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Speak Out: New Study Reveals Paradigm Shifts Among Cultural Audiences

Editors note: See response by Kathleen Arffmann, Metropolitan Museum's former General Manager for Visitor Services

by Lisa Buchman
(special to arttimesjournal)
arttimesjournal November 16, 2017

In mid-October, a new study was released that measures the changing behaviors of cultural audiences nationwide. It contained many surprises. Culture Track ’17 affirms America’s interest in cultural activities, but they have to be fun, relieve stress, be interactive and social. When respondents were asked Why engage in a cultural activity? their top choice was to have fun. That’s was an “ah-ha” moment, according to Arthur Cohen whose company LaPlaca Cohen, the strategy, design, and marketing firm for the cultural world, that commissioned the study, which was conducted by Kelton Global. He said that this was not a frivolous response but speaks to a very fundamental need in our social history for the other.

“People are carrying around so much stuff. There is this notion that the everyday experience is much more characterized by dislocation and anxiety, so the need for culture has to be the opposite of that.” (The study was conducted earlier this year, after the Presidential election. ) The study also finds greater participation in leisure time activities. “We are in a unique socio-political moment, well into the new administration and that reflects the zeitgeist,” he said.

Culture Track ’17 was fielded nationwide with more than 4,000 respondents, all of whom had participated in at least one cultural activity in the past year. Respondents were 18 years or older, U.S. citizens, and representative of U.S. population demographics. Besides its findings as to why people engage in cultural activities, the study also revealed that there is a “loyalty revolution” in play. Less than a quarter of cultural audiences hold either a membership or subscription to a visual or performing arts organization. While they regard themselves as loyal to these organizations, the highest percentages are more loyal to restaurants or bars (58%) and retail stores (48%), than to cultural organizations (27%), with 61% viewing their loyalty to an organization as a “personal relationship.”  

According to Maggie Hartnick, Managing Director of LaPlaca Cohen, there’s been a paradigm shift in how the public views culture and the arts.  “Audiences nationwide are breaking down cultural norms and redefining them. Now culture can mean Caravaggio, Coachella, Tannhäuser, or taco trucks.”

The study showed, for example, that:

The lesson, Hartnick noted, is that the definition of culture has democratized, possibly to the point of extinction. Activities that have traditionally been considered “culture” and those that haven’t are now on a level playing field. “Therefore, museums and performing arts organizations need to change their ways of thinking. They must provide transformational experiences, build community, educate, and foster empathy. They also need to take a close look at how to best build loyalty. The subscription and membership models of the 1970s no longer resonate.”

Who’s Donating Where

Culture Track ‘17 also contrasted patterns of giving to cultural organizations against giving to other causes. According to the study, the top reasons for donating to nonprofit organizations are driven by their social impact, something that does not usually carry over to cultural audiences. The top three philanthropic causes are Children (42%), Religion (36%) and Health (35%), whereas Culture pulled in a mere 18%. Indeed, the two biggest reasons people gave for not donating to culture are that “other causes have greater impact” and “I only give to one cause” (both 25%).

What that means is that supporting culture for its own sake is no longer a given. “To inspire support, cultural organizations will need to work harder to measure, then articulate, what their distinct impact is on the community,” Hartnick explained. However, audiences still give consistently to cultural organizations, and the number seems to be growing: 41% of Culture Track ’17 respondents said they plan to donate to culture over the next 12 months, up from 33% of respondents in 2011. Perhaps surprisingly, a higher proportion of millennials’ (20%) donations to causes overall are higher than any other age group. However, Boomers give more to causes in terms of actual dollar amounts ($1,837 vs. $838.)

How Cultural Organizations Are Changing Their Models

Mr. Cohen noted that several organizations are creating new models of engagement based on consumers’ redefinition of culture. “Consumers continue to crave culture, but they want to consume it the way they consume other brands and experiences. They want culture to be more social and interactive, more relevant to them and their interests, and something new that broadens their perspectives.”

As a result, he pointed out that that many organizations are creating new models of engagement. For example:

Culture Track began in 2001 as a national research study of the changing behaviors of cultural audiences, developed pro-bono for the field by LaPlaca Cohen. Today, Culture Track has evolved to include a variety of different components (including online content at, talks and panels, and more), but the research study—which has been fielded seven times since 2001—is still at the heart of everything Culture Track does.

Culture Track ’17 can be explored at or by visiting The recording filmed at the launch can be viewed at