Spoiler alert: We have work to do.
It probably won’t surprise you: On the whole, museums and performing arts organizations do not always succeed in engaging audiences that are racially representative of the population of the United States.
There’s a lot of data to share over time to aid in these efforts, and we’ll be collecting and analyzing this data to aid not only cultural organizations but also friends and partners who specialize in the important work of diversity, equity, and inclusion. The good news is that – with prioritization and diligence – there is a data-informed path to successfully engaging more representative audiences.
Today, let’s lay out some important facts about just how racially representative (or not) cultural entities are in their onsite attendance.
This conversation is a big one – and it is connected to several other important topics that need more data, conversation, and strategic prioritization. Racial diversity is but one of many elements contributing to diverse and representative audience participation. We know that we only have your eyeballs for so many words. By focusing this article on racial representation we in no way intended to imply that race is the only area of diversity, equity, and inclusion work. We look forward to sharing more data on other fronts in weeks to come.
How well do cultural organizations engage racially diverse audiences?
For ease of explanation, we are using the same self-identified definitions of race as the US Census Bureau. They define race as “a person’s self-identification with one or more social groups. An individual can report as White, Black or African American, Asian, American Indian and Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander, or another race. As may be applicable, respondents can select more than one race with which they identify.” Few would argue that the US Census Bureau’s approach is perfect. It’s far from ideal for several reasons. However, for analysis of broad demographics, the use of the Census Bureau’s categorizations of race is the prevailing practice.
1) Cultural organizations engage White non-Hispanic individuals at over-representative rates compared to the US population
As a market research company, we have a lot of data about people who visit cultural entities. The single most-shared characteristic among people who have visited any kind of cultural organization in the last two years is that they are White non-Hispanic individuals. As we’ve been pointing out for years, this is a problem given the growing diversity of audiences in the United States.
But just how over-representative are cultural entities – both exhibit and performance-based – in engaging White non-Hispanic individuals? The following data contemplates visitation to 137 US cultural organizations and represents the responses of upwards of 54,000 survey participants. As indicated below, 60.4% of the US population self-identifies as White. And, regardless of the type of organization (i.e., art museum, science center, zoo, or theater), the audience composition of US cultural organizations overrepresents the US population of White non-Hispanic individuals.
As you can see, the sector has some work to do to gain the representative engagement of all of our audiences.
2) White, non-Hispanic individuals are the only audience engaged at or above representative rates
Again, we rely on the categories of race established by the US Census Bureau to similarly inform our related analyses… and we acknowledge the imperfections of any methodology that necessarily endeavors to categorize millions of unique individuals into broad categories.
Issues relating to racial self-identification create further nuance. For example, a multitude of factors (including declining Latin American immigration and a high intermarriage rate) tend to reduce the likelihood that second and third-generation Americans with Hispanic ancestry self-identify as Hispanic or Latino. Instead, some of these younger generations of Americans with Hispanic ancestry self-identify as White.
Hey, you identify you.
When it comes to racial identity, there is no “right” or “wrong” answer on a survey. The point is that we need to recognize the limitations of an imperfect science so that we can benefit from focusing on the big issues and not risk being distracted by methodological minutia.
3) Overall, the industry has not observed massive shifts in the last few years in terms of racial diversity
Despite DEI efforts and basic population growth, the percentage of people visiting cultural organizations who self-identify as White non-Hispanic individuals has not decreased. At least, not in an overly transformative way.
Let’s revisit the first chart showing the percentage of White non-Hispanic engagement by the end of year 2019 and compare it to the end of year 2016. As per the US Census Bureau, the US population in 2016 was 323.1 million. The US population in 2019 was 328.2 million. Non-White individuals comprised 38.7% of the population in 2016, approximately 125 million persons in total, and in 2019, non-White individuals comprised 39.6% of the population, approximately 130 million persons in total. The population of non-White persons in the US increased by approximately 5 million during the duration ranging from 2016-2019.
