This morning a group of some 200 arts professionals gathered at the TimesCenter, an event space owned by the New York Times, to hear the latest results from Culture Track, an ongoing study that follows Americans’ participation in cultural events. Developed by the marketing firm LaPlaca Cohen (which specializes in museum and other creative institution branding), Culture Track is billed as “the largest national tracking study focused exclusively on the ever-changing attitudes and behaviