Who grows up to be bigger museum and performing arts organizations attendees and advocates – those who visited with a school, church, or other group, or those who visited with their families?
Does the differentiation even matter?
As it turns out, it does. It matters a lot.
Over 60% of adult visitors to museums and/or performing arts organizations first attended them as children. Theater performances take the lead, with over 70% of adult guests reporting having attended these organizations when they were kids. This finding implies that engaging children is not only good for our missions to educate and inspire, but may also help us cultivate our visitors and supporters of the future.
For adults who reported visiting cultural entities as children, their visits generally fell in one of two categories: with groups (such as school field trips or church groups) and with family. We were curious: How do kids in these visitation categories feel about cultural organizations now that they were adults? Does one method of engagement yield more likely adult cultural visitors?
As it turns out, research shows that cultivating cultural supporters is not as simple as just getting a kid through the door.
Sit tight, folks, because we have another unintentionally uncomfortable data-informed finding coming at you this week. But there’s good news, too!
The data below contemplates a representative sample of 6,344 US adults. Of these, 3,845 adults indicated they had visited a cultural, visitor-serving organization (think museum, science center, symphony, aquarium, or theater) as a child under the age of 14.
The data below is in scalar variables, which measure strength of agreement on a 1-100 scale. With scalar variables, higher values indicate a stronger level of agreement with a proposition or statement. Values less than 50 indicate a strong level of disagreement with a proposition or statement, values greater than 70 indicate agreement, and values greater than 80 indicate a very strong level of agreement. Mid-range values in the 60s suggest a diversity of opinions or some measure of ambivalence.
Children who visited with families feel more welcome at cultural organizations as adults than those who visited with groups.
Attitude affinities measure how welcoming people perceive cultural organizations to be. Cultural organizations in the US often suffer from negative attitude affinities – that is, folks indicating that certain cultural organizations “aren’t for people like me.” They may feel people of their household income aren’t as welcome, or people of their age, race, ethnicity, physical ability, sexuality, or anything else. Children’s museums have negative attitude affinities amongst childless adults, and that may not be such a bad thing for the security of the families they serve. But more often than not, negative attitude affinities are not a good thing for cultural organizations to have. The aim is to be perceived as welcoming to most people.
Adults who visited with their families as children feel more welcome at cultural organizations than adults who visited with groups.
You may be thinking “Well, of course!” Current visitors to cultural organizations tend to share certain characteristics: they’re not particularly diverse, they are well educated, and they have household incomes higher than the average American. It stands to reason that people whose typical-museum-going grandparents took them to art museums might also grow up to be typical-museum-going adults who feel welcome at art museums!
To help correct for this possible situation (those visiting with families feeling more welcome because they may have characteristics of traditional cultural-goers who already feel welcome) we’ve cut the data by adult household income in the charts below. Sure, we want to know how visiting with groups or families correlates with adult perceptions overall, but we may be especially interested in how it impacts adults who might not be as wealthy as the traditional visitor – and thus, fall less squarely into the “likely visitor” profile. Household income also correlates with educational attainment, which is another key indicator of a likely visitor. By parsing household income, we’re a bit better able to explore the impact of these childhood visits and their possible “conversion” power.
Regardless of income level, those who visited with their families now feel more welcome at cultural organizations than those who visited with school groups or who never visited as children at all. With a bump of around 8 points, the difference in attitude affinities between those who visited with families and with groups is very significant! People who visited as children with their families generally do find cultural organizations to be welcoming, while folks who visited with groups are on the fence.
Perhaps the most jarring finding is the lack of significant difference in welcoming perceptions amongst those who visited with school groups (or other groups) and those who did not visit as children at all. Visiting a cultural organization with a group did not impact attitude affinities as an adult.
But the good news here is important for the evolution of museum and performing arts organizations as well: Visiting a cultural organization with family positively influenced how welcoming people believe these entities to be later in life. It may be that adults who visited with their families felt “shown” that cultural entities are “places for people like me” more personally than those who visited with groups. Visiting a cultural organization with one’s family means that a close adult may have instilled the value of visiting cultural organizations at a young age, whereas visiting with a group may not have had the same effect. Visiting with a school group, for instance, may have been approached as a one-time event. As such, feeling that cultural entities are “places for people like me” may be stronger among those who shared their experiences with their families. After all, if it’s a place for your family, it’s likely also a place for you.
Children who visited with families are more likely to visit cultural organizations as adults than those who visited with groups.
