Art, Music, Theater and Dance: Who's Attending and Why?

November 14, 2005

The Wallace Foundation
Mary Trudel, 212 251-9815
Urban Institute
Stu Kantor, 202 261-5283

A provocative new study examines how and why people attend arts and cultural events and provides important insights for increasing attendance.

The Urban Institute study, Motivations Matter: Findings and Practical Implications of a National Survey of Cultural Participation, was commissioned by The Wallace Foundation.

The study gives cultural institutions a new understanding of what motivates audiences, and breaks out the differences by type of event.  It also identifies some important differences among members of different racial ethnic groups and among frequent, moderate, and less frequent attendees.

“Those who wish to understand or expand cultural participation need to pay much greater attention to its diversity. Participation in arts and cultural events is not monolithic, though it is frequently discussed and acted upon as if it were,” writes study author Francie Ostrower.

The report is loaded with new information cultural institutions should find very helpful.  Some examples:

  • Building audience size and frequency of attendance will do more financially for an institution than simply increasing the gate. There is a direct relationship between how often a person attends and how likely they are to become a donor, rising from 11% for infrequent attendees to 47% for frequent attendees.
  • People attend different types of cultural events for varying reasons. For instance, 65% of those visiting museums strongly desired to learn something new, but only 36% of playgoers wanted to gain knowledge, while 68% said socializing with friends and family was a primary motivation (respondents could select multiple answers).
  • Most people had the experiences they hoped to have at their most recently attended event. However, there were important variations by type of cultural event where significant numbers said their expectations were not met. For instance, while 65% of museum attendees said a major reason they attended was to gain knowledge or learn something new, only 51% strongly agreed they had.
  • Certain motivations varied for different racial and ethnic groups. Fifty percent of African-American respondents and 43% of Hispanics expressed a desire to learn about or celebrate their cultural heritage, while only 15% of white respondents did.
  • Frequent attendees more often reported strong positive experiences across a host of measures. Besides attending more kinds of live arts events, frequent participants are also “joiners,” who more often belong to associations, do volunteer work, attend religious services, and register to vote.
  • Clubs, restaurants, and coffeehouses were far more prominent venues for frequent arts attendees than for moderate and infrequent ones. A lesson for arts organizations seeking frequent attendees, the study says, is to advertise in these venues or, where feasible, use them for cultural presentations.

Bill Rauch, founding artistic director of Los Angeles’s internationally acclaimed Cornerstone Theater Company and associate artist at South Coast Rep and Yale Rep, praised the study for “confirming what we've sensed and even put into practice but not always been able to articulate: building arts participation must be rooted in understanding and meeting diverse audience motivations. The Wallace Foundation and the Urban Institute have taken a crucial first step in publicly illuminating the gaps and complexities in this process, and dispelling long-held myths.”

“Declining audience attendance numbers in several ‘mainline’ arts disciplines calls for an examination of what brings individuals to each arts engagement and what keeps them coming back for more. The Wallace Foundation sponsored this study to help arts institutions understand what motivates people to participate in the arts, how they participate and what their current experiences are,” said Nancy Devine, Director of Arts and Communities at The Wallace Foundation.

Study researchers asked a random sample of 1,231 adults about their participation patterns, motivations, and experiences during the previous 12 months. In a research innovation, they also probed respondents about their most recent cultural event to assess the gap between expectations and outcomes. The study looked at only live cultural attendance, excluding such activities as television use and reading.

Motivations Matter: Findings and Practical Implications of a National Survey of Cultural Participation and a more extensive presentation of the findings is available in a companion report, The Diversity of Cultural Participation: Findings from a National Survey for download at and

The Motivations Matter study is part of a series of reports on the subject of arts participation building which include Reggae to Rachmaninoff: How and Why People Participate in Arts and Culture; Partnerships Between Large and Small Cultural Organizations: A Strategy for Building Arts Participation; and Cultural Collaborations: Building Partnerships for Arts Participation, which can be found at and


The Urban Institute,, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research and educational organization that examines the social, economic, and governance challenges facing the nation. Through work that ranges from broad conceptual studies to administrative and technical assistance, researchers in the Institute’s 10 centers contribute to the stock of knowledge available to guide decisionmaking in the public interest.

The Wallace Foundation is an independent, national foundation dedicated to supporting and sharing effective ideas and practices that expand learning and enrichment opportunities for all people. Its three current objectives are:  strengthening education leadership to improve student achievement; enhancing out-of-school learning opportunities; and expanding participation in arts and culture. More information and research on these and other related topics can be found at The Wallace Foundation Knowledge Center at or by calling 212-251-9700.