This increase – combined with diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts surrounding race representation – might suggest meaningful growth in terms of audience diversity. However, some organization types still experienced declines or remained mostly flat in terms of the onsite engagement of non-White visitors. And keep in mind that flat is actually down when it comes to representative participation. Since both the number and percentage of non-White individuals in the US increased in the duration ranging from 2016-2019, simply being representative would suggest an increase in non-White onsite participation. The US non-White population increased by 2.3% from 2016 to 2019. Had art museums (for instance) simply kept pace with demographic trends, they would have experienced a 2.3% increase in non-White onsite engagement from 26.8% in 2016 to 27.4%. Instead, they experienced a slight decline.
How is this possible? While it may be true that there’s been added focus on engaging more diverse audiences, cultural organizations have also gotten even better at engaging the same types of people.
Cultural organizations exist in an increasingly competitive market for leisure time. The kind of people who leave their homes to go to theater performances or history museums are also the kind of people who leave their homes to go to restaurants and concerts. In an increasingly digital world, ads have become more targeted and competition to engage audiences has become fiercer across the whole spectrum of leisure enterprise. Cultural organizations have necessarily grown more efficient in engaging those with the highest propensity to visit their organizations.
Audience research is critical for cultural organizations – but the lack of accessible, high-confidence market research may have also fueled this fire. Many cultural entities collect data on their audiences, as they are the easiest sources from which to gather critical information. But audience research without market research (i.e. data that includes the people who do NOT attend) informs the development of programming designed to reach the same audiences. Basically, we’ve become masters of cultural remarketing and retargeting – and this strategy serves our current constituencies very well. However, it risks an engagement echo chamber by potentially failing to account for the people whom our organizations may not currently serve.
This does represent an opportunity of sorts! The increase in repeat visitation we’ve observed over the years for cultural organizations may be a benefit for membership programs. Membership and subscription programs can cultivate valuable audience members who can help widen the circle of attendees and can provide the necessary funds to develop more programs to effectively engage new audiences. The same is true for success we’re seeing in cultivating target audiences. These folks whom we’ve learned to most effectively target can provide necessary revenue to reinvest in new audience acquisition.
This finding is a call to strategize around revenues and spending related to engaging more diverse audiences. Indeed, the revenue resulting from increased knowledge of current visitors can help make reinvestments in engaging new audiences possible in the first place – and fuel their sustainability over time.
We arguably have half of this engagement/reinvestment strategy down rather well: Motivating the type of person who already visits. And that’s great! We need this to survive! Now for the other half: Reinvesting some of that revenue to effectively and efficiently engage new audiences so cultural entities can be more representative and also evolve alongside population growth. That is an important business opportunity as well as a DEI imperative.
A solution to sustainably engaging new audiences? Activate inactive visitors
From an onsite engagement standpoint, it’s a myth that you have only two audiences – the people who visit and the people who don’t.
Or, rather, it’s a myth that thinking about audiences this way does an organization any good.
Not everybody who doesn’t visit is disinterested. Some people have interest but need added motivation to attend! Inversely, not everyone who doesn’t attend has any interest in visiting and “just needs proper motivation.” Some people simply don’t want to – and won’t – visit. From eating avocados to wearing sandals to attending sporting events, not everyone wants to do everything – even if they are welcome to do so and even if some might argue that it’s “good for them.”
Users and non-users are an economic reality. (Visitors and non-visitors are an economic reality.) That’s just how free markets work. But that doesn’t mean that these organizations cannot or should not be more representative on several fronts.
A) We call people with interest but who do not attend “inactive visitors”
It’s much more helpful to recognize that there are really four key potential visitor subsets – active visitors (people who actively attend), inactive visitors (those with interest but who do not attend for one reason or another), unlikely visitors (those who do not have interest in attending but will go if they must – usually due to social forces such as Grandma coming to town or the company holiday party), and non-visitors (people who have no interest in visiting… and simply won’t).
