Research shows 16% of the US population has visited a cultural organization – such as a theater performance or a natural history museum – in the last two years.
We share and discuss this statistic frequently on this site because understanding audiences – and how to attract new ones – is what we do here. But we’ve noticed that some folks have difficulty wrapping their brains around this statistic.
Were you expecting the percentage of people in the US who visit cultural organizations to be higher?
If so, here’s why you may have been surprised.
Let’s start with the data
At now over 124,000 respondents (it’s an in-market survey that is always growing), the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study is believed to be the largest in-market survey of perceptions and behaviors related to cultural organizations in the US. It surveys perceptions and behaviors amongst visitors and non-visitors alike, uncovering not only what people who go to cultural organizations think about these institutions, but also the thoughts of the people who do not visit and the barriers that keep them from going. With the help of generous partners, IMPACTS continually ensures the study is in-depth, ongoing, and representative of the US population. A purpose of this study is to spot and better understand audience engagement trends in order to aid cultural organizations in mission execution and – even more directly – long-term solvency. (Without funds, cultural organizations arguably cannot execute their missions at all.)
The Sweet 16%
While it may be challenging for some leaders to consider, only 16% of the US population has visited any kind of cultural entity in the last two years. When we accept the economic reality that any non-essential product, service, or entity is likely to have users and non-users, this finding may become an easier pill to swallow.
Understanding that 16% percent of people who actively visit cultural organizations can help us dive deeper into the categories of people who do not actively visit. We don’t just have active visitors and non-visitors. We have inactive visitors (those with interest who haven’t attended in two years or longer), unlikely visitors, and non-visitors.
“But why is the percentage of people who have visited only 16%?! It has to be more than that!”
To put this into perspective a bit, remember that only 31% of people identify as Democrats, 30% identify as Republicans, and people in the US do not even all agree kittens are cute.
Here are three reasons why that percentage is lower than you may have guessed – particularly if you are a cultural organization “insider” such as an executive, board member, staff member, or volunteer.
1) The kind of people who visit cultural organizations are the kind of people who visit cultural organizations.
There are certain most-shared characteristics among folks who visit or have interest in visiting cultural organizations. A kind of person visits cultural organizations – and that kind of person is not “everyone.”
That sounds dire. “What do you mean, not “everyone” wants to visit cultural organizations?” But take heart: the kind of people who visit cultural organizations are more likely to visit other cultural organizations, too. In other words, the people who are likely to visit an art museum are more likely to visit another art museum, too – or a symphony, botanic garden, or science center.
Consider how many cultural organization visits of any kind were made by different audience subsets in the time period ranging from 2014 through 2018:
Active visitors to cultural organizations make 8.2 visits over five years, on average. The people who visit these entities generally visit more than once or visit more than one organization. After all, these are the folks who actually go to cultural organizations!
Unlikely visitors make up 38% of the US population. They do not have interest in visiting cultural organizations, but will go if they “have to.” These are the folks who wouldn’t choose to go to the history museum on their own time, but will go if Grandma is in town or if it’s the site of the holiday work party. These folks make only 1.8 cultural organization visits (of any kind) every five years, on average.
Compare this even further to non-visitors – people who also do not have interest, and are not likely to be required to attend a cultural organization for a realistic reason. They make up 30% of the US population. Non-visitors attend only 0.3 times every five years – or, only once in more than 15 years, on average! To any type of cultural entity!
What does this mean? If we can get a person to become an art museum-goer, we’re likely closer to getting them to become a historic site-visitor or theater guest, too. We want “the kind of people who visit cultural organizations” – regardless of who this is – to be “the kind of people who visit cultural organizations!” That is good for all of us.
And, indeed, we want the percentage of cultural attendees in the US to grow.
2) Our industry generally counts door swings, not individual pairs of feet
Our thing at IMPACTS is high-confidence data, analysis, and related technologies. It is unfair to pick on entities trying to help the sector with limited budgets whose thing is not high-confidence and representative data, but who are collecting information in an effort to be of service anyway. So we won’t.
