Attendance at Publicly-Funded Arts Events

Are the highly variable attendance rates by educational level a cause for concern?

John W. O’Hagan
Trinity College Dublin 2

The socioeconomic composition of attendance at publicly-funded arts events has interested researchers and policy makers for decades, with marked differences in attendance by social class, particularly educational level, persisting over time in almost every country, including Spain. Drawing on a 2013 Eurobarometer survey, this article outlines the markedly uneven attendance level at publicly-funded arts events, and the reasons for such non-attendance, by educational level. The data for Spain are remarkably similar to those for the EU as a whole. The main objectives of the paper are two-fold. First, to ascertain what the reason for these patterns is and to show that it is probably down to preferences. Second, to question whether or not the uneven pattern of attendance should be a policy concern, given that there are many other objectives of arts funding not linked to this issue.

1. Introduction

The socioeconomic composition of attendance at publicly-funded arts events has interested researchers and policy-makers for decades (see O’Hagan, 1996 and 2014) and re-emerges as an issue every few years, especially when the funding levels of, say, a European opera house or art museum or symphony orchestra are up for public debate (O’Hagan, 2014).  In the past, the main concern was that some art forms are elitist in terms of attendance, and at the same time are the recipients of large-scale public funding, especially when this is crudely converted into subsidy per attendee. Such funding, therefore, is seen as highly inequitable.  This concern remains. 

The article starts with a discussion of what is meant by access, attendance and how performance in this regard is measured.  It then briefly examines the evidence in relation to the pattern of attendance by educational level at arts events with large-scale public funding. Later, it considers the barriers that might be causing the very uneven attendance levels.  Finally, it examines why these barriers exist and the possible general overall policy implications.

The main conclusions of the paper are two-fold. Firstly, to argue that the chief reason for the uneven pattern of attendance is likely related simply to different preferences by educational group and not to price or other factors. Secondly, to argue that the uneven pattern of attendance should not perhaps be a policy concern, given that there are many other objectives of arts funding not linked to this issue.

2. Levels of Access and Equal Access

Access to What?

It is possible to speak of access to the arts on at least four levels.  First, there is the issue of access to the supply of arts services to consumers, for example, do all actors, violinists and production managers have access to employment? Second, one may speak of access to the decision-making process of arts policy and the organization of arts events, something that may impact the other aspects of access.  Third, one may also refer to the consumer and the consumption of arts services or simply attendance at arts events. Finally, there is access to the ‘making/doing’ of art, in classes or at an amateur/personal and community level. 

This paper will concentrate only on the third aspect of access to the arts, or what shall be called from this point on attendance at the arts.  The first issue that arises is: to what type of art form does access apply?  The primary focus of this paper will be on the art forms that absorb the bulk of public expenditure on the arts. This is because concern over access to attendance arises mostly in relation to areas of the arts where large-scale public expenditure is involved, and this means ballet/dance/opera, theatre, museums, libraries and historic monuments.

Meaning of Equal Access?

At the very least, equal access could be defined in terms of equality of rights to access cultural life, these rights being the absence of legal and institutionalized barriers to entry to a given institution or system. This effectively ensures the absence of discrimination in the access of anyone to the arts and it is an equality objective with which few would argue.

Equality of formal rights does not guarantee more equal attendance at the arts.  A second and more useful indicator of equality therefore, might be equality of opportunity. This involves not only providing formal rights, but enabling and encouraging certain sections to attend/participate on an equal footing with others.  For example, if those on low incomes are to attend on equal terms with those on middle incomes, then a policy of zero or low entry charges for attendance at the arts might be necessary to ensure equality of opportunity to attend. It may also be necessary to encourage attendance of certain groups, through a proactive policy of advertising and/or education regarding the arts.  This is clearly a more far-reaching concept of equal access.

Enabling and encouraging equal attendance facilitates but does not, of course, ensure equal attendance at publicly-funded arts events. Thus, a further equality objective might relate to equality in terms of outcome or success, i.e. actual equality of attendance in the arts.  This is the focus of the rest of this paper.

