Participation in Arts and Culture

The Importance of Community Venues

Chris Walker with Kay Sherwood
Review by Beth Feldman Brandt, Stockton Rush Bartol Foundation

2003, 15 pages. The Urban Institute/Wallace Foundation, or

Many grantmakers express a heightened interest in learning more about cultural participation. Research about who participates, what motivates people to participate and the barriers to participation provides valuable data to cultural organizations and funders seeking to broaden, deepen, and diversify audiences for these offerings.

Adding to the pool of research is this monograph that investigates the "where" of cultural participation, specifically the role of community venues in providing a door into the arts. The research was conducted by the Urban Institute as part of its evaluation of the Wallace Foundation's Community Partnerships for Cultural Participation Initiative (CPCP.) The research combined telephone interviews of a random sample of adults in five communities with a mail survey of nonprofit arts and cultural organizations in those same communities. Questions to both groups focused in part on the range of venues for cultural activities.

The findings are striking.

  • Three of the four top places where people attend arts and cultural events are community venues rather than conventional arts venues. These include open air parks/streets, schools/colleges, and places of worship with concert halls/theaters as the only conventional venue scoring in the top four.
  • Almost all people who attend arts and cultural events do so in community venues at least some of the time but a substantial group of participants attend only in community venues. This suggests that arts organizations might reach more participants by presenting outside conventional arts venues.
  • Community venues tend to attract people who are more motivated by social and family interests. Marketing for programs at these venues can be directed specifically toward these motivations.
  • Certain community venues, such as churches, appeal more strongly to African-Americans and Hispanics than they do to whites as places to experience arts and culture. Programs at these venues can reach out to audiences that may not go to conventional venues.
  • People who attend the largest number of events at community venues also participate in a range of civic activities. These people may be a new pool of volunteers and donors to cultural organizations.

The power of community venues has not been lost on arts organizations. More than 80 percent of the visual and performing arts organizations responding have presented events in community venues during the past year. Of those that tried new venues, 85 percent succeeded in increasing participation. More than a third collaborated with non-arts organizations during the past year.

Like all good research, this monograph leads to more questions. Would the research findings in these five communities be confirmed in a broader view of participation? What is the balance of those who provide these neighborhood-based arts experiences between primarily community-based organizations and outreach from more regional arts institutions? How does this research link to other studies that have pointed to the positive effects of community cultural participation on community strength and revitalization? However, it is clear that when studying cultural participation, the "where" is just as important as the "what" and the "why."