by several foundations, including the Walter and Elise Haas Fund, the Heinz Endowments, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the James Irvine Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and the Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund. The result is a set of new fundamentals and practices that can increase the number of participants and audiences, deepen the participation of current participants, and reach the next generation of adult participants.

These practices are not intended to displace current systems of support for artists, creativity, and excellence, or to supplant methods of financial analysis and assessment crucial to the sustainability of the arts in the U.S. The new fundamentals instead suggest that we develop “dual-platform operating systems,” to borrow a phrase from the computer world. The two systems would support artistic creativity and excellence on the one hand and the engagement of an increasing number of participants on the other. My remarks discuss the “participation operating system.”

A Participation Framework

Through major support from the Wallace Readers' Digest Fund, the RAND Corporation is developing “A Behavioral Model of the Participation Decision.” While not yet fully completed, pre-release information indicates that this tool will provide an understanding of the inclinations and motivations of individuals as they make decisions about attending and participating in arts activities.2 The model does not provide new information, but rather provides a new method and vocabulary for organizing information in a consistent and logical framework. It also identifies aspects of participation that can be the focus of specific strategies to increase and deepen participation.

In the RAND model, individuals are divided into three groups according to their predisposition toward participating in the arts: those currently participating, those inclined to participate, and those disinclined to participate. Taking them in reverse order:

The disinclined

Each individual has a perception of what it means to participate in arts activities. The perception might be based on a person's socio-demographics, personality, past experiences, or social/cultural identity. This perception shapes their predisposition (inclination/disinclination) to participate in the arts. Negative perceptions, such as perceiving themself to be uncomfortable or unfamiliar with the work or to be unlike others in attendance, often result in a disinclination to participate. To increase that individual's inclination to participate, their perception of participation must be changed.

The inclined

If a person is inclined to participate, practical matters affect the likelihood of participation. Individuals with higher inclinations to attend might overcome higher practical barriers (location, cost, date, time). Those with lower predispositions might attend at lower thresholds (lower ticket prices, event in the neighborhood). Practical matters include how they receive information about the event, whether they have the proper attire (also a matter of perception), ease of access to parking and transportation, access to good tickets, availability of food, etc. For those inclined to participate, lowering practical barriers (thresholds) can increase participation. If one is disinclined, lowering practical barriers will have little impact.

Current participants

The deeper the positive experience, the higher the inclination to increase future participation (attendance, contributions, volunteerism, etc.) and also to encourage others to attend. The “experience” is not limited to the art. It is the aggregate result of artistic, practical, and environmental elements, as well as of the interaction of the entire experience with the participant's identity, sense of self, personality, social groups, etc.

RAND's conceptual structure for understanding people's predisposition toward arts participation provides reference points for strategies to increase and deepen that participation.

Increasing Participation and Developing Audiences with New Fundamentals

The conceptual framework developed by RAND can be put to use in determining specific strategies to increase attendance at arts events and to deepen the experience of those already attending. While the examples below primarily describe methods to increase the participation of audiences, the RAND framework and corollary practices apply as well to other aspects of participation — doing, making, contributing.

The arts elicit metaphors that reflect an individual's personal sense of meaning and the value the arts provide to that personal meaning. Work by The Heinz Endowments3 with the Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique (ZMET) describe the deeper meanings, satisfactions, and “intrinsic rewards” the arts provide to the lives of arts participants. From in-depth interviews, ZMET found that the arts provide deep metaphorical experiences:

  • resource (are a resource, require financial or intellectual resources)
  • connection (to ourselves, to past, future, the familiar, the foreign)
  • orientation (spatial orientation, disorientation, up/down)
  • transformation (to another time, another feeling about oneself)
  • balance (equilibrium, mental well being).

While we might have known intuitively that the arts have these meanings, the research codifies and explains the impact of the arts in metaphorical terms. The metaphors, then, can be used to address the “challenges” — perceptual (marketing), practical, and experiential — that we face in increasing or deepening arts participation within each of the three “groups” in the RAND participation model. Pittsburgh organizations incorporated the findings about metaphors into a marketing campaign, and will turn next to understanding how metaphors might be used to deepen the experience of the arts events themselves.

Focus groups in California and Pennsylvania4 suggest that deconstructing myths about the arts will be an important first step in reshaping perceptions of the arts and arts experiences. Can we deconstruct the myth that the arts are the exclusive province of a select elite? that current subscribers have all the best tickets and perquisites, new buyers need not apply? that convenient parking is not available? that the work presented represents someone else's stories and cultures, not my own?

The interaction of an art experience with the attendee's identity, sense of self, personality, etc. is a vital element related to both perception and experience. Aligning what has personal meaning for an individual with the content of a performance/exhibition or to relationships an individual has with fellow attendees can significantly increase attendance and deepen the experience.5 Thorn and McDaniel in Learning Audiences6 say, “Relating content and meaning is strategic.” Connecting with an audience requires “finding the right opportunities and points of entry into people's lives, experiences, needs, and interests.” This was dramatically demonstrated when the Walker Arts Center7 changed its central focus from that of “creative expression,” to “active engagement...inquiry, conversation, and discovery” for their visitors, and when the Cleveland Museum of Art8 provided customer service training for all employees (including curators, conservators, and directors) to enhance the “human experience” for the museum visitor.9

One point of entry to personal meaning is through social groups in a community, whether formally or informally organized.10 Formal partnerships are at the center of the Arts Partners Program of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters.11 The content of many of its projects reflect the meanings, experiences, and histories of the communities involved through processes that include community-building theater12 or commissioning youths to develop photographic documentaries of their own neighborhoods.13 A reading of Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point14 suggests we might also recognize the role played by the “meaning mavens” in a community, as acquaintances cluster, not in organized social groupings, but around informally-designated experts to make their choices about what to attend.

