Hill Strategies Research on Arts Attendance and Participation (Motivation and Barriers)


What motivates people to attend an arts activity? What prevents others from attending? The latest issue of Hill Strategies' Arts Research Monitor highlights four American reports that examine motivations for and barriers to arts attendance.

Click the link within each summary below to access the full report.

When Going Gets Tough: Barriers and Motivations Affecting Arts Attendance

National Endowment for the Arts, Research Report #59, January 2015


Based on the 2012 U.S. General Social Survey, this report provides a detailed examination of the motivations of arts attendees (the 54% of Americans who attended at least one exhibition or performance during the previous year) and the barriers facing “interested non-attendees” (the 13% who did not attend a visual or performing arts event during the previous year but wanted to go to at least one exhibition or live performance).

Overall, 8% of respondents visited an arts exhibition but not a performance, 20% attended a performance but not an exhibition, and 25% did both. Examined differently, this means that 76% of exhibition attendees also went to a performance during the year, while 56% of performance attendees also went to an exhibition.

The survey results show substantial differences in the motivations for attending visual arts exhibitions compared with live performances. The top motivations for exhibition attendance were to gain knowledge or learn something new (88% of exhibition attendees), to experience high-quality art (73%), and to see an exhibition at a specific location (72%). In the performing arts, the top motivations were to socialize with family or friends (76% of performance attendees), to see a specific artist or performer (65%), and to see a performance at a specific location (62%).

Motivations for attendance vary for individuals in different life stages. “Parents with young children under age six often cited socializing with family or friends, learning new things, and celebrating cultural heritage”. On the other hand, “empty-nesters and retirees typically are motivated by wanting to experience high-quality art, visiting the event’s location or venue, supporting community, and celebrating cultural heritage”. In addition, people in rural areas were more likely than urban residents “to cite supporting community as a major motivation for attendance”.

The report also finds that “attending the arts presents individuals with opportunities both to define their own sense of identity, and to socialize and deepen bonds with others in their families and in their broader communities – whether they be communities of geography, communities of shared cultural heritage, or communities of common interests”.

While those in higher education and income groups were more likely to attend arts events, those with lower education and income were more likely to be interested non-attendees.

Among interested non-attendees, the barriers to attendance were fairly consistent between exhibitions and performances. The most commonly noted barrier was a lack of time, cited by 55% those who wished to visit an exhibition and 44% of those who wanted to attend a performance. For non-attendees interested in exhibitions, the next most commonly cited barriers were the difficulty in getting to an exhibition venue (43%) and cost (27%). The order of these barriers were reversed for non-attendees interested in performances, with 44% citing cost and 33% indicating the difficulty of getting to a venue. As noted in the report, “parents with young children overwhelmingly cited lack of time” as the most common barrier to attendance.

Personal values and attitudes differ somewhat between attendees and non-attendees. “Arts attendees more strongly value listening to others’ opinions and diverse perspectives, and being creative and doing things in original ways, compared with non-attendees.” Attendees were also more likely than non-attendees to indicate “that devotion and loyalty to others is important”.

The report concludes that “organizations providing opportunities for attendees to socialize, meet new people, and experience new art forms, in a flexible format that combines the arts with other activities these individuals enjoy, may be better able to attract and retain audience members”.

The Changing Landscape of Arts ParticipationA Synthesis of Literature and Expert Interviews

NORC and the Cultural Policy Center at University of Chicago, with support from The James Irvine Foundation, July 2014

Authors: Jennifer Novak-Leonard, Patience Baach, Alexandria Schultz, Betty Farrell, Will Anderson, and Nick Rabkin


This literature review, originally created as part of a California arts participation study, explores how people participate in the arts, who participates, where participation happens, as well as motivations and barriers to participation.

The report promotes a broad understanding of cultural participation, one that includes folk and traditional arts as well as digital technologies alongside “benchmark” activities such as visual art exhibitions and live performances. Key to understanding broad arts participation is the recognition that “networks and social circles are influential in terms of self-identification, activities undertaken, and taste development”.

A broad understanding of cultural participation also recognizes that many arts activities take place in settings that are not predominantly “arts” venues, including places of worship, schools, outdoor venues, individual homes, restaurants, bars, and coffee shops.