But we will call out a bogus, specious survey methodology: Measuring our reach, impact, or success in reaching new audiences by tallying up the number of times that doors swing open. When entities boast that “X million people visited cultural organizations last year” based on total attendance (which is what a majority of our industry’s major resources do), we willfully overlook the fact that we’re double-counting a lot of people.
Remember: “The kind of people who visit cultural organizations are the kind of people who visit cultural organizations.” The same people are likely to visit multiple organizations, multiple times. Not only that, organizations are getting better and better at securing repeat visitation to their own entities!
In terms of solvency for individual admission-based organizations, the number of times a door swings can be one of the most important numbers of all! But in terms of assessing the actual number of individuals who have visited an organization? It’s misleading.
3) You probably don’t know many non-visitors
If the 16% data point challenges you, it may be because of an availability heuristic. Maybe you cannot think of a person you know who doesn’t have interest in visiting a cultural organization!
If you’re reading this, you’ve likely either visited a cultural organization in the last two years or have interest in visiting one, at least. And as a likely visitor, you are probably surrounded by other likely visitors. Your friends, partners, and colleagues may be from college or have well-educated backgrounds (education is an example of a likely visitor characteristic). We trust, and like, and surround ourselves with people who are similar to us. And often, we have difficulty seeing outside of that bubble. We may not even know that we’re in one!
Our cultural organization-interested bubble is not representative of the US population.
(I’m personally in this bubble with you! Cultural organizations truly are perceived as exciting and inspiring from in here!)
An important step in eventually reaching unlikely and non-visitors may simply be acknowledging they exist. Not only that, they make up a majority of the United States (68%). Yes, they’re real – and we can work to decrease their numbers over time.
4) Confirmation bias can overestimate success in reaching more and different people
Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, favor, and recall information that confirms our pre-existing hypotheses. It’s a common brain trick that is human, prevalent, and difficult to recognize in ourselves. And it’s why internal experts have skewed perspectives and are generally not great at thinking like regular visitors.
A clue that you may be displaying confirmation bias is when high-confidence data gives you challenging feelings.
I’m not exempt from this, either! When I first received this data cut on how infrequently members and subscribers visit cultural organizations and it was less often than I wanted, I demanded IMPACTS re-cut the data again because I felt that it just had to be wrong. (It wasn’t.)
If your cultural organization is data-informed, you’re likely no stranger to the task of challenging confirmation bias and what you think you know. It’s an ongoing – but necessary – struggle!
The Fast Facts video above describes one of the most challenging data findings we have that often summons confirmation bias within cultural executives.
If you think, “but I see people who look like new audiences at our organization all the time!”…then you may be exhibiting a confirmation bias. You may be seeking out people who look like new audiences to you to confirm your organization’s efforts to engage new people. And if you are thinking that sentence at all, then you may also be exhibiting another cognitive bias: Stereotyping.
It’s not that cultural organizations aren’t reaching more diverse audiences at all – they are! But they aren’t doing so at representative levels or keeping pace with population growth. We have work to do to fix this – and pretending that a higher percentage of people visit cultural organizations than actually do may paint over the urgent need to evolve.
Yes, the finding that only 16% of the US population visits cultural organizations may be surprising. But when we at IMPACTS encounter this surprise among cultural executives, we take it as an opportunity to explore reliable methods of data collection; how we determine the number of “people welcomed” within the industry; and the cognitive biases that get in our way when we try to help our organizations evolve. It is by understanding who is not visiting that we may truly bring more pairs of feet through our doors.
The first step? Getting a realistic grasp on what percentage of the US population falls into each of our visitation categories so we can assess the situation and discover how to move the needle.
You go out and keep creating programs to educate and inspire.
We’ll keep monitoring the numbers.
Let’s do this.
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