Art Market

37% of Art Museum Visitors Don’t View Them as Culture—and Other Takeaways from the 2017 Culture Track Report

Isaac Kaplan
Oct 16, 2017 6:27PM

Photo by Alicia Steels.

What do you picture when you think of a “cultural experience”? The white walls of a museum? The high ceilings of an opera house? The flashing lights of Broadway musical marquees?

In reality, the image Americans have of a cultural experience is dramatically more diverse, according to the 2017 Culture Track report—the seventh iteration of the national tracking survey of cultural audiences, due to be released tomorrow. For many respondents, going to the park or eating at a food truck counts as a cultural experience, while attending a museum does not.

“It’s clear that people don’t know or really even care about what is a cultural attraction or activity,” said Maggie Hartnick, managing director of LaPlaca Cohen, the cultural agency that developed the report. The report looks at the attitudes of cultural audiences rather than the larger population, tallying the responses of thousands of Americans who self-identified as having participated in one of 33 broadly defined cultural activities. The study also tracked the changes in those attitudes over time among a smaller set of respondents who had participated in a more limited number of activities.

Below, we spotlight seven findings from the study that could have major consequences for how traditional cultural hubs like museums think about audience outreach, development strategies, and cultural participation in the 21st century.

37% didn’t think art museums were a cultural experience

The figure points to the increasingly democratized definition of culture. The designation “culture” used to be a way of placing certain leisure activities on a pedestal, notes Hartnick, a pedestal that today’s audiences are happy to take a sledgehammer to. While 63% of respondents saw art and design museums as culture, large numbers found culture outside the white cube: 54% defined public and street art as culture, while a “food and drink experience” and a night at the opera fit that bill for 51% and 48%, respectively.

This doesn’t mean culture doesn’t exist or is somehow vanishing, stressed Hartnick. Rather, culture needs to be defined in new ways and from the ground up rather than the top down. To respondents, culture involved fostering empathy, expanding your perspective, building community, and educating the public.

Courtesy of Culture Track and LaPlaca Cohen.


81% engage in cultural experiences to have fun

Cultural activities continue to be a source of leisure and relaxation for many. The survey found that 81% of audiences are motivated to attend a cultural activity because they want to have fun. A desire to feel less stressed was tied in third place, along with “experiencing new things,” with 76% citing both as reasons for participation. 71% cited learning something new as a reason to participate in culture.

This doesn’t mean that levity must replace education at museums, noted Harnick, but rather that the two cannot be divorced from one another. Culture offers the opportunity to connect with other people and take a pause from daily life—today’s audiences are full of anxiety and looking for a chance to relax, a conclusion that gels with other findings that show high levels of anxiety among the general population.

Only 27% of cultural audiences are loyal to cultural organizations

That figure is lower than the percentage who are loyal to restaurants or bars (58%), retail stores (48%), or streaming sites (36%). But loyalty takes many different forms. While some in the museum sector may define it as joining a membership program or making repeat visits, audiences have a more expansive definition of loyalty. It could mean attending a cultural organization’s picnic—while never setting foot in the institution itself. Technology has also stretched the parameters of what constitutes support, with audiences defining ‘liking’ something on social media as an act of loyalty. Meanwhile, the percentage of people with memberships to visual art institutions continues to decline, from 26% in 2011 to 22% in 2017.

Courtesy of Culture Track and LaPlaca Cohen.

The top motivator for joining a loyalty program is feeling that the money is going to a good cause

Across the board, Culture Track found that social impact is a major subject on participants’ minds. It’s a factor in what they define as culture, where they donate, and why they are loyal, said Hartnick. When asked why they join a loyalty program, 38% of respondents cited that it was because money was going to a good cause. The figure perhaps explains why only 18% of cultural audiences donated to cultural organizations, as opposed those who donated to causes dedicated to aiding children (42%), animal welfare (32%), and humanitarian relief (28%).

There’s also the potential for a negative feedback loop. If audiences don’t donate to cultural organizations, those organizations might increasingly turn to wealthy and elite donors for multi-million-dollar contributions—which in turn gives the impression that museums are for the isolated few, which in turn reinforces the idea that cultural organizations have little impact on the broader world. Museums and other organizations can instead consider trumpeting their mission of supporting and impacting the community—both of which a majority of respondents cited as a motivator for donating—as a way to increase financial support.

The number one barrier to all forms of cultural participation? “It’s not for someone like me”

Hartnick noted that the designation “not for someone like me,” which is the top barrier cited by respondents (followed by “I didn’t think of it”), can generally be thought of as a proxy for the perceived relevance of a given cultural activity. Interestingly, among those who have participated in art and design museum offerings, only 5% said a barrier to future participation was because it was not for someone like them. The highest bar for that group was logistical, with 35% citing “it is inconvenient (e.g., hours, distance) for me.”  

Still, a whopping 46% of those that don’t participate in an art or design museum’s offerings cited “It’s not for someone like me” as a barrier.  A potentially heartening finding is that the second major barrier cited by 17% of that group is that they simply didn’t think of visiting an art or design museum. Increased and varied outreach about programs and exhibitions could bring that figure down without the need to fundamentally restructure those programs and exhibitions to make them appeal to a broader audience.

Hartnick cautioned that a specific study would be needed to look at the socio-economic breakdown of these barriers. But the report did find that people of color were 82% more likely to cite “cultural activities as not reflecting people of all backgrounds” as a barrier than other respondents.

Courtesy of Culture Track and LaPlaca Cohen.

28% say their ideal cultural activity is active; 24% say it is calm

“This is the ‘Netflix problem,’” Hartnick said. In a digitally connected world of infinite choices for leisure time, today’s audiences want a range of experiences, sometimes contradictory, from cultural activities. They are what the report calls “omnivores.” When asked about the characteristics of their ideal cultural activity, 15% of respondents who chose “calm” also chose “active”; 24% chose “reflective” and “social.” Cultural organizations can respond to these findings in one of two ways: by developing a specialized set of programs that provide a singular experience to audiences, or by crafting a very broad set of exhibitions and experiences that capture a wide swath of the populace.

Parents are 52% more likely to say wearable technology enhances a cultural experience

One slightly surprising finding: Parents love technology. According to the report, adults with children living at home are 33% more likely than other respondents to say augmented reality can enhance cultural experiences. Across all respondents, 81% said digital integration would enhance art and design museums, with 38% of that group saying that is because it “gives me tools to access more detailed information.” Audiences do, however, recognize that technology can be a distraction. The top reason why respondents said they wouldn’t use technology at a museum is because its absence allows them to focus on what they’re looking at.

Isaac Kaplan