No, BIPOC visitors to museums and performing arts organizations are not necessarily low-income individuals. Here’s data to finally nip this in the bud once and for all.
To successfully engage lower-income households onsite, entities must first stop conflating ethnic diversity with household income diversity.
Bluntly: Entities cannot infer anything about an individual’s household income by the color of their skin.
That sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But the misperception that cultural organization leaders can ascertain the success of affordable access initiatives with their eyeballs alone underscores that there may be some racism to nip in the bud as the industry expands its access programming. We’re referring to common visual assessment statements such as, “I was pleased to see so many lower income attendees when I was onsite this weekend!” The frequency with which we’re still hearing versions of these statements also represents an opportunity to share some hard facts about museum and performing arts audiences.
Let’s talk numbers. While this article will show household incomes for visitors and patrons beyond self-identified Black and African American individuals, let’s first start with this example:
According to the US Census Bureau, the median White non-Hispanic household income is a staggering 63.6% higher household income than the median Black or African American household income. This represents a host of critical issues for us to grapple with and work to correct as a country, and it’s a fact that we do a disservice to overlook.
This may also contribute to the misguided intuition that leads some leaders to assume that the average Black museum or theater visitor has a 63.6% lower median household income than does a White visitor. Executives may assume that the people who visit cultural entities representatively match or are similar to the overall population of the United States. After all, museums and performing arts organizations are striving to be more representative!
But consider this: The average person who has visited a museum in the last three years has a 20.8% higher household income than the average American, regardless of race or ethnicity.
So which is more likely to be the case for an average self-identified Black museumgoer roaming the galleries – that they have 63% lower household income than the average White museum attendee, or that they have higher household income than the overall US population because they have chosen to spend their leisure time at a museum?
Let’s look at the data. (And let’s again reiterate that it’s not possible to know a single individual’s household income by their skin color (period) – and this is especially true onsite at a museum or performing arts organization.)
Information on the overall US median household income by race or ethnic group indicated in the chart below comes from the US Census Bureau. Data indicated by the blue bar is from IMPACTS Experience’s work with the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study. It shows the median household incomes of individuals in the United States who have visited a cultural organization in the last three years, and their self-reported identities of Asian, White non-Hispanic, Black or African American, and Hispanic (of any race). Of course, there are many people do not self-identify into any of these four categories, and we are monitoring more racial and ethnic self-identifications than those shown here. However, in an effort to most efficiently and effectively communicate the key takeaways of this research to a broad range of leaders, we’ve chosen to show the four largest self-identification categories that match US census categorizations in this article. If you’re interested in a further breakdown or a deeper dive into one region or organization type, we’re happy to work with you to share that information.
On the whole, cultural organization visitors have notably higher household incomes than the overall population, regardless of race or ethnicity. For Asian visitors, the median household income is 10% higher than the median household income among all self-identified Asians. As a further example, median household income levels are 12% higher for White non-Hispanic cultural visitors when compared to the broader self-identified White non-Hispanic population. Hispanic visitors have a notable 39% higher median household income than the overall US median for Hispanic individuals. And, get this: Black and African American visitors indicate a staggering 65% higher than the median household income for others self-identified within this cohort!
(We have two technical notes. First, it is a best practice among data-collecting entities to report household income in median values rather than mean values. Averages can be dramatically skewed by the ultra-wealthy. Second, the blue bar represents the median for all cultural visitors within the last three years over age 18, including those who may have attended programs that were specifically designed to reach affordable access audiences or attended on discount, though discounted and free days generally attract higher income visitors than general admission days and free museums do not generally attract lower income visitors than those that charge admission – further underscoring a point in this article that we need more thoughtful programs to effectively welcome lower-income individuals.)
Please note that in general, Black and Hispanic cultural organization visitors have a higher median income than the White non-Hispanic US median!
If you’ve assumed that your organization is reaching more affordable access audiences based upon how people look, then this is the wake-up call to check yourself. If someone is inside of a museum or performance space, they are likely a higher-income individual – regardless of race or ethnicity.
“But this research blends both exhibit and performance-based cultural entities! Some organization types attract higher or lower median household income individuals!”
This is a good point. For instance, zoos attract a wider (and lower overall median) range of household incomes than do symphonies. To that end, let’s take a look at the research broken down by some broad visitor-serving categories:
This information is rich for workshopping, but there are three key findings beyond what we’ve already discussed that are perhaps worthy of contemplation:
1) Racial and ethnic diversity onsite is not the same as income diversity onsite.
Let’s challenge the seemingly prevalent assumption (conscious or not) that BIPOC visitors may be lower-income that keeps stubbornly creeping into access conversations. This assumption demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding about cultural audiences at its best, and racism at its worst. While it’s true that certain cohorts may generally report lower household incomes than others, the individuals onsite at a museum or performing arts organization are people who have chosen to spend their time at a museum or performing arts organization. This decision aligns with certain psychographic and behavioral findings – not only demographic findings. (This isn’t to say that demographic findings are irrelevant. On to the next point…)
2) However, there is an observed gap in the household incomes of visitors based on self-identified race and ethnicity.
This is worthy of work to overcome – both on a national level and within cultural organizations. BIPOC individuals represent a notably underserved audience for cultural organizations. As entities work to become more representative of the US population (and if household income isn’t able to swiftly become more equitably balanced), then it’s likely that the median income for cultural entities would more closely approximate the national numbers. Of course, a common goal of cultural organizations is to change up and expand the “type of person” who visits museums and performing arts entities so that it is more diverse and representative. Cultural organization visitors are not representative of the US population (yet). If leaders operate as if museum visitors represent the full spectrum of the US population before it is true, we jeopardize our ability to create programs that may actually help achieve this goal. And if we choose to willfully ignore our blind spots, we may be doomed to never engage audiences who are representative of our community at appropriate rates. (And on that note…)
3) If you’re serious about engaging lower-income individuals, target programs specifically to affordable access audiences – not races or ethnicities.
Cultural entities may maintain two ongoing initiatives at the same time: to engage more BIPOC individuals at representative rates within their communities, and also to engage more lower-income individuals at representative rates within their communities. These initiatives may overlap (as a product of decades of ongoing systemic racism that feed gaps in household income), but they are not the same. When leaders consciously or unconsciously assume that they are, we may jeopardize our ability to succeed on both fronts.
At IMPACTS Experience, we’ve found that the most successful programs for reaching affordable access audiences in the cultural industry specifically target lower-income communities. Such programs are most certainly not general discounts for all. They often involve thoughtful initiatives focused on people who live in lower-income areas who may have interest but may not otherwise have the means to visit a cultural entity.
Cultural organization audiences have historically tended to best serve higher-income individuals, and there are certainly income gaps between racial and ethnic cohorts. We need to know this in order to assess what it means, and to work to create effective programs to change it. We do ourselves – and our communities – a disservice when we conflate racial and ethnic diversity with income diversity when it comes to onsite cultural engagement. In our efforts to be more inclusive, cultural entities must actively welcome both income diversity and racial and ethnic diversity on site. These efforts may overlap in some cases as we work to make our communities more equitable, but beware of quick judgements that they are the same.
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