Singing Together

Arts Participation

America's Performing Art
A Study of Choruses, Choral Singers, and Their Impact

Chorus America
2003. Funded by the James Irvine Foundation, the Kiplinger Foundation, the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation, and the Helen F. Whitaker Fund

Reggae to Rachmaninoff
How and Why People Participate in Arts and Culture

Chris Walker and Stephanie Scott-Melnyk, with Kay Sherwood. 2003. The Urban Institute (Washington, D.C.), Funded by the Wallace-Reader's Digest Funds

Robert Putnam's popular book Bowling Alone is generating conversations in many fields, including arts philanthropy. Putnam and his colleagues at the Saguaro Seminar trace a contemporary decline in individuals' involvement in civic and other organizations, a loosening of the social networks and bonds that both serve the common good and enable individuals to be more resilient and effective. While Putnam has his critics — including some who believe he does not adequately acknowledge current economic pressures on families and individuals, and others who believe he has not looked closely enough at new forms of association and types of organizations — his theory resonates for many.

Among other avenues for fostering civic engagement, or “social capital,” Putnam writes about the arts as being particularly effective at both creating bonds among people with shared interests and at “bridging” — fostering connections among people who are dissimilar. Unlike community meetings or political town halls, which he calls “civic broccoli,” arts and cultural programs provide a “powerful way to transcend cultural and demographic boundaries” often without participants realizing that they are being pulled into “fostering the common good.”

“Better Together,” a Saguaro Seminar report on civic engagement, claims that “communities that sing together (literally and metaphorically) better achieve the governments they desire.” Following this thread of thought, a recent study uses the lens of civic engagement and social capital to focus a groundbreaking study of choruses and choral singers in the United States.

America's Performing Art, produced by Chorus America, documents the level of participation in choral singing in the United States, surveys attitudes and motivations of choral singers, and compares that data with specific behaviors of the general public. The study found that far more people participate in choral music than any other performing art. Approximately 250,000 choruses were found in the United States — some 200,000 of which were church choirs. Most singers began participating when young, with 69 percent of them beginning in elementary school. Many of them — one-third of those polled — sing in more than one chorus.

Chorus members are very active in their communities, builders of social capital. Nearly 76 percent of them reported performing other volunteer activities (as compared to Independent Sector's 2001 assessment that 44 percent of adults in the United States volunteered with organizations). Choral singers are well informed and politically aware: 71 percent of them read a newspaper daily (as compared to 32 percent of the general public) and 93 percent of choristers vote regularly in national and local elections. It's no surprise that with 80 percent of the estimated choruses identified in the research being church choirs, 76 percent of the choristers surveyed were church members.

What is it about performing in a chorus that fosters social bonds and active involvement in civic affairs? Singers surveyed spoke of learning to take direction, to be disciplined, and to work in a team. At the same time they felt invited to express their creativity and were inspired by the music. Seventy-six percent of those surveyed said they formed new friendships with members of their choruses and many spoke of the opportunities that singing gave them to mix with people they ordinarily would not meet. Based on an extensive poll of chorus members, America's Performing Art shows that singing together, as Putnam's research also posits, increases chorus members' social networks and allows them to pursue the desire to enrich their communities and audiences.

Using the similar lens of “community building,” the first in a new series of publications about building arts participation, The Urban Institute's Reggae to Rachmaninoff asks how and why people participate in arts and culture. The report is based on findings drawn from a survey of 2,406 people living in five communities across the United States. Researchers asked how people participated in arts and culture (e.g., as audience members, as donors of time and effort, or pursuing personal expression), their motivations for participating, where they participated, and about their backgrounds.

A distinctive aspect of this research project is that rather than using the artistic discipline categories of the NEA's Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA), researchers invited those surveyed to identify “any live music, theater and dance events” or “any visual arts seen during the previous year.” Therefore, respondents defined their arts participation much more broadly than those responding to the SPPA surveys and, not surprisingly, the report uncovers much higher rates of participation than the NEA data. Indeed, “a majority of community residents participate in some form of arts and cultural activities — a sizeable majority in four out of the five communities surveyed.”

The report's insights about motivations for becoming involved in the arts are particularly compelling. For most people, social and family connections were critical elements: Fifty-nine percent of those responding said that the reason they participated was “to get together with friends or family” and the second most frequently cited reason (49 percent) was “to support friends or family.” In addition to the importance of these connections to other people, many of those surveyed participated in the arts “to support an organization or event important to the community.” As was true for the chorus members surveyed by Chorus America, church involvement was high among participants and worship services were a frequently-cited venue for arts participation.

In assessing where people engage in arts activities, open air spaces were cited most frequently (69 percent of respondents). Schools and colleges were the second most frequently cited venue (56 percent of respondents). Concert halls or theaters were cited as venues for participation by 52 percent of respondents, and places of worship identified by 49 percent of respondents.

Among other ideas based on this research, the authors of Reggae to Rachmaninoff recommend that those who want to increase public engagement in arts and culture should consider such strategies as:

• Taking performing arts programs to places where people are (such as schools, community centers, open air spaces)
• Creating marketing strategies that highlight and provide incentives for bringing family members and friends to arts and cultural events
• Designing events so that they provide opportunities for socializing
• Creating connections between arts and cultural programs and events and other non-arts causes and organizations
• Establishing partnerships between arts and cultural organizations and other non-profit and voluntary organizations

This report's authors propose that community organizers, funders and others who are trying to strengthen communities should look at the distinctive nature of the connections people form through arts participation. Like Putnam's assertion that the arts build connections among people without forcing “civic broccoli” on them, the authors of Reggae to Rachmaninoff conclude that arts and cultural events attract people in ways that other kinds of community activities do not: “cultural participation helps people articulate important aspects of themselves and their communities, thus encouraging attitudes, values and social ties that underpin a well-functioning society.”

For arts grantmakers this increasingly persistent discussion about the arts and social capital addresses a value and benefit of art to society that is distinct from aesthetic value, freedom of expression, forging a national identity, and other assertions. It looks anew at our field's concern about the future vitality of the arts sector in an increasingly fractured and complex society. Finally, it points to the emergence of a potentially exciting avenue for cross-sectoral work with colleagues in community organizing, civic participation, and related fields.

Frances Phillips, Walter and Elise Haas Fund