What NEA Data Reveal About Audience Engagement
By Suzanne Callahan
Every decade the National Endowment for the Arts conducts large-scale quantitative research on audiences, providing a compendium of longitudinal information on audience behavior. How do we interpret and use this wealth of information? Comparing this new NEA data on audience participation to what we are funding and learning through Engaging Dance Audiences tells an interesting and consistent story, one with implications for dance companies and arts organizations on how to engage dance audiences, going forward.
According to the NEA’s three new reports, having opportunities to socialize and learn strongly influence audiences to attend performing arts events. The agency’s research found that people’s top motivators for arts participation are to: socialize with friends or family (73 percent); learn new things (64 percent); experience high-quality art; and support the community (51 percent). Dance attenders gave similar motivations, though in smaller proportions.i
In contrast, the NEA zeroed in on barriers to arts participation, which were largely about logistics, finances, and social connections. The agency found that people’s top barriers are lack of time (47 percent), cost (39 percent), access to venue (37 percent) and having no one to go with (22 percent). Barriers were similar for what the NEA distinguishes as “interested non-attenders,” or those who expressed interest in arts events in 2012 but ultimately did not attend. Within this “missing audience,” as the NEA calls them, barriers were age-specific: for those with young children, lack of time is the greatest single barrier, whereas for older adults , the biggest barrier was the location of the venue.
Though the new NEA findings echo its 1982 data, the top barriers have intensified. Ken Tabachnick of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, in his recent article, points out these similarities in the data and increased barriers, as well as the data’s confluence with other studies of arts attendance. (The barrier of time increased by 5 percent, and cost by 9 percent.) Notably, he points out that the lack of a companion with which to attend has more than doubled as a barrier, rising from 9 percent to 22 percent. What’s more, those interested in attending performances were more likely to find the lack of a companion their greatest barrier. The NEA states, “This notion that co-attendance is more important — possibly even a deal-breaker — for prospective attendees of the performing arts is consistent with actual attendee’s significantly higher reported motivation to attend performances in order to socialize with family and friends.” The NEA’s data on dance audiences supports this claim: only 4 percent attend alone, whereas 25 percent attend only with close family members, and the remaining 70 percent attend with friends and/or relatives. The consistent point is that if you are considering attending a dance concert and don’t have anyone to go with it is highly likely that you will stay away.
Despite the fact that “time” is the top barrier, people spend plenty of quality time with art on their digital devices. According to the NEA, 71 percent of people report using electronic media to watch or listen to art. There is a silver lining to this digital divide: the Internet brings limitless possibilities to connect with audiences outside the theater, at any hour of the day or night. On the flip side, Sydney Skybetter, in a recent article, suggests that digital participation may be the largest barrier to live attendance: “The competitive landscape for live dance performance … is cultural consumption in the broadest, most inclusive sense.”
What would it take to increase the perceived value of dance, so that people of diverse income levels choose to engage with the art form? How do we as a field capitalize on these motivators for people who are inclined to attend? How do we overcome these barriers, so that people who are interested in attending make the decision to do so?
Part of the answer to this question is one of interpretation. I believe these barriers may be euphemisms — proxies for the tradeoff in value that people find in live attendance at the performing arts, as they consider other possible options on how to spend their time. After all, many non-attenders within the NEA’s demographics likely find time and money to throw holiday parties, plan weddings, attend sporting events, or watch movies. Yet time is a precious commodity. We must remember that we ask our audiences to invest a lot of their time and financial capital in attending dance performances. In 2007, Next Gen Consulting conducted a sizable study of arts audiences, and found that when considering the time that audiences dedicate to a paid arts and culture event or experience in its entirety, only about 35 percent of that time is spent enjoying the artistic experience itself. The majority of patrons’ time — a whopping 65 percent — is spent on “four other phases of the patron experience,” which Next Gen defines as information gathering, committing, arriving, and post-event (including post-show events, talking about the show, and traveling home). So on top of spending cash for tickets, two-thirds of audiences’ time and effort are expended before and after the few hours they are in the theater.
This data echoes assumptions that EDA has explored during its three rounds and its own data on dance audiences. Our working definition of audience engagement charges arts practitioners to strengthen connections among people who experience the dance, and between audience members and the art itself. NEA findings dovetail with two factors that contributed to the success of EDA projects, referred to as “social bonding” and “meaning making.” First, most of the successful grantee projects responded to audiences’ desire for interactions with artists, staff of arts organizations, and even their peer audience members. Second, to be truly engaged with dance most audience members need to find some type of connection to the art form — whether aesthetic, intellectual, emotional or spiritual. They may wish to build their understanding or knowledge of artists and art or of the content and issues raised. Or they may hope to gain insight into the creative process or artistic decisions made by the artist or curator. Some may even want a kinesthetic connection, by learning dance steps, particularly if they will later see those steps in a performance.