An uneven distribution of attendance at publicly-funded arts events does not necessarily reflect badly on arts policy.

Attendance rates are central to any analysis of access to publicly-funded arts.  Overall, they refer to the percentage of the population which attends the arts in a given time period, usually the preceding twelve months. 

Figures broken down by different variables to show the pattern of attendance/participation by income, educational level, age, sex, ethnic group, region, etc., are also usually available, and from an equality point of view, it is these figures which are of most relevance (see for example Falk and Katz-Gerro, 2016).  This paper will concentrate on the variation in attendance by educational level, as this is the dominant predictor of variation in attendance rates in the arts. 

3. Key Attendance Findings

A very high percentage of EU citizens do not attend the large-scale public expenditure areas of the arts. For example, 81 per cent in 2013 had not been to a ballet, dance performance or an opera in the previous twelve months. The corresponding figures for going to the theatre and visiting a public library were 72 and 66 per cent. 

The figures for Spain very closely match the overall EU figures: 84 per cent of Spaniards had not been to ballet/dance/opera in the previous twelve months, the corresponding figures for theatre and public libraries being 78 and 68 per cent. In fact, in relation to much of the data presented in Eurobarometer there is a striking similarity between the overall EU figures and those for Spain, a situation that does not apply for many other countries.

The attendance rates for the EU are considerably higher than those for the US, but it is difficult to know whether the data are directly comparable. What is of more relevance though, for our purposes, is the variation by educational level. This variation is very marked, especially in relation to attending ballet/opera/dance, visiting museums, going to the theatre and visiting a public library, four of the major areas of public expenditure on the arts in the EU (Table 1). 

For example, just 7 per cent of those educated up to the age of 15 had been to ballet/dance/opera in the previous twelve months, whereas 29 per cent of those educated up to twenty-plus years had been. This picture is replicated across the other categories as can be seen clearly in Table 1.

These patterns are also replicated over time and across countries (see Falk and Katz-Gerro, 2016).  There is an almost unbreakable circle at work here. Parents with higher educational qualifications attend arts events more than others and also encourage their children to take classes in the arts when young, reinforcing the existing patterns of unequal attendance by educational level into the future.

4. Barriers to Attendance

The evidence above in relation to composition of attendees by educational level probably confirms a picture that most people are familiar with from their own countries, including Spain.  It is a picture that has changed little, to the best of our knowledge, in any country in the last forty years.  Why then are arts ministries and other arts bodies still ‘going through the motions’ of emphasizing the importance of access for everyone to attendance at publicly-funded arts events when it is known that so little changes? (For Spain, see Villaroya et al., 2015)  A second question is why has so little changed? In other words, what are the barriers that are preventing greater access to attendance at the high arts for those with low educational attainment? The latter question is the focus of this section.

Cost and Physical Issues

Monetary barriers are often cited as the cause of the unequal patterns of attendance observed above, as those with low educational attainment will most likely also have low incomes.  These barriers may either be the cost of admission, considered in absolute terms or relative to the price of substitute goods and services; or any of the many ancillary costs incurred in attending the arts outside the home.

Non-monetary barriers may be either physical or psychological or contain elements of both.  First, there is the well-documented tendency of the high arts market to strong centralization not only towards, but within, larger cities. The physical surroundings, as well as the location and type of production, may also hinder greater participation in the high arts by those on low incomes and/or with low educational attainment. In recognition of this, governments have attempted to ‘take high arts out’ of the imposing institutions in which they are housed/take place, moving them to more familiar surroundings such as schools, community halls, churches, etc.

People with a low educational level may suffer from worse health problems than other groups or belong to older age groups and hence might be less mobile. This could explain their relatively very low attendance at not just the arts but also other activities.

Preferences

The real barrier to greater attendance at the ‘high arts’ by those with low educational attainment may relate simply to preferences. It could be argued that the ‘equation’ is simple: people with certain abilities/aptitudes stay longer in the education system, gain higher levels of qualifications, earn larger incomes, and tend to have a greater preference for certain art forms. It could be argued that people with similar educational attainment, but different exposure to the arts when they were young, will have different attendance rates when they are adults.  However, these differences, even if they could be demonstrated, are likely to be slight when compared to the differences by broad educational category.  If preferences are the real barrier to greater attendance by those with low incomes/low educational attainment at certain art forms, then it is no wonder that policy in the past has failed to redress the situation. 

