Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Audience Demographics and the Census: Do We Have a Match?

When you look at this infographic, do you see a problem to be solved? A snapshot of the market for the arts? Or something else entirely?

About five years ago, I sat in a planning meeting for a museum that was undergoing a major renovation. The director boldly stated that one goal of the remodel was to reconnect with the community. What would success look like? The demographics of the museum visitors would match those of the city at large.

That vision always stuck with me. This goal seemed simple, clear, and important. Now, as a museum director, I'm thinking about that goal less abstractly and more concretely in terms of what a target audience can and should look like.

The first step is to know who is already engaging. Arts audiences, on average, are older, whiter, and more affluent than the American population. Supporting data comes from many corners, but primarily the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Since 1982, the NEA has conducted a Survey of Public Participation in the Arts. This survey focuses on attendance to traditional arts institutions--museums, theaters, symphony halls. The data gets sliced and diced in different ways: to explore motivations for participation, to look at trends over time, to dive into data for specific regions or sectors.

When I look at this data, I have one question: what's the target?

In your dream situation, who would participate in your organization? Here are three options:
  1. Everyone. The demographic profile of those engaged would match that of the nation/region/city. 
  2. A subset, targeted for their unique characteristics. That target could relate to ethnicity, or education level, or gender, or age. It could be chosen for reasons related to the institution's mission (for example, a focus on youth empowerment) or for reasons related to the market demographics (for example, a growing number of Latinos).
  3. A subset, self-selected by voluntary engagement. Those who want the experience, come. The demographics are what they are.
Most arts organizations, for a long time, focused on #3. With a few #2 programs sprinkled in. 

At our museum, we've started shifting to #1 as an aspirational goal. This is that vision of inclusion that inspired me years ago. We got our hands on our local census data (free and easy). When we collect demographic data about participants, we measure it against the census figures. 

This helps us with program planning: we know who we are "under-engaging" and can work to involve them. It helps with fundraising: we can talk knowledgeably about how our visitors line up to the age, income, and ethnic diversity of our County. 

But as we've continued working on #1, I started wondering about #2. What if there is a group that is particularly marginalized, underrepresented, or underserved when it comes to the arts? 

For example, there is good research suggesting that school field trips to art museums are disproportionately valuable for students from poor and rural backgrounds. Does this mean that we should try to make school tours disproportionately accessible to these students? If the opportunity for impact is greater, should we go there? If the cost of doing so is more, is it worth the price? 

We're also considering these questions with local data in mind. As we have gotten more involved in data initiatives in our county, we've learned about clear demographic divides in quality of life and enrichment opportunities among specific groups. We're debating whether we should try to "over-engage" some groups relative to the needs and resource allocation in our County. Is matching local demographics "enough"? Is it even realistic or sensible?

I realize that this post is riddled with question marks. I'm sincerely curious about how others are approaching these questions of audience demographics and targets for engagement. 

How do you think about these issues in your organization and your community?

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