Time, Money and…the Cost of Rent. The Third Barrier to Arts Engagement

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 .

hours at minimum wage

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.