Monday, February 07, 2011

Are the Arts Habit-Forming?

Imagine this situation:

You go to an arts event, one of a type you rarely or never take part in. Maybe it's a live music concert, or a museum visit, or a play. You have a great time.

What will it take for you to do it again?


This is a question I've been puzzling over now for a few months, both professionally and personally. There's been a lot of innovation in arts programming in the last few years. Museums and other venues are offering special programs for teens, for hipsters, for people who want a more active or spiritual or participatory experience. Sometimes these innovations are woven into the institutional core programming, as at the redesigned, highly interactive Oakland Museum of California. Others layer these new activities and audiences on through monthly late nights or short-term installations.

In most cases the goal is the same: to attract new audiences and help them understand how the institution (and the arts experience) might fit into their lives. Internally, staff members spend a good amount of time grappling with how to invite new audiences in, and whether it is possible to use "parallel" programming to draw new visitors into the "pipeline" of core offerings.

But I'm interested in a more basic question: what does it take for a person--a visitor/audience member--to form an art or museum habit? If we want to transform museums into place for everyday use that people drop in on for a quick fix of history, a meeting with a friend, or a cup of coffee, what will that require?

I ask these questions because I think there's a pretty big gulf between the one-time or occasional arts experience and the idea of art and institutions as part of your life. For myself personally, this gulf rears its head every time I go to a live music concert. Each time I go (about four times a year), I have a fabulous time. But it never makes me want to increase the frequency of my participation. Only in the last two weeks, when I've had the unusual experience of going to three music events (symphony, rock, jazz) in a short period of time, have I started to think about the possibility of integrating live music more consistently into my life.

How do you form an arts habit? Is the psychology behind doing so the same as forming a fitness habit or a social habit (like going out to the same bar weekly with friends)? Investigating this question with friends and colleagues, it seems like people form habits that take them outside the home for at least four reasons:
  1. Social pressure. If you have a friend or group of friends who like to "go out"--whether that's brunch, hiking, movies, or museums--you're more likely to form a habit that involves external venues. I've met people who tell me, "every Sunday we go to brunch and then the museum," or "our crew loves to go dancing every weekend." These habits tend to be highly socially-focused--if the group or some portion of the group isn't going, individuals won't go out on their own.
  2. External schedule or pressure. Soccer leagues, weekly yoga, six-session guitar lessons, theater season passes. When something gets booked on your calendar, you attend. Some of the most successful museum programs I know of that draw people again and again happen on a regular schedule. If you love Toddler Time, it becomes part of your Tuesdays. It's funny that museums tout the fact that you can come "anytime," but in most of our lives, the things we commit to are things that happen on a regular schedule. If your calendar doesn't ping you to go to class, you might not attend.
  3. Repeat exposure. This is related to 2) but slightly different. Lots of motivational literature suggests that it takes multiple sessions in a short timeframe to take on a new habit, whether a new food, fitness regimen, or activity. This is why some yoga studios offer "30 day challenges" in which you get all your classes free if you come every day for 30 days. The idea is that once you've come every day for a month, you'll be sufficiently hooked to continue your participation (albeit likely at slower frequency). I think I'm experiencing this shift with live music now due to repeat exposure in a short period of time.
  4. Intrinsic pressure or desire. This is the holy grail for arts, I think--the person who shifts from social or external pressure to feeling, deep inside, that they want to make the arts institution part of their regular life. Of course, intrinsic desire is not always motivated by the purest intentions. People go to the gym and the grocery store because they feel they must. It helps that these activities have an outcome that is widely accepted as good and useful. Even internally-driven motivation is influenced by external societal pressures.
Some activities are terrifically good at encouraging regular use because they combine all three of these. For me, this often happens with team sports. A new sport instantly introduces me to a gung-ho social group, a regular schedule of opportunity to play, a heavy dose of endorphins, and the chance to challenge myself physically and mentally. For someone else, this might be knitting (which also can come with social support, regular schedule, opportunity to be creative, and a warm and pleasing outcome). There are other activities that start with only one type of motivation--say, the intrinsic desire to get a cup of coffee--but are reinforced over time by other forms, such as casual friendships with the coffee shop staff and other regulars.

What are museums and arts institutions doing to tap into these forms of motivation? If you want to encourage people not just to come once but to come regularly, how do you do it (besides hawking a membership)? Here are a few ideas I could imagine supporting the development of new habits around arts participation:
  • Market your venue explicitly as a social one. The single most likely reason I will go try something new is if a friend, date, or family member invites me. Even though data shows that the majority of people visit museums in social groups, there's a misperception--especially of art museums--that they are places for solo contemplation. Especially for infrequent arts participants, marketing that emphasizes the museum as a date venue, a post-brunch stroll for the girls, or an after school hangout, can help people see that they can suggest a museum to friends the way they might suggest a restaurant.
  • Create more regular programming that you encourage people to buy or register for as a series. There's a reason theaters work so hard to get season subscribers (and it's not just the advance payment). When you "sign on" for six plays, you have an external motivation to attend. You don't have to remember, consider the opportunity, and motivate yourself each time a new show comes--it's already on your calendar. I've talked to some busy parents who say museums aren't part of their lives because their kids are already jam-packed with soccer and violin lessons and play dates. If families in your area coordinate their outings on an advance calendar, your institution needs to get on that schedule to be a viable part of their lives.
  • Introduce new participants to committed members at every new event. New audiences may not be aware that there are other people who see dance performances or jazz shows or science exhibits as part of their everyday lives. One of the most powerful motivators I've had in athletic situations is when an experienced player welcomes me into the game, gives me some pointers, and invites me to join the team to hang out after the sweating is done. Too many new arts experiences are lonely, transactional, and devoid of social engagement with other participants. If your institution or event has members or regulars who love the programming, those people are the best ones to welcome newcomers and share their (hopefully infectious) joy with them.
  • Help people understand what they will "get" out of regular participation. To a newcomer, it's not apparent that a museum offers many kinds of programs, or that regular attendance to an arts event might provide deeper or multi-faceted experiences over time. What they see is what they get: that day, that event. Gyms are incredibly good at selling people on the idea of increased fitness, attractiveness, self-confidence, and muscle tone over time. They introduce every new member to the wide range of activities offered and explain how all of them contribute to a healthier you. But arts professionals are more squeamish about trumpeting the value of their offerings. People are not bombarded by marketing messages and societal pressure to engage with cultural venues. There aren't ads on TV talking about how great it is to get lost in art. Cultural institutions need to be overt and unapologetic about the benefits of sustained involvement. Visitors, especially new ones, aren't going to connect the dots on their own.
  • Encourage people to use the institution for a broad range of reasons. Jasper Visser wrote a great blog post about untraditional uses of museums, celebrating people who come in to shop, do homework, or meet new people. We need to make these myriad uses more explicit. The people who feel comfortable having a social event at a museum or popping in to spend time with a single artifact tend to be people who have great experience with and comfort in the institution already. Most visitors feel like they have to "do it all" to have a successful experience. We need to debunk this impression if we want people to use the museum casually. I love the Dallas Museum of Art's list of "100 experiences" you can have at that institution. This kind of list helps people understand that there are lots of ways to "do" the museum and that they don't have to leave exhausted to have done it "right."
  • Find a way to encourage a participation blitz. What's the 30-day yoga challenge equivalent for the arts? Could a group of institutions in your town get together and offer a set of experiences, events, or cultural practices that people could partake in daily for a month? This could be an exciting way to jump start participation in many institutions, and at the same time, to support the development of new social relationships that center around the arts.

What do you think it takes to build an arts habit?
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