“Intent to visit” correlates with actual visitation to cultural organizations. This is not necessarily the case with “interest in visiting,” and this makes sense. Being interested in something doesn’t mean that one necessarily intends to spend their precious time doing it. There may be other things that they are more interested in doing.
Adults who visited with their families as children feel more welcome at cultural organizations, but are they more likely to actually attend? Yes, they are.
Adults who visited cultural organizations with their families when they were kids have greater intention to actually attend these entities. Visiting with family members may have instilled more of a sense of personal identity around cultural organizations (“it’s a thing we do!”) than visiting with a school, church, or other type of group might. It may be the differentiation between, “this is a thing my family does,” and, “this is a thing the group I am with is doing today.” Visiting with family seems to sink in deeper and is more likely to stay within these individuals into adulthood.
Notably, adults who visited cultural organizations with groups as children do not have greater intent to visit cultural organizations than folks who never visited a cultural organization at all.
Children who visited with families are more likely to recommend people visit cultural organizations than those who visited with groups.
This metric is important. It’s more important than it may seem at the outset.
Endorsements play a major role in driving attendance to cultural organizations. They’re not just “free marketing,” they’re the most powerful kind of all. People who endorse cultural organizations are our advocates and their recommendations help us keep our doors open.
We asked adult visitors if they would recommend visiting the organization type that they attended as a child. It might have been an aquarium, a historic site, or a ballet. The difference in willingness to endorse based upon how someone visited as a child is staggering.
Adults who visited with family generally are willing to endorse the types of organizations they visited, while those who visited with groups are on the fence and comparable to individuals who did not attend these entities as children at all.
The willingness to endorse does not vary significantly amongst different household income ranges. That’s great news! It means that these individuals may generally aid cultural organizations in attracting more people within their social circles across the board. This can help us engage new audiences and change up the type of person who visits cultural organizations.
There is no meaningful perceptual or attitudinal difference if one visited as child with a group or did not visit as a child at all.
This research challenges a sacred idea within the sector: That inviting groups of children to cultural organizations significantly alters how they perceive these organizations in the long-term. The lack of differences amongst household incomes in any category further emphasizes that this method for cultivating future audiences – especially amongst underserved groups – may not be the “magic bullet” that some entities have been banking upon.
And here’s another kicker: Having a negative previous experience (including a childhood visit) is a primary reason why adults do not have interest in visiting cultural organizations today. Maybe they found the museum boring. Maybe they fell asleep during the symphony. An implication of these findings is that those folks who report having a negative past experience may be more likely to have visited with a group than to have visited with their families, on the whole.
Keep in mind that this data contemplates visitation alone and does not consider or parse out more in-depth programs such as organization-run camps or outreach programs. Therefore, the take-away of this data is that going on field trips (for instance) may not be enough in and of itself to make a child a lifelong museumgoer. Also consider that these individuals are adults now, and the experiences of the past may be influencing their current-day perceptions and behaviors. Similarly, we are cultivating tomorrow’s visitors and non-visitors today.
Evaluating the long-term impact of specific group engagement formats may necessarily come with a decades-long lag. But also consider that the social and environmental aspects differentiating a group vs. family visit are realities of the engagement equation. These findings do not mean that group visits are unimportant. But it does mean that we need to “same-page” the conversation about their long-term impact. Knowing that children who visit with groups are no more likely to be guests than those who never visit at all is painful but important information. It means our work is not over. It means we may need to think differently about how to leverage that time onsite. It means it may be particularly beneficial to consider strategic opportunities (like the relationship between education and entertainment) and how to use them to cultivate long-term cultural lovers. Simply, it means inviting groups to attend is not a “one-and-done” in changing perceptions. There’s more work to do.
Families are important audiences.
Let’s not overlook the great news here: Welcoming family members has payoff and may be a shortcut to relationship building and valuing cultural organizations.
There may be a multiplicity of factors coming into play. It may be that visiting with family more deeply informs our identities when we are young. It may be that people visiting with families had more intimate experiences than those visiting with larger groups. It may also be that those visiting with families came back more often. Whatever the details of an individual’s experience may be, knowing that child visitors who attend with their families are more likely to grow into adults who feel that these organizations are welcoming and who intend to visit and endorse them is powerful information. It may also inform other programs – like family memberships – that help build support for organizations.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that spending time with friends and family is the best thing about visiting cultural organizations. When it comes to having positive perceptions related to cultural organizations, adults who visited with their families as kids are more likely to have them than those who did not.
It’s not necessarily the cultural organization itself that makes a child into a lifelong lover of culture; it’s also the memories families make together at that cultural organization.
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