Strong evidence for this can be seen in Keaney (2008).  She reported, in relation to the large English attendance studies, that many people asserted that the real barrier for them was that they are not interested, which is another way perhaps of saying the publicly-funded high arts are not part of their preferences.  Why this is the case is another issue but the evidence suggests that an ability to appreciate certain art forms takes time and a certain level of cognitive ability, increasing with each successive attendance (at least up to a point) when familiarity and understanding accumulate.  What Keaney (2008) pointed out unambiguously either way is that price is not the real problem.

People with lower levels of education have little preference for or wish to attend heavily publicly-funded arts events.

It might be interesting to consider the situation in relation to Spain.   In the EU as a whole, for example, 50 per cent indicated lack of interest as the reason for not attending ballet/dance/ opera, 44 per cent being the figure for Spain.  Only 14 per cent of EU citizens quoted ‘too expensive’ compared to 21 per cent for Spain.  This pattern is repeated for visits to a library.  In the EU, 43 per cent said lack of interest, 27 per cent lack of time, and only 3 per cent mentioned expense.  The corresponding figures for Spain were 44, 28 and 3 per cent, almost identical when adjusting for sampling error.  A staggering 72 per cent of Spaniards list either lack of interest or time as the reasons they do not visit a library.

A 2013 Eurobarometer survey throws further considerable light on the debate in relation to the variation by educational level (see Table 2).  Respondents were asked to identify the barriers to accessing culture, in terms of lack of interest, lack of time, cost, limited supply in area, lack of information and other/don’t know. The results are striking.  As seen in Table 2, among those with the lowest attendance by far, namely those educated only up to the age of 15, almost half of them indicated lack of interest as the main reason for not attending. 

The variation by educational level is also striking.  For example, just 17 per cent of those educated to the age of 20+ indicated lack of interest as the reason for not attending heritage sites and 26 per cent for not going to theatre. Only 4 per cent of those educated up to the age of 15 quoted ‘expense’ as a reason, lack of time was the second most important reason, followed some way back by ‘limited choice’ in area.  Lack of time comes out strongly as the most important factor for those educated up to the age of 20+: this is most striking in relation to visiting heritage sites.  As much as 47 per cent of them indicated lack of time as a reason for not attending, as opposed to just 17 per cent due to lack of interest and 6 per cent due to expense.

Put simply, it could be argued, on the basis of the data presented earlier and elsewhere, that people with lower levels of education have little preference for, and hence wish to attend, the so-called high arts, but that they do appreciate and participate in art forms other than the heavily publicly-funded arts, for example in the case of music, classic rock, church, gospel, Latin and folk music.  

5. Explanations and Policy Outlook

The central focus of this paper is the skewed composition by educational level of attendance at main publicly-funded arts events and the possible barriers to a more even distribution. Evidence on both issues was provided. It is clear that the variation by educational level is very marked indeed. It is also clear that the reasons for this have little to do with price, but mainly to do with preferences.  What then, it might be asked, determines the different preferences for publicly-funded arts activities by educational level?

Possible Explanations for Preference Variation by Educational Level

Much has been written on the role of cultural participation and status. Notten et al., 2013, give a summary of the key literature.  They particularly examine the contrasting explanations for the variation by educational level in cultural participation, namely status and cognitive capacity. The first of these postulates that people participate in cultural life chiefly as an expression of their social status. Thus, according to this argument well-educated individuals participate in high culture because it indicates their belonging to the elite.  If cultural consumption is driven by status motivation, then the variation in association between education and cultural participation is to be expected on these grounds alone.

