Does Cultural Track Data Challenge Assumptions About Your Community?

As I promised in my last post, I took a deeper look at the Culture Track reporting over the weekend.  More specifically, I took at a look at both the Top Line deck and Supporting Data documents which are available for download. I didn’t review the raw data.

The Supporting Data document is presented with visual graphs which makes it easy to interpret. Though I also hungered for some analytical commentary from the Culture Track folks about what the greater implications might be.

A few observations from Supporting Data in the hopes of making the opportunity to dig in irresistible for readers.

First of all, the charts seem to belie the idea that Millennials are  abandoning cultural experiences. Except for watching TV (which includes streaming) they lead in every category. This is only one of three pages.


Now you may be saying, sure but participation once a year isn’t a high hurdle.

However, that generation also leads in frequency per month too.


If you remember what I quoted and wrote last week about the perceptions of those who were high frequency attenders, this has some important implications.

People who attend three or more cultural experiences per month are 94% more likely to cite “it doesn’t change” as a barrier to more frequent cultural participation compared those who attend one or fewer cultural experiences per month.

Given that what people define as a cultural experience is pretty broad, the chances that your average attendee is participating in three or more experiences a month is pretty good. Being 94% more likely to feel lack of change is a barrier to participation is pretty significant.

While you shouldn’t take all this information at face value without digging in and questioning the basis of the findings, the fact the data depicted may contradict your assumptions can be enough to get conversations started reevaluating long held beliefs.

The study authors slice and dice the data through a number of different lenses which make for interesting viewing. Most every question is presented in terms of generation, race/ethnicity, community size, education level, marital status and parental status.

So for example, the following information about where people get advertised and non-advertised information about cultural activities is presented in these contexts. (There is also a chart for offline information sources which I haven’t included)


Perhaps of most interest to different arts and cultural organizations, they break down motivators and barriers for participation for 12 different disciplines/cultural activities.

Below is a sample for art museums. There is also a chart with barriers for non-participants for each area.



NOTICE: The Response I Give May Only Reflect My Current Preferences

You may have already heard that the CultureTrack report was released yesterday. Compiled and released every three years by LaPlaca Cohen, the report helps track the ways in which attitudes toward culture are shifting.

I haven’t read the full report yet. Just looking at the summary on the animated and interactive site they set up for the report, I knew this would probably be something I returned to a couple times. So for your homework, review the site and we will talk about it more on Monday.

….Unless I get distracted by something else.

What first alerted me to the release of the study was an advance piece on Artsy titled “37% of Art Museum Visitors Don’t View Them as Culture,” which did its job in getting me to read more.

Sure enough the article notes that,

“For many respondents, going to the park or eating at a food truck counts as a cultural experience, while attending a museum does not.”

This wasn’t far off from some of the responses my organization got last winter during our listening tour where people listed going to the speedway as a favorite cultural experience.

Another interesting finding highlighted in the article was largest motivation to engage in cultural activities was to have fun.

Cultural activities continue to be a source of leisure and relaxation for many. The survey found that 81% of audiences are motivated to attend a cultural activity because they want to have fun. A desire to feel less stressed was tied in third place, along with “experiencing new things,” with 76% citing both as reasons for participation. 71% cited learning something new as a reason to participate in culture.

This doesn’t mean that levity must replace education at museums, noted Harnick, but rather that the two cannot be divorced from one another. Culture offers the opportunity to connect with other people and take a pause from daily life—today’s audiences are full of anxiety and looking for a chance to relax, a conclusion that gels with other findings that show high levels of anxiety among the general population.

I spoke to someone today who suggested the current political environment in the country might be contributing to that sense of anxiety.

In terms of barriers to participation, feeling that the experience wasn’t “for someone like me” topped the list.

I can’t really cover all the findings I found interesting, but here are a few to consider.

In terms of loyalty, people rated trustworthiness, consistent quality and customer service as the top three factors. Pricing and discounts were fifth and sixth. Social media and advertising were 10th and 11th with 15% and 13% of responses, respectively. So pricing and advertising aren’t big factors in building loyalty.

