An index specifically measuring confidence of likely visitors to cultural organizations? We’ve got that and, all things considered, it’s probably time to share it.
Alright, folks. Things are about to get particularly “math-y” up in here. Follow me, fellow nerds (or people who care at all about visitation to cultural organizations), because I’ve got some good news (a new metric), and some not-great news (what that metric indicates right now).
The Consumer Confidence Index (CCI) is a measure of US consumer confidence, which, in turn, is a measure of how the market perceives both the US economy and their personal finances. The metric is a pretty big deal. The process of quantifying consumer confidence involves querying members of the market about their current and near-term savings and spending intentions. In general, if market members are confident about the state of both the overall economy and their personal finances, then they tend to spend more (and, thus, save less). If persons are less confident about the economy and their finances, then they tend to indicate intentions to save more and spend less. The Consumer Confidence Index has become an important economic indicator, and has shown general alignment to actual economic performance. For example, consumer confidence often increases as the economy grows.
Several years ago, a client that operates several prominent visitor-serving organizations tasked IMPACTS to develop a similar metric as a measure of visitor confidence with a specific emphasis on high-propensity visitors. For not-regular KYOB readers: High-propensity visitors are those market members with the demographic, psychographic, and behavioral attributes that indicate an increased likelihood of visiting cultural organizations. Not only are these people the lifeblood of our organizations in terms of visitation, they are also critical to the sustained vitality of our organizations as they are the trusted sources who promulgate word-of-mouth endorsements to other potential visitors. Because likely visitors drive the cultural market, the attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors of likely visitors provide early insight into the overall “cultural economy.”
Technically, the metric isn’t “new” as we’ve been collecting data related to it since the start of 2012, but this is the first time that I’ve had the opportunity to write about it – or even felt a compelling urge to do so because it ebbs and flows with limited volatility. At least until the fall of 2016 it was trending upward. Until November 2016, there wasn’t much to report in terms of this metric except that visitor confidence was generally observed to be in a steady ascent over time.
The High-Propensity Visitor Confidence Index (HPVCI)
The HPVCI is a measure of high-propensity visitors’ sentiment concerning their participation in the cultural economy. Similar to the Consumer Confidence Index, IMPACTS developed a survey to quantify measures of broad market perceptions of the cultural sector and also individual prospective visitor intentions. These measures contemplated both immediate and near-term perceptions and intentions. Inputs informing the overall metric include macro measures relating to sector perceptions (e.g. attitudes about the overall perceived value of museums, zoos, aquariums, and the performing arts), and more specific measures concerning intentions to visit a cultural organization within a defined duration. The High-Propensity Visitor Confidence Index (HPVCI) quantifies these measures as a composite value, whereby the measure of January 2012 equals 100.0. (In other words, January 2012 was set as the index benchmark, and consequent months measure performance relative to the benchmark.) As a point of comparative reference, the chart below indicates both the monthly CCI and HPVCI for the three-year duration spanning January 2014 through January 2017. The CCI for January 2017 was 111.8, and the HPVCI was 92.8. During the indicated three-year duration, the average monthly CCI was 95.2 and the average monthly HPVCI was 103.0.
What is interesting – and potentially alarming – for cultural organizations is the recent trend line indicating a 15.9% decline in HPVCI in the last four months (from 110.4 in September 2016 to 92.8 in January 2017). Indeed, the January HPVCI of 92.8 is the lowest observed HPVCI since the metric’s inception in January 2012.
Why this decline is alarming
Any measure that suggests a decline in usage or perceptions amongst our most key audiences is troubling. Also, the severity of the decline seems notable. During the analyzed three-year duration, the HPVCI has been largely stable with only modest observed peaks and valleys…until most recently. While the CCI includes representative market members from all demographic cohorts, high-propensity visitors tend to have higher educational attainment levels and higher household income levels than the overall US population. They are a more homogeneous, generally stable population, and, as such, may be less susceptible to short-term economic volatility. This makes it all the more concerning that this highly educated, financially secure audience has recently signaled declining confidence in terms of their intentions to visit cultural organizations. (Note: The CCI went down in January, too.)
Another reason why we should be concerned is because there is a lack of unique visitation to cultural organizations right now. We are especially dependent upon the “historic visitor” subset of the high-propensity visitor audience – and that subset tends to be the most educated and/or earning the highest incomes of this group. In general – and in spite of overall US population growth – the number of unique visitors to US cultural organizations has remained relatively stable over the past decade, which is a symptom of negative substitution of the historic visitor. “Unique visitation” is the measure of the number of individual persons who annually visit an organization, and differs from total annual visitation as individuals may visit more than once. For example, 100,000 unique visitors each visiting an organization two times would result in a total visitation of 200,000. In many instances, attendance to cultural organizations is not keeping pace with overall US population growth. This places an increasing burden on a finite number of people (i.e. the people in this metric) to “keep up the numbers.”