The authors outline ten types of motivations for arts participation:

  • “To learn, discover and broaden one’s horizons
  • To appreciate aesthetics / beauty
  • To be emotionally moved
  • To express one’s self
  • To develop or affirm a sense of belonging
  • To meet people different from me
  • To socialize
  • To learn or continue cultural traditions
  • To support one’s local community (geographically defined)
  • To convey or support a message or movement”

In terms of barriers to arts participation, the report cites a study of barriers to museum attendance that suggested six types of barriers:

  • “Historically-grounded cultural barriers to participation in many established cultural institutions because of overt discrimination and exclusionary practices
  • The lack of specialized knowledge and a cultivated aesthetic taste (“cultural capital”) required for understanding and appreciating what are perceived to be elite art forms
  • No strong tradition of participation in the cultural form fostered in childhood or through family experience and tradition
  • Lack of a strong social network that encourages participation in this art form
  • Changing patterns of work and leisure, and changing structure and dynamics of family life that make limit time and opportunity for engagement
  • Structural impediments: geography, transportation, financial barrier to entry”

The report concludes by recommending “a wider scope of research in support of a deeper understanding of the activities, informal and formal, that contribute to vibrant cultural lives and communities”.

Why Don’t They Come? It’s not just the price of admission that’s keeping poor and less-educated adults away from arts events

Createquity, May 6, 2015

Authors: Ian David Moss, Louise Geraghty, Clara Schuhmacher, and Talia Gibas


This article, based on a variety of reports and data sources, indicates that “there is a significant proportion of economically disadvantaged people who do not take the initiative to experience the arts, even when time and cost are not issues.” Furthermore, the article argues that “a lack of explicit interest is far and away the dominant factor keeping low-SES [socioeconomic status] populations away from arts events”. Low socioeconomic status is defined “as those with at most a high school education and in the bottom half of the income distribution in the United States”.

People in lower socioeconomic groups are much less likely to participate in a wide “range of visual, performing, literary, and film activities”, and “simply offering a free option is not sufficient for arts institutions to ensure a socioeconomically representative audience”. In fact, the report cites data from the National Endowment for the Arts showing that only about 10% of people with a high school diploma attended a free performance, while more than 20% of Americans with a college degree did so. The results were similar for different income levels: higher income households are much more likely to attend (even free performances).

The article explores whether a lack of time (the most commonly identified barrier to arts attendance) really is a key underlying factor in non-attendance. The article cites data showing that, on average, low-SES people actually have more free time than higher-SES people. Television appears to be a much preferred entertainment option for low-SES individuals: “less-educated individuals spent twice as much time consuming television as on all other leisure activities combined”.

In the end, the article’s authors admit that “the truth is that we don’t know much about why low-SES people make the choices they do about how to spend their free time…. Perhaps some low-SES individuals don’t attend arts events simply because they don’t think of themselves as the ‘kind of people’ who attend arts events…. Until we know more about low-SES people’s subjective experience of their free time — whether they would spend their time differently if they had the opportunity, and whether there’s a place for the arts in those dreams — we advise against making too many assumptions.”

Overall, the authors argue that, “when large numbers of people face barriers to participating in the arts in the way they might want to, we know that we’re missing opportunities to improve people’s lives in concrete and meaningful ways.”

Free admission days do not actually attract underserved visitors to cultural organizations

Colleen Dilenschneider, November 4, 2015


Based largely on data from 48 cultural organizations that offer regularly scheduled free days, this article argues that “free days often do the very opposite of mission work”, in that they tend to attract higher income individuals who probably would have come (back) to the organization anyway.

In support of its the assertion that “free admission days do not usually engage affordable access audiences”, the article indicates that the average household income of visitors is actually higher on free days than on paid days ($54,300 vs. $49,600). In addition, the proportion of visitors with a college degree is higher on free days than on paid days (43% vs. 39%).

Moreover, free days do not attract as many new visitors as one might think: “the people who attend free days for cultural organizations have usually visited the organization before, and the free day is simply accelerating their pace of re-visitation.” (Specific data on this are not provided in the article.) In order to attract underserved audiences, a substantial investment of time and money would be required in addition to providing affordable access. Because of the relatively high proportion of repeat visitors on free days, the author argues that “free days directly cannibalize membership opportunities”.

The author, an arts marketing consultant, argues that there are “primary barriers” to visitation that largely do not involve cost, such as “reputation (i.e. they just aren’t interested in the content and programs), transportation and parking (‘How are we going to get everyone together and get there?’), or schedule (‘That’s awesome that you have a free day on Tuesday. I have to work on Tuesday.’) When the primary barrier to visitation is anything other than admission price, then having a free day becomes relatively irrelevant. An admission fee is straightforward, but for many potential visitors, other barriers are the most challenging part of the visitation equation.”

The author also posted an article related more specifically to museum attendance: How free admission really affects museum attendance.

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