Arts Audiences are Increasingly Restless and Fickle, Study Finds

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Arts organizations face increasingly fickle, choosy audiences, who are far less loyal and increasingly motivated by the social aspects of attending events, according to a new study published Monday by LaPlaca Cohen, an arts marketing and strategy firm.

The ebbing of audience loyalty can be seen in a steep drop in the number of people buying performing arts subscriptions, from 23 percent of the overall audience in 2011 – the last time LaPlaca Cohen conducted the study – to 10 percent in 2014. Only 10 percent of visual arts audiences buy memberships, down from 26 percent in 2011.

The Culture Track 2014 study of audience behavior, which surveyed 4,026 American adults, paints a picture of dabbling arts consumers, cynical but curious. And "culture" doesn’t necessarily mean a night at the opera or museum: 80 percent of respondents define a visit to a public park as a cultural experience; 64 percent find culture in going to a bar or a restaurant.

The study found that the percentage of Americans who visit museums and attend performances has risen somewhat since 2011, with particular increases for classical music, visual arts, jazz and musical theater. Opera, dramatic theater and classical dance suffered declines.

But frequency of participation is down. Only 15 percent of respondents attended events three times or more in a month, down from 22 percent in the 2011 study. High cost and unappealing subject matter are the two principal reasons for choosing not to attend a cultural activity.  

Other highlights:

  • Young people say they attend cultural events to avoid stress. Among Millennials, 73 percent said they look to the arts for relaxation.
  • People value cultural activities as opportunities to spend time with their friends and family, a benefit they rank second only to entertainment or enjoyment value. The younger the audience, the less likely it is that they'll go to an event by themselves.
  • The study also suggests that arts organizations should better leverage people’s obsession with their smartphones by providing opportunities to take and share photos.

This is the sixth Culture Track study LaPlaca Cohen has conducted since 2001. It follows, and largely builds on, similar audience studies conducted last year by the National Endowment for the Arts and Americans for the Arts.

Arthur Cohen, the founder and CEO of LaPlaca Cohen, said at a launch event at the Times Center that arts consumers are above all “promiscuous” and “self-focused,” and organizations must work hard to listen to their audiences' desires.

In a panel discussion following Cohen’s presentation, the director Julie Tamor called the findings "surprising" and "alarming." She said that she appreciates the growing desire among audiences for interactive, social experiences. But at the same time, she cautioned that too much reliance on market research could have a homogenizing effect on creativity, as arts organizations are compelled to follow, rather than lead, their patrons. “That frightens me as an artist."

Weigh in: How would you describe your loyalty to arts organizations? Are you "culturally promiscuous?"