Why the HPVCI may be in decline
It’s time to acknowledge the elephant in the website article: There was a presidential election that coincides with the observed decline in the HPVCI. Like the CCI, the HPVCI measures perceptions related to the present situation and expectations. These data suggest that people with higher educational attainment levels have relatively low visitor confidence right now. During the election, news sources touted that education wars have replaced the culture wars and it’s worth noting that highly educated folks tend to be liberal. TIME even suggests that the newly inaugurated President has declared war on science. When we organize the HPVCI numbers by educational attainment, it’s clear to see that those high-propensity visitors with the most education are reporting the lowest confidence values. While all educational attainment cohorts indicated lower HPVCI from December 2016 to January 2017, the steepest declines were reported among the most educated persons.
This finding suggests that high-propensity visitors aren’t feeling so warm and fuzzy about a future visiting cultural organizations right now. In fact, people don’t seem to be feeling very warm and fuzzy in general. The American Psychological Association recently published a study indicating that the majority of Americans – both Democrats and Republicans alike – reported that the 2016 US presidential election was a very or somewhat significant source of stress. The study reveals that election-related stress is bipartisan, and bridges ethnic, racial, and age gaps. Moreover, it indicates that social media – the increasingly dominant means by which our HPVs are acquiring information – is a contributor to the observed election season stresses and anxieties.
So, it should come as no surprise that our high-propensity visitors – who are 1.43x more likely to vote than the average eligible voter, and who are relying on social media as an information source at a rate 1.45x greater than the balance of the US population – are stressed. And this, of course, stands to impact their outlook right now.
Also, there has been a lot of recent press concerning possible funding cuts to the arts that have the likely impact of negatively affecting perceptions of the “state of our state.” These types of doomsday stories may support lessened views on the outlook for our cultural economy. If the market believes that the cultural world is imperiled, it is not a huge leap to consider that some might instead choose to invest their discretionary time and dollars in competing enterprise or imagine doing something else – other than visiting – in the future.
The data suggest that the recent events have shaken the confidence of our most likely visitors – and we have an obligation to both acknowledge and respond to our surroundings to provide comfort, assurance, and a non-partisan sanctuary for the same values and ideals that underpin our missions. Organizations that highlight their missions perform the best financially. Last week, The Museum of Modern Art highlighted works by artists from Muslim-majority nations. Parts of the mission statement of The Museum of Modern Art read that “…The Museum of Modern Art recognizes that modern and contemporary art transcend national boundaries and…seeks to create a dialogue between the established and the experimental, the past and the present, in an environment that is responsive to the issues of modern and contemporary art, while being accessible to a public that ranges from scholars to young children.”
Displaying art from Muslim-majority nations is not in itself a political statement – it is making good on the promise of MoMA’s mission statement. Keeping promises builds confidence. MoMA is practicing its mission, not engaging in activism. We’re not political organizations – but we are social and cultural organizations – and we exist in the prevailing context of the United States right now regardless of political preference.
A possible “So what?” may be to stop pretending to be impartial observers and live up to our missions. Confidence may be in decline because we’ve been less responsive to opportunity. We may not be serving as the gathering spaces and treasured places of connectivity that our likely visitors need us to be right now. Where museums stand on issues, what they support, and who runs them (and what those people stand for) can be confusing during this divided time. While some organizations are taking stands when called upon (too many to link to, but not enough to carry sector perception), others are going above and beyond to avoid the conversation. For every MoMA making headlines in The New York Times about honoring their mission, there seems to be another organization also making the New York Times headlines that begs more questions about trust and who makes important decisions within cultural organizations. Sure, we can be places of sanctuary – but are simply being places of sanctuary and institutional (increasingly contrived) silence good enough right now? I’m not sure. We’re being called upon to know ourselves right now – the trouble is that many organizations simply don’t. That’s a big issue, and for many organizations, it’s a board issue.
Standing for absolutely nothing when called upon to take a position isn’t exactly confidence-inspiring. I’m not suggesting that all visitor-serving organizations turn to curatorial activism – nor do these data claim (let alone does the US tax code) support such a stand. I’m also not suggesting that organizations stand on a specific side of the political divide! That’s not necessary and that’s not what this is about. These data simply show that our most likely supporters aren’t feeling confident about participating in our cultural economy right now. That’s a problem – but it also calls upon us to be heroes and shine when our visitors need us most. It’s our time to flex our superpower muscles and serve as hubs of human connection, education, and inspiration for our communities and our neighbors. THAT could be where we stand, if we make the decision to do so – and that’s not political. It’s mission-serving. Let’s up the integrity ante in the way that works best for each organization. The market is demanding it of us.
To lovers of science, culture, and informal learning who are reading this not because you run a cultural organization, but because you love one: Now is truly the time to do what you do – to visit and support those organizations and special places that inspire you most during times of potential anxiety, stress, and transition.
In the words of the Avett Brothers, it may be time for organizations to decide what to be and go be it.