However, there are others who strongly argue that cultural participation is primarily a function of an individual’s cognitive capacity.  In this context, education is seen as a proxy for a person’s information-processing capacity.  Individuals with greater capacity are then, it is argued, driven to seek cultural activities that offer more complex information in order to satisfy their cognitive needs.  Thus, according to Notten et al. (2013) a ‘person’s educational level relates to a specific form of cultural participation not because of the status benefits that such participation may generate or express, but merely because of the information-processing competencies it requires’ (p. 8).

The evidence in this paper certainly suggests that it is not price or lack of good-quality suitable facilities that deter attendance at the high arts.  Lack of interest is by far the main barrier and this could arise from no interest in status among the lower educational groups and/or lack of information-processing capacity.  Whichever of these two explanations is correct, it implies that acting on price or through outreach programmes in the arts will make little difference to the attendance at the high arts by educational level, something that is supported by the evidence presented earlier. This brings the discussion back to the equity issues associated with continued public funding of the high arts.

A Policy Concern?

The main policy concern arising from an uneven pattern of attendance by educational level at arts events is that the bulk of public money goes to high art forms, namely those art forms not attended by those with low incomes/educational attainment.

It should be remembered that public funding of the high arts is justified not solely —not even mainly— on the grounds of improving access for those with low educational attainment.  For example, the innovation/experimental argument for public subsidy is not dependent on the level and/or composition of the initial audiences for the subsidized art form. Neither are the other collective benefit arguments relating to national identity, economic spillover effects and national pride/prestige necessarily linked to the composition of attendance.

Caution is called for on other fronts as well before one can say that public funding of high arts is regressive and diverts money from the poor to the rich. First, public subsidy may in fact benefit the producers and not the consumers of the art form in question and the socioeconomic profile of producers could differ significantly from that of consumers of high art.  The issue of whether it is producers (artists, managers, etc.) who benefit (in the form of better wages and working conditions) or consumers (in the form of lower prices or better-quality productions) from the subsidy is critical to this debate and is a largely unresolved issue. 

There are many objectives of arts funding not linked to equal attendance, such as encouraging innovation and experimentation in the arts or attracting foreign tourists/businesses.

The crucial question in this debate though is the extent of the public benefit from subsidies to the so-called high arts.  The higher the public benefit, the lower the subsidy, if any, of the private benefit of the attendees. While attempts have been made to estimate the scale of the public benefit, the difficulties of estimation in this regard are so formidable that at the end of the day the judgment/decision will be one for politicians.

It is important to emphasize again that an uneven distribution of attendance at publicly-funded arts events does not necessarily reflect badly on the arts policy.  There are other objectives of arts funding, such as encouraging innovation and experimentation in the arts or attracting foreign tourists/businesses, which could offer great benefits to the general taxpayer even though a very skewed distribution of attendance was evident.

Therefore, it might be better for policy to concentrate on the first two aspects of access discussed earlier, namely ensuring equality of rights and equality of opportunity, and, once these are assured, not to be too concerned with equality of attendance. In this case though, evidence has to be continuously sought that there are benefits from publicly funding the arts to the general taxpayer, and not simply to those who attend.

 

John W. O’Hagan

Department of Economics

Trinity College Dublin 2, Ireland

6. References

Falk, M., & T. Katz-Gerro (2016): ‘Cultural participation in Europe: can we identify common determinants?’, Journal of Cultural Economics, 40 (2)

Keaney, E. (2008): “Understanding arts audiences: existing data and what it tells us,” Cultural Trends 17 (June).

Notten, N., B. Lancee, H. van de Werfhorst & H. Ganzeboom (2013): Educational stratification in cultural participation: cognitive competence or status motivation? Amsterdam: GINI Discussion Paper.

O’Hagan, J. (1996), “Access to and participation in the arts: the case of those with low incomes/educational attainment,” Journal of Cultural Economics 20 (3).

O’Hagan, J. (2014):  ‘Attendance at/participation in the arts by educational level: evidence and issues’, Homo Oeconomicus 31(3).

Villarroya, A. in cooperation with Ateca-Amestoy, V. (2015):  ‘Spain’, in a Compendium of Cultural Policies and Trends in Europe.

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Trinity College Dublin 2

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