Since there is a discussion about whether people want to experience culture as a passive observer or an active participant, I was interested to read that 28% of people wanted their experience to be active and 24% wanted their experience to be calm. But as with everything, there was a bit of nuance illuminated by the data. (their emphasis)

Cultural audiences—like everyone—are multidimensional, and they have different needs and wants at different times, or even simultaneously. In fact, 15% of cultural consumers who chose “calm” as one of their top-three descriptors of an ideal cultural activity also chose “active,” while 24% of those who chose “reflective” also chose “social.”

In the same section, was another valuable insight about the desire for new experiences by active culture consumers (Their emphasis).

People who attend three or more cultural experiences per month are 94% more likely to cite “it doesn’t change” as a barrier to more frequent cultural participation compared those who attend one or fewer cultural experiences per month.

Given that what people define as a cultural experience is pretty broad, the chances that your average attendee is participating in three or more experiences a month is pretty good. Being 94% more likely to feel lack of change is a barrier to participation is pretty significant. I hope there is something in the report that provides more detail about what types of experiences people are participating in and what they feel isn’t changing. Is it the programming? The overall experience?

The section on the role of digital technology in a cultural experience was also quite interesting. People responded that they felt digital enhanced their experience, provided deeper understanding and allowed them to share their experience with friends.

However, the lack of opportunity to use digital made people feel they were able to focus and become more invested in the experience, made the experience feel more authentic and less complicated.

There is a lot more to learn from the detailed study. Or perhaps it is better to say, there is a lot more I hope to learn from the detailed study.

Perhaps the takeaway is, people are more nuanced than the feedback they are giving you at the moment. Whether it is an audience survey, a comment made on social media, or to the box office a statement should be view as “this is how I feel right now, but in other times and situations, my preferences may contradict what I just said.”

Take A Rare Opportunity To Review Others’ Reflections

Back in August I called attention to a transmedia project in Reading, PA, “This Is Reading,” that playwright Lynn Nottage and a host of others worked on creating to help the community tell stories about itself.

I had initially learned about the project via a post by Margy Waller and must credit her again for tweeting about a follow up conversation that occurred.

With such a push for placemaking and community building projects like “This Is Reading,” having access to the reflections of project participants is of great value to others engaging in similar work.  There are a number of observations and lessons learned that can provide guidance about what worked and what needed to be done better.  It is rare to have this type of material shared publicly so take advantage of the opportunity.

Not only does the newspaper article provide a summary of the report, the report itself is embedded in the webpage and is available for download.

The first thing that caught my eye was that the meetings from which the feedback was collected appeared to be driven by the participants’ desire to continue the momentum started by the project.  The impression I got from the article was that a post-mortem conversation hadn’t been planned, but the project leadership were wise enough to recognize the need to do so.

“The reason we wanted to do this meeting is because this was a more than five-year process,” he said of the installation. “A lot of the volunteers and a lot of the participants expressed interest in what’s next. To me, it was ‘Let’s debrief, let’s talk about it.’ “

The fact of Reading’s decline plays a large part in the content of the project and the subsequent feedback. (Recall the railroad was famous enough to be included in the Monopoly game.) There are multiple times in the report that the investment young people have in the community is called into question. This is in tension with the perception that the nostalgic project content had a greater resonance with older attendees than younger.

The article mentions that the phrase “Reading was…” kept coming up in conversations during the development phase of the project so the title “This Is Reading” was an attempt to emphasize the need to break from a focus on the past and dated thinking.

Given that this exactly mirrors the conversation occurring in the arts (perception youth are not committed, content only relevant to older generation) there are any number of lessons here for the arts and culture community.

Here is the summary listed in the newspaper article:

• Being a person of color in Reading is wrought with stress, tension and discomfort.
• Reading can be a vibrant center of arts and culture if there are significant outreach efforts to invite and welcome; the art is interesting to people of different ethnic, racial or economic backgrounds; and obstacles that prevent or deter participation are eliminated.
• Its self-perception impedes the city’s ability to move forward.
• There is a strong interest and desire in the resurrection of a rail system that would connect our community with nearby communities.
• Long-held community “stories” or narratives can be rewritten by the arts in public spaces.
• There is a desperate need for a shared downtown public performance arts space.
• The city needs a vision that focuses on what Reading is and can be, not what it was.
• Youth and young adults in Reading need to be encouraged, developed and engaged.
• Leadership is needed to champion efforts to build on “This Is Reading,” and the most effective champion would be the city.