If these connections are made then the assumption is that the motivators in the NEA research can be exploited and the barriers overcome. People will feel like they have someone to go with, because they feel connected to others in the theater before and after events. In turn, they will feel more comfortable with accessing the venues, audience, and art form. They will better understand and interpret dance, in line with the NEA’s motivators to learn new things and see high quality art. Finally, they will make the decision to spend their cash and time on dance events, because positive prior experiences and connections with dance and audiences leave them wanting more.
The successes of EDA projects suggest that, in reality, this chain of assumptions may be true.
EDA projects did result in new and increased attendance. Nearly half of the grantees spoke of attracting more or different types of attenders to engagement activities. The Dance Enthusiast, grew from 7,000 to 12,000 unique online visitors each month by filming and sharing video stories about upcoming dance performances. STREB’s Risky Talking events, which featured well-known speakers in humanities with a movement experience, sold out every time. Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA) and Vermont Performance Lab (VPL) projects required audiences to attend a series of social and educational activities before and after performances; both filled up soon after they were announced and generated waiting lists. The attendance at the BalletX’s Conversations with the Artist, held on opening nights, increased from about 15 to 50 during the grant period. When Wesleyan University sent its student fellows to intern with dance companies and later promote the on-campus performances of those same companies, student attendance increased, supporting its hypothesis that reaching students through “peer-to-peer marketing works.” VPL’s program, called VPL Performance Club, was based on a book club model, and audiences understood the value of all that was given to them during the EDA-funded events; as Sara Coffey states, “we succeeded in creating a group of investors.”
Nearly all grantees spoke about the ways in which their EDA-funded programs strengthened their relationships with audiences. The students from different high schools participating in Gibney Dance’s DANCEntricity program got to know each other and professional artists, with whom they conversed about choreography and art. UMS speaks about audiences at its Night School, a weekly series of interactive dance talks, where participants became more comfortable talking about dance, and even moving themselves, as the series commenced. Attendees at AXIS events expressed understanding of how that company works in unique ways to build a sense of community among people of different abilities.
For PICA, a core group of attendees emerged somewhat unexpectedly from their Field Guide program and became more comfortable with experimental dance after having started out confused or even intimidated by it. PICA staff describe how social bonding within the Field Guide program increased audiences’ comfort levels: “People reported feeling ‘less lonely’ attending a performance with the Field Guide group because they have people to connect with before during and after the show.” This meant, “You’re not left alone to process the work afterward, which is the case for some of our audience members who might not have a community of other art enthusiasts, or who are older or at another stage of life.” PICA also found that their younger and older participants appreciated engaging with inter-generational groups, and that the program’s results “relate an important story about social connection and audience dynamics.” Finally, Wesleyan worked with a psychology professor on campus to compare the experiences of audience members who attended its EDA-funded Dine Dance Discover events, which take place before and after performances, with those who did not, and found significant results about impact that will be published.
If we read between the lines of both the NEA data and the experiences of EDA grantees, there is a strong message about how to reach and engage audiences: through intentional program design that provides them opportunities to connect, in a range of ways, with each other and with the art form. If it capitalizes on audiences’ motivations to attend dance, and if it overcomes attendance barriers, then the payoff of audience engagement can be substantive and long term.
Readers are encouraged to peruse Dance/USA’s Audience Engagement Cookbook, to access information on audience engagement projects referenced above as well as other engagement programs.
[i] Why Don’t They Come? Characteristics of Interested Non-Attendees of the Arts. http://arts.gov/artistic-fields/research-analysis/data-profiles/data-profile-4
[iii] NEA Report #59, Page 16.
 Round One of NEA’s report included a study of dance buyers in 2011 by consultants Wolf Brown, drawn primarily from the audiences of presenters (dance companies were less represented directly). A majority of these dance buyers are dancing themselves, either socially or more formally; 57 percent were either “Active or Serious Dancers” or “Social Dancers.” A dominant motivation for attending is spiritual (i.e., “to be inspired or uplifted”). Wolf Brown identified five distinct but overlapping motivational factors influencing attendance: to stimulate the mind, nurture social connections, see great dances or new work, be uplifted spiritually, and form social bonds with one’s own culture or that of others. The dominant post-performance engagement, activity — by a wide margin — was informal discussion on the way home, rather than in post-show talks. In terms of how they might be engaged, audiences want 1. Critical Assessment (48 percent), or filtering information through trusted critics and writers; 2. Watching and Talking (46 percent), or gathering information and talking about the experience informally; 3 Deep Context & Insight (44 percent), or seeking insight through talks, lectures, discussions, rehearsals; 4. Live Interpretation (35 percent), or real-time commentary and interpretive assistance at performances (e.g., spoken introductions); and 5. Digital Interactives (33 percent), or expressing opinions in an online forum or Facebook post.
Suzanne Callahan runs Callahan Consulting for the Arts in Washington, D.C. The firm manages Dance/USA’s Engaging Dance Audiences program and has conducted numerous evaluations and studies on how art affects people.
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