Reggae to Rachmaninoff - A Brighter Picture of Arts Participation

January 30, 2003

Reggae to Rachmaninoff, Presents Bolder, Brighter Picture of Arts Participation with Social, Religious, and Civic Interests Taking Center Stage

Author(s): The Urban Institute
Contact: Stu Kantor, (202) 261-5283,
Soneni Smith, (212) 251-9861,

WASHINGTON, D.C., January 30, 2003—When people are asked how, why, and where they take part in the arts, the nation's cultural landscape grows far broader and more active than commonly perceived, according to the first arts participation survey in which respondents identified their cultural activities and reasons for being involved.

The Urban Institute survey, supported by The Wallace Foundation, punches holes in the perception that a sharp division exists along economic and social lines when it comes to arts participation. At least 46 percent of those who took part in the arts in each of the five survey sites reported attending a wide variety of cultural events, spanning those typically categorized as "classic" or "popular."

The study revealed that the most active arts participants were also deeply engaged in many civic activities, demonstrating the close ties between the arts and community life. Reggae to Rachmaninoff: How and Why People Participate in Arts and Culture was produced by researchers Chris Walker and Stephanie Scott-Melnyk with Kay Sherwood.

"At a time when so many decry a decline in civic life, this research suggests that the arts may be a worthy antidote," says report coauthor Chris Walker, a senior research associate in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute.

Researchers found that the primary reasons people gave for being engaged in the arts were largely social and civic, and nearly all arts participants reported attending an event in a venue not ordinarily devoted to the arts, such as a community center, restaurant, or club. The study, conducted by the nonpartisan Urban Institute, was part of its evaluation of The Wallace Foundation's $9.5 million, five-year Community Partnerships for Cultural Participation initiative to enlist community foundations in strengthening local participation in arts and culture.

Scope of Study
The study asked about attendance at any live musical, theatrical, or dance event and about visual-arts experiences in or out of a museum. This query resulted in an expansive arts definition that makes room for such music as rock, soul, ethnic, country, and reggae; for puppet and street theater; and for visual arts (excluding movies) seen in public spaces, festivals, and fairs. Other arts research, in contrast, usually covers only classical music, opera, jazz, the blues, ballet, modern dance, professional or community theater, and museum-based visual arts.

Urban Institute researchers gathered data in the fall of 1998 from 2,406 randomly telephoned adults in the Kansas City metropolitan area and four California communities: rural Humboldt County; Mayfair, a low-income, largely Hispanic neighborhood in San Jose; Milpitas, an affluent San Jose suburb; and the agricultural town of Gilroy.

Arts Participation Higher When Using Broader Definition Not unexpectedly, the frequency and range of activities are higher for people with more income and education. Less predictably, a broader definition of arts participation dramatically increases rates of involvement for some places and art forms.

The difference is most dramatic for Mayfair, where involvement is 77 percent higher under a broad definition of arts participation, moving to a 55 percent rate from a narrow definition's 31 percent rate. The increase in Kansas City is 25 percent—from a 67 percent rate with the narrow definition to an 84 percent rate under the broad definition—and the other three communities have rates at least 29 percent higher when an expansive definition is used.

People who take part in civic, political, and religious activities, such as attending worship services, being registered to vote, and volunteering, also participate in the arts more often than those not active in their communities. Those who attend religious services at least once a year, for example, are almost three times more likely than nonattendees to be at a cultural event.

Social, Civic Connections Key to Participation
A striking finding is how frequently people relate their participation to social and civic purposes. Socializing with friends or family, at 63 percent, was the top motivation in Kansas City. Residents of Mayfair pointed to celebrating cultural heritage as their number one reason (61 percent). Other leading reasons: to support a family member or friend; support important community organizations or events; experience high-quality art; learn about another time, culture, or art form; and attend a religious service, ceremony, or ritual.

Nontraditional Venues Most Popular
People are as likely to attend artistic and cultural events at community locations as at specialized arts venues. Ninety-two percent of all participants reported going to an event in a place not ordinarily devoted to the arts. The four most frequently mentioned sites: parks and streets, 69 percent of respondents; schools and colleges, 56 percent; concert halls and theaters, 52 percent; and places of worship, 49 percent.

Lessons Learned
Five lessons emerge from this research for those seeking to increase participation in the arts:

  • Social and family connections are a path to engagement in the arts for many individuals.
  • People define arts participation more broadly than cultural institutions have assumed and they participate in a wide variety of cultural events.
  • Many arts participants are actively engaged in their communities in multiple ways.
  • Non-arts organizations that sponsor arts events represent an important path to arts participation.
  • Religious institutions are important community providers of cultural opportunities, independently and as part of worship services.

The study prompts several other lessons for those interested in building community:

  • Frequent arts participants are important potential allies because they tend to be active in the community's religious, civic, and political life.
  • Opportunities for civic participation should be reconceived to encompass arts and culture.
  • Active cultural participation often indicates a strong civic bent and interest in learning about other cultures.

Reggae to Rachmaninoff: How and Why People Participate in Arts and Culture, by Chris Walker and Stephanie Scott-Melnyk with Kay Sherwood, is the first in a series of reports from the Urban Institute's evaluation of The Wallace Foundation's Community Partnerships for Cultural Participation initiative.

Reggae to Rachmaninoff and a companion brief, Arts & Culture: Community Connections, may be accessed on the Urban Institute Website, or on The Wallace Foundation's web site at Among the topics of upcoming monographs are making the case for cultural participation, partnerships among arts entities, and partnerships between arts and non-arts organizations. More Urban Institute research on the arts, culture, and community building may be found on the Urban Institute web site at

The Urban Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research and educational organization that examines the social, economic, and governance challenges facing the nation.