Thorn and McDaniel suggest that engaging adult audiences requires applying the techniques of adult learning and adopting a “learning consciousness.” We need, they say, to consider changing “the quality and nature of the relationships between arts providers and adults.” One key aspect of adult learning is reaching a state of “flow.” This optimal experience point, described by Czikszentmihalyi, occurs when the challenge of an experience is matched by the skills of the participant — when, for example, seeing a performance is matched by an audience member's knowledge of the form, past performances, educational materials, etc.15)

Current audience development strategies address the practical and logistical concerns of inclined individuals and encompass traditional marketing practices such as subscription series, ads in print media, selecting lists for direct mail, and so on. In light of the “new fundamentals,” arts organizations can now reassess these practical strategies and consider whether “new” practical methods might be developed to reach younger audiences, different ethnic groups, and others. Several studies have been completed recently that could inform the development of these new strategies.16,17

On the other hand, we have not effectively linked current practical strategies to perceptual and experiential ones. For example, the perception, reality, and experience of parking availability varies with the individual, as does the perception, reality, and experience of needing to purchase new clothing to attend an event. Family ticket plans can lower cost barriers, as well as increase the perception that multi-generational audiences are welcome.

Will they return? The greatest single determinant of a person returning for a second time is the depth of experience they had when attending the first time. Attendance offers an opportunity to connect with something that has personal meaning, that resonates with one's own identity, that reinforces (if only unconsciously) one of metaphors identified in ZMET's research, that overcomes a practical barrier to attending, or that provides a learning experience. Would you go back? Did it have meaning for you?

In The Experience Economy Pine and Gilmore18 describe a hierarchy of behavior that has emerged as consumers have shifted their acquisitions from raw materials to commodities (assembled products), then to services, and now to a variety of “experiences” — shopping, eating, and even driving automobiles. Customers now seek immersive experiences in their lives, experiences that can lead to personal “transformation.” Arts organizations have the capacity to present “authentic experiences” if we understand the methods through which “experiences” can be created. Pine and Gilmore advocate engaging the five senses of sight, touch, smell, sound, and taste, creating and reinforcing real and metaphorical symbols and activities that take participants from their current reality to a “transformative experience.” Furthermore, through the practice of “mass customization” Pine and Gilmore believe that an arts organization can cost-effectively provide each participant with an experience of individual meaning.

Organizational Values and Mission
These “new fundamentals” provide an understanding and a framework that can be useful in encouraging new audiences and increasing engagement and support by current audiences. Before determining which strategy to pursue, however, an organization must clearly articulate its mission, core values, and purposes, not only in terms of the “participation operating system,” but in all aspects of its operation.19 Moskin and Jackson, with support from the Packard Foundation, recently completed a study of successful arts organizations.20 The research is leading to an articulation of new methods of assessment by which an organization can determine its mission and core values as it addresses the needs of its constituency.

Gerald D. (Jerry) Yoshitomi is an independent cultural facilitator
working primarily on increasing cultural participation.

A short article can only be a summary of new fundamentals and practices, which often are based on complex research. The following publications, marked as footnotes in the text, are recommended reading in cultural participation.

  1. Phillips, Frances, “Readings in Cultural Participation,” Grantmakers in the Arts Newsletter 10, no. 2, autumn 1999.
  2. McCarthy, Kevin and Jinnett, Kim; “Examining Why People Participate in the Arts,” RAND Corporation (to be released summer 2000).
  3. Zaltman, Gerald, et. al., “Understanding Thoughts and Feelings about the Arts,” An application of the Zaltman metaphor elicitation technique for The Heinz Endowments, Mind of the Market Laboratory, Harvard Business School, August 1998.
  4. Focus groups in California: report to the Irvine, Hewlett, and Haas foundations by ArtsMarket, spring 2000; and focus groups in Pennsylvania: report to the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, summer 1999.
  5. Walker, Chris, et. al., Reggae to Rachmaninoff: How and Why People Participate in Arts and Culture, The Urban Institute (to be released summer 2000).
  6. Thorn, George and McDaniel, Nello, Learning Audiences, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, 1997.
  7. Halbreich, Kathy, Walker Arts Center, conversation with the author, spring 2000.
  8. Sellers, Kate, Cleveland Museum of Art, conversation with the author, spring 2000.
  9. Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund, Service to People: Challenges and Rewards, How Museums can become more visitor-centered, April 2000.
  10. Walker, Chris, et. al., Reggae to Rachmaninoff.
  11. Association of Performing Arts Presenters, “Arts Partners Program 1989-1999,” Inside Arts 11, no. 4, July/August 1999.
  12. Cocke, Dudley, et. al., From the Ground Up: Grassroots Theatre in Historical and Contemporary Perspective, Community Based Arts Project, Cornell University, 1993.
  13. Marzio, Peter, Houston Museum of Find Arts, conversation with the author, spring 2000.
  14. Gladwell, Malcom, The Tipping Point, Little Brown, 2000.
  15. Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Harper & Row, 1990.
  16. Smith, J. Walker and Clurman, Ann, Rocking the Ages: The Yankelovich Report on Generational Marketing, Harper Business, 1997.
  17. Obalil, Deborah, “Barriers and Motivations to Increased Arts Usage among Medium and Light Users,” Chicago: Arts Marketing Center, 1999.
  18. Pine, B. Joseph and Gilmore, James H., The Experience Economy, Harvard Business School Press, 1999.
  19. Collings, James C. and Porras, Jerry I., Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. Harper Business, 1994.
  20. Moskin, Bill and Jackson, Jill, From Stabilization to Flexibility, Americans for the Arts Monographs 3, no. 2, June 1999.