Not everybody feels that cultural organizations are “places for people like me.”
It probably won’t surprise you: Despite hard work within the sector to shed perceptions that museums and performing arts organizations may be unwelcoming, many people still don’t feel welcome. For them, certain cultural organization types aren’t “places for people like me.”
At IMPACTS, we call these sentiments negative attitude affinities, and we measure them in order to help us understand how to better engage new audiences.
Negative attitude affinities aren’t only about racial or ethnic diversity (although, indeed, being white, non-Hispanic is the most-shared attribute of a person who visits cultural organizations). Negative attitude affinities can mean a host of different things to different people. A place can be “not for people like me” because of perceived hostilities toward income levels, physical disabilities, or even age! Negative attitude affinities can also be interpreted to mean, “that’s not for my crowd,” beyond the individual themselves.
How welcoming do people feel that cultural organizations are to them?
The chart below shows the percentage of people in the United States who feel that various cultural organization types are “not for people like me.” As usual, the data is from the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study.
A staggering 49.5% – half of millennials in the US – feel that orchestras and symphonies are “not for people like me.” Moreover, 40.2% of millennials – four out of ten in the US – do not feel that art museums are for them, and 33.1% do not feel that science centers or science museums are for them. Negative attitude affinities are notably lower for older adult generations. However, they still represent meaningful perceptions.
“Performances” includes things like ballet, theater, opera, improv comedy, and poetry slams. If “performances” seems like a broad category to you, that’s because… well, it is. Audiences don’t always distinguish between these types with the same nuance that industry professionals do. But even included together, negative attitude affinities are generally high for performances – not low. Attitudes may carry over between one type of performance to another, and that threatens these entities’ ability to reach new audiences.
Why do negative attitude affinities matter so much?
If somebody thinks a place is “not for people like me,” then an organization is less likely to secure them as a visitor. This is especially relevant as competition for leisure time is fierce, there’s growing interest in staying home (Netflix marathon, anyone?), and time is generally more valuable than money.
Data backs up the threat of negative attitude affinities as a barrier to visiting cultural organizations. Even people with interest in visiting these organizations might name negative attitude affinities as a reason why they don’t attend. Yes, this seems counterintuitive – can people be interested in attending and still feel unwelcome? They sure can. Unsurprisingly, negative attitude affinities are also primary barriers to attendance for unlikely visitors, contributing significantly to their lack of desire to visit in the first place.
It’s tempting to think that attitude affinities correlate with cost, but research shows that if people don’t want to do something, cost is less relevant – they don’t want to go. Being free is not the same as being welcoming.
Why are negative affinities higher for millennials?
At first glance, one might see the chart and think, “Millennials represent another problem. Does their ability to ruin everything never end?!”
Not so fast! As it turns out, research shows millennials are among our best visitors and keys to the future. They make up the greatest percentage of attendance to cultural organizations among the adult generations in the United States. That said, this generation is so big that we aren’t reaching them at representative levels. In a nutshell, as sick as we may be of discussing it, millennials matter in a big way for the long-term solvency of cultural organizations.
There are two particular reasons why millennials have higher negative attitude affinities than other adult generations.
First, millennials are the most racially and ethnically diverse adult population in the US. With almost half of the population being non-white, talking about millennials necessarily means talking about racial and ethnic diversity. Cultural organizations are not reaching racially and ethnically diverse audiences – millennials or not – at representative levels. This is an issue now, and if we are unable to resolve it, cultural organizations may be in an even more dire situation as Generation Z merges into adulthood and takes charge of their own leisure time and pocketbooks.
Second, being young can be its own driver of negative attitude affinities in some situations. An orchestra not being “a place for someone like me,” could mean “not for a young person like me,” to some. While the data is categorized by millennials and non-millennials, it may not be “being welcoming to young people” that is the only driving force behind the negative attitude affinities – but it could certainly play a major role in some cases.
There’s a lot to the “negative attitude affinities” conversation. It’s wrapped up in diversity, equity, and inclusion, as well as age, physical ability, interest, income, being a parent or not, and self-identity. To pinpoint someone as only one of these things is to miss the point. A person is more than their race. They are more than their income level. They are more than their age.
And because people are many things, there is no single magic bullet. The solution is not another Día de los Muertos event, a Stranger Things themed cocktail gathering in the atrium after hours, or even free admission. The solution is in creating an ongoing culture within cultural organizations that is truly welcoming.
Changing up negative attitude affinities is a marathon, not a sprint. A notable portion of the US population feels that cultural organizations are not for them – and that cultural organizations are taking intelligent action to change this. We still have a ways to go, but we’re working on it.
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