An Authentic Experience Is A Branded Experience

When people are surveyed about what they want out of an interaction with the arts, among the top answers are authentic experience and an opportunity to share that experience with family and friends.

Within the last two days I saw two articles that address how many companies are addressing this expectation among consumers.

The first was a story on Slate about how Apple’s Genius bars were developed to answer this emerging desire.

…stores and malls are looking to adopt the holistic, experiential attitude toward retail space that Apple helped pioneer, one that lures customers out of the house with an idea of service that goes far beyond sales. Sephora will put on your makeup. Sur la Table will teach you how to cook. After last week’s TaskRabbit acquisition, it looks like Ikea is about to start assembling your furniture.


…Apple retail head Angela Ahrendts unveiled at the company’s keynote last month in Cupertino, California. “We actually don’t call them stores anymore,” she said. “We call them town squares.” As a metaphor for the tech industry’s appropriation of the public sphere, it seemed a bit on the nose. But it’s a fitting culmination of Johnson’s initial strategy to cloak the exchange of cash in civitas.

If you think recasting an Apple Store as a town square is a cynical corporate attempt to cultivate a relationship with consumers, you may not like reading a piece that appeared today on CityLab that talks about corporate attempts to create a “branded experience.” In the context of the Slate story, Apple either pioneered the idea or was on the leading edge of an emerging trend.

The story primarily talks about branded environments in NYC so the demand for such experiences may not translate to other communities. Though I would suspect the differences are only a matter of time and degree.

I was interested to read the following which makes an argument for why in-person interactions in physical spaces remain important even if they aren’t as convenient.

The current conventional wisdom on retail holds that digital sales cannot reach far enough on their own to build sustainable customer bases, so digital-first brands have migrated toward physical stores, pop-up shops, and other experiential marketing strategies.


The new branded space doesn’t merely satisfy a customer preference for finding products IRL. It opens up a new inflection in retail’s historical role as a venue for urban sociality, spectacle, and leisure.

So while brands strive to enable people to represent their own personal brand, the ubiquity of images of other people’s similarly “authentic” experiences creates a growing sense of dissatisfaction with one’s own. In other words, back before social media expanded our awareness, ignorance was bliss.

What happens when everyone is hunting for unique markers of personality and taste while simultaneously emulating widely popular and algorithmically curated patterns of behavior?

Consumers craving “authentic” experiences tend to build their digital personas by recycling the same kinds of content that populate their own feeds. Especially on Instagram, photos of under-the-radar coffee shops, building interiors, and artful design objects begin to look utterly banal as they aggregate by the thousand. The real world, without any impetus other than the encouragement of the market, has conformed to these aesthetic standards in response.

As they (actually, Alfred Korzybski) say, the map is not the territory. The experience is the experience, not the picture of the experience.

Perhaps one of the challenges arts and cultural organizations will face is that after pouring a lot of thought and energy into wholly revamping the experience they provide, people may still be dissatisfied due to what they value.

But that isn’t new. There has never not been a misalignment between an experience and what is valued by those present. Not everything we do is for everyone. You don’t have to stand for an ovation at the end of the show and clap as hard as the next person.

If you read the CityLab article and shudder at the prospect of having to compete with the expectations created by a Cadillac showroom/lifestyle space  that bills itself as “Public Meeting Place Where Innovators, Creators and the Curious Can Find Inspiration–and one another,” yeah that is simultaneously intimidating and perplexing.

Chances are, that showroom concept isn’t going to be exist outside of NY, LA and Chicago. You know your community and the opportunities that exist to shape experience expectations. It is good to be aware that influences like Cadillac House are likely to seep into your community and influence expectations so stay aware and consider your response.