Active visitors make up 16.1% of the US population. In other words, 16% of people in the United States have visited any kind of cultural organization in the last two years. (Is that number lower than you thought? This might be why.) Inactive visitors make up 16.2% of the US population. These inactive visitors represent a big, untapped opportunity roughly the same size as our active visitors! They are defined by their interest in attending – they just haven’t been properly motivated to do so yet.
B) Inactive visitors are more racially diverse than current visitors
While identifying as a White non-Hispanic individual is the single most shared attribute of an active visitor, race doesn’t even make the list of the most-shared characteristics among inactive visitors.
Inactive visitors aren’t night-and-day different than current visitors. In fact, they share some important similarities. Like active visitors, they are super-connected to the web. with access to it at home, at work, and on a mobile device. They are similarly likely to be highly educated. They still tend to be foodies. But they are more racially diverse – and they tend to be more active, too.
People who have visited any kind of cultural organization in the last two years (active visitors) make up 16.1% of the US population, and of this 16.1%, 74.6% of them self-identify themselves as White non-Hispanic individuals. People with interest who have not attended a cultural organization in the last two years (inactive visitors) make up 16.2% of the US population. Of this 16.2%, 58.7% self-identify as White non-Hispanic individuals. The people who are interested in attending but have not been properly motivated to do so yet are more racially diverse than our current visitors.
There aren’t just the people who visit us and the completely-different-in-every-way people who don’t. People are more than their demographics – they are their psychographic and behavioral attributes, too. And those contribute to the propensity to visit cultural organizations as well!
There is a very meaningful segment of people who are like our current visitors in many ways… and also represent important and different voices, backgrounds, and cultural experiences. These individuals have an interest in visiting, and can help cultural entities grow more meaningful and inclusive in their offerings.
C) Activating inactive visitors can help move the needle and welcome more audiences
While unlikely and non-visitors are also more diverse than current visitors, they are defined by their lack of interest in attending in the first place. A hopeful goal would be to transition non-visitors to unlikely visitors, and unlikely visitors into inactive visitors, and, ultimately, inactive visitors into active visitors.
Activating people interested in what we do (but perhaps without the historic experience of visiting) is how we are going to broaden and diversify “the type of person” who visits cultural organizations over time. It is irrefutably more efficient and effective to expand our reach by successfully engaging those who already have interest in visiting as opposed to trying – likely in vain – to convince thoroughly disinterested people to visit. By engaging these more diverse – and already actively interested – minds and voices onsite, we open the door to other minds and voices in a way that is sustainable and supports lasting diversity, equity, and inclusion improvements. Plus, getting better at engaging these more diverse inactive visitors is cost-effective! That is especially important as organizations may reopen to tighter wallets post-coronavirus closures.
There’s a lot to this conversation. Next Wednesday, we’ll share additional data on inactive and unlikely visitors to cultural organizations and what is affecting their decisions to attend.
D) This is a marathon – not (only) a sprint.
How can we make people feel more welcome? What needs to fundamentally change in how we think about reaching people? What needs to change in how we communicate? How about how we operate? Or how we address the historical context of cultural institutions and their collections? What needs to be addressed, forgiven, or mended – and how can we do that? To use the metaphor popularized by audience development consultant Donna Walker-Kuhne, how do we invite new audiences to the party? There are a lot of important questions here. This conversation needs more voices, more experts, and more attention to uncover the answers.
Market research and behavioral economics are our lane – and that lane is a necessary pathway to fact-based discussions ranging from pricing strategies to digital engagement to access programs. But the lane where science meets art?
It needs the voices of experts – of people like you who do this important work on the ground or lead others in this movement. It needs the voices of the people who walk through our doors – as well the voices of those who don’t.
We hope to help experts and leaders to have these important conversations with hard facts at their fingertips. There’s a lot to cover. We’re in it with you. We’ll continue to share market research on this topic as we are able.
This is only one part of a bigger and more important conversation with many voices to be heard.
Here are some hard facts to contribute to it.
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