The past few years have seen powerful studies on barriers to arts engagement, beginning with the NEA’s When the Going Gets Tough report from 2015. Createquity’s report from the same year, Why Don’t They Come? showed the powerful chart, below, about cost barriers to participation. It shows that 40% of interested non-attendees cited cost as a participation barrier are within the bottom income quartile, and the percent same lack education beyond high school.
The readers of these two reports would rightly say that education and income are THE barriers – findings not a surprise within the field, given the volume of research on each.
In response, America’s major funders of audience engagement have rolled out important transformations to their own funding. These focus on building engagement within diverse communities. For example, the James Irvine Foundation has refined its engagement work to “building the field of organizations that are making changes to bring about more substantive, sustainable arts engagement” with diverse and low-income Californians. The Keenan Trust’s $6 million engagement initiative is focused on “justice oriented giving that creates equitable access for all.” I encourage all audience engagement workers to read Mike Scutari’s excellent piece in Inside Philanthropy to gain more context on these: https://www.insidephilanthropy.com/home/2017/6/8/how-are-funders-boosting-engagement-across-diverse-communities.
He ends his piece by writing “As funders increasingly embrace an ROI mindset, organizations need to establish firm guard rails around what constitutes successful engagement, particularly across diverse audiences.”
That’s a deeply thought-provoking question in and of itself: just what is successful engagement? But add to this question a stark, overwhelming and completely non-arts report just out that every cultural leader, marketer, and engagement specialist must read. Out of Reach, The High Cost of Housing 2017 must be read to understand what has been the missing third leg of the barrier stool to lack of participation primarily among those with less education and less income. Out of Reach, The High Cost of Housing 2017 .
In New York State, a worker earning minimum wage must work 101 hours a week for 52 weeks a year to afford rent for a one bedroom apartment (median cost). In North Carolina, that worker only needs to work 72 hours per week. In Colorado, 75. Lack of time to attend the arts? For sure. Lack of money – because many minimum wage earners can’t take on 101 hours of work a week, thus meaning the lion’s share of what they do earn goes to rent and utilities even before food? For certain.
The report digs far deeper. For example, New Hampshire – a state with moderate cost of living – a worker must earn just under $22 an hour 52 weeks a year, an annual income over $45,000 – to afford a Fair Market Rent 2 bedroom apartment. At minimum wage, that same 2 bedroom Fair Market Value apartment would require 3 renters just to make it, or a couple could afford it if each worked 60 hours a week. Many recent college grads there, or anywhere, who have the educational background and supposed income to participate in the arts, and have the desire to do so, are also smack in the center of this dilemma. Add in for them the cost of loan payments for that costly education, and there is nothing left for the arts. It is no wonder that Createquity’s 2015 report found that the greatest alternative to arts participation is television. Time to participate? No. At a certain point, exhaustion trumps interest.
The meaning of this for arts engagement strategists is profound, coming back to Scutari’s question: just what is successful engagement? Unless art can be consumed easily, casually, inexpensively, and yes – while sitting exhausted on that sofa – it may systemically remain out of reach for at least one-third of our population, based on the Out of Reach report. Remember, many of these fall into the inclined-to-participate spectrum, and they range from newly minted college grads to workers earning minimum wage. If rent was not all-consuming, many of these would be willing arts participants.
But there are answers. Some of them may be simple, and some are simply entrepreneurial, for example investment in more extensive curated, polished and engaging content available to stream. And, it shouldn’t just be affordable housing advocates who examine the crippling issue of un-affordable housing in America. Every arts, entertainment, cultural, museum, and heritage leader should join in. This third leg of the stool must become fully understood as a barrier to arts participation. Research needs to look at what viable engagement in the arts is to one who works 60 hours a week. How can the arts fit into that life? What does viable engagement look like to the highly educated 20-something not making $45,000 a year, trying to meet rent and college loan payments? In this light, we need to again look at the delivery mechanisms and real ROI of new types of engagement options. Otherwise, the arts field’s focus on wage equity and increased arts learning and exposure for those whose education ends with high school won’t (alone) move the dial.
The White House’s proposed 2018 budget was release yesterday and showed – no surprise – an across the board move to eliminate federal agencies for arts, museums, libraries, history, heritage, preservation, culture…our national parks, education related to STEM and STEAM.
The total proposed cuts are $836.6 million. These keep agencies afloat while they close doors, and while (one suspects) they shutter national parks and monuments.
Dialogue and advocacy to forestall the cuts may again work. We hope.
Is there another hope, another way forward? Is this the time, before it is too late, to rethink and propose restructuring of the parallel entities that provide federal funding for America’s culture to develop a new national approach to support and a new national agenda, from a single, all encompassing platform?
It has been decades since the greats of America’s culture were brought together to work out an agenda for America’s national approach to funding. Since then, our culture has changed dramatically – exhibited in the design and intended outcomes of grants programs. But at the same time, the purpose and structures and mechanisms from the Federal government haven’t adjusted proactively, but re-actively, and in limited ways.
Is it too late for a national cultural summit? (Imagine one brought together by the White House together with the US Congress.) A summit that identifies the most essential, central role for Federal government and how that can be carried out, and that also addresses what has to be the matching role of philanthropy, state and local support, and even the role of the individual donor? Is it too late to state the core values that must drive federal investment in culture – the intrinsic reason that at a federal policy level our culture is essential to fund in ways that cannot be diminished? Many who oppose funding culture through the present agencies say, with some justification, that there have become too many ancillary value statements and not enough core value statements. Too much “it boosts the economy and it is good for education and it contributes to wellness” and not enough “it is who we are and why we have toiled as a nation since America was founded.”
Is there a threshold amount – however many millions – that the funding now administered by IMLS, NEA, NEH, National Park Service, National Science Foundation, State and Tribal Preservation Offices, NASA Office of Education and others cannot go below? Is there a safety net for American culture that must hold no matter what? How many millions in support must realistically become the responsibility of philanthropy? What is the amount that must become the responsibility of states – say, if they are going to receive any federal dollars for infrastructure or other programs? And what does the new support blueprint mean for every cultural nonprofit in America? What must their thinking be, in response?
Is it too late to get out of the boxes of self-interest – the arts versus the humanities versus preservation versus libraries versus museums versus science? If so, we have indeed lost our way. But if we could, and we could define a new way forward with no less passion and commitment than those who came together to forge the NEA, the NEA, the IMLS, our national preservation efforts and the work done by our National Park Service, we could potentially ignite new support. If we could look at synergies rather than the competition, and place it all in the context of today and tomorrow’s technologies, today and tomorrow’s value priorities, then we could advocate in a fresh rather than tired way.
Mine is just one small voice. I pray that voices with megaphones and podiums may call for this, and more. It must not be too late.
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