If you’re seeking to win the hearts and minds of voters, cultural organizations are particularly target rich environments.
There seems to be a bit of talk in the visitor-serving industry about the role of cultural organizations (museums, zoos, aquariums, botanic gardens, performing arts organizations, etc.) in social activism.
There are several examples of institutions exploring this role. On International Museum Day last May, museums called on visitors to take action to #SaveTheArts. A quick stop on the social media pages of several zoos and aquariums across the country reveals a cadre of organizations encouraging the public to vote to help the ocean by way of protecting the environment or animals, or voting for plastic bag bans, for example. Museums are marching for science. Hamilton – to name a glaring example influencing perceptions in the performing arts realm – is still sweeping the nation with enthusiasm. Of course, the MoMA’s curatorial response to Donald Trump’s early 2017 travel ban may still be one of the most cited examples of cultural organizations embracing this role.
And, as it turns out, MoMA’s decision may have been met well by the art-museum-going public for a reason: Cultural visitors are generally more politically engaged than non-visitors.
As organizations seek to engage and mobilize their constituencies to act in the interests of their respective missions, data suggest that visitors may make terrific advocates.
As usual, the data below is from the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study that currently includes over 108,000 representative respondents in the United States. This information is based upon how respondents self-report their voter registration status, if they voted in the last election, and their level of voter enthusiasm. Also, it should be noted that cultural participation includes any visit to a museum, zoo, aquarium, performing arts organization, historic site, botanic garden, or the like.
1) Cultural visitors are more likely to be registered voters
A powerful 87.4% of eligible people who visited any cultural organization within the last year self-report that they are registered to vote. Interestingly, with 85.8% who have visited a cultural organization in the last two years reporting as registered voters compared to the 87.4% within the last year, data suggests that people who visit cultural organizations more frequently may be slightly more likely to be registered to vote than those who visit less often. Only 74.3% of eligible voters who have not recently (i.e. within the past two years) visited a cultural organization are registered to vote. In other words, people who visited a cultural organization within the past year are 17.6% more likely to be registered voters than those whose last visit was greater than two years ago.
2) Cultural visitors are more likely to vote
They may be registered, but are cultural visitors more likely to actually vote? Yes. Recent cultural visitors are more likely to self-report having voted in the 2016 presidential election than non-recent visitors.
About 70% of people in the United States who have visited a cultural entity in the last year report having voted in the most recent presidential election. This is a far cry from the 44% among people who have not recently attended a cultural organization. As a measure of reference, 58% of eligible voters in the voted in the 2016 US presidential election.
You may be wondering: If cultural audiences tend to be democratic-leaning and voted in the 2016 election, then how is our political situation what it is today? As a reminder, Hillary won the popular vote by nearly three million ballots. There are other considerations that may not have been top-of-mind at the time: Did organizations meaningfully leverage their constituents’ advocacy potential to act in their interest? Maybe visitors didn’t understand what or who was in the interest of an organization’s mission. There are a host of things that may have happened here, but I’ll leave that to the political analysts and stick to cultural organization trend data analysis.
3) Cultural visitors are more enthusiastic voters
Cultural visitors also report being more likely to vote in the 2018 midterm election than non-recent visitors – and with a high index value of 182, the number is worth more than noting!
Index values are a way of quantifying proportionality around a baseline value of 100. With a value of 112, even non-recent visitors have notable self-reported interest in voting in the 2018 midterms. These data suggest that a person who has visited a cultural organization in the last year is 62.5% more likely to vote in the 2018 midterms than a person who has not recently visited a cultural organization.
Should museums be activists?
This is a big conversation, and we may benefit by being thoughtful here. Cultural organizations are not seen as having political agendas. And it’s not clear that the public wants them to.
In fact, cultural organizations are more trusted than newspapers and far more trusted than other NGOs or government entities. A part of this may be precisely because they are not seen as pushing political agendas.
The better question is this: Should museums be activists for their missions?
For some – if not many – organizations, the answer is “yes.” The answer for your own organization may depend on its mission and values, but, in general, organizations “walking their talk” matters. Trust is a cultural organization superpower. Like MoMA, for several organizations that have taken stands for their missions, it’s paid off.
In short, perhaps cultural organizations need not – and, indeed, should not – be “political” for the sake of being so, but they may benefit by supporting their missions and understanding their potential influence as sites visited by those who also have a propensity to visit the ballot box.
Knowing that recent visitors are more likely to be active and enthusiastic voters can help organizations find ways to carry out their missions more broadly.
Of course, there are rules. It’s important to understand the limitations placed on nonprofits in terms of lobbying and political advocacy. Please keep these data in their own lane. They do not scream, “The public wants planned protests!” (Maybe they do? Maybe not? That’s not this article.) They do not intend to imply, “Endorse political candidates.” It’s more simple. People with a likelihood to vote come in cultural organization doors, and that may be an opportunity for meaning, mission work, and messaging.
Understanding that the cultural audience is more likely to show up at the ballot box may be critical if your organization takes a stand for bigger issues, such as science, human rights, the arts, or the environment. It means there’s a potential opportunity for influence, and an opportunity to help make the world a better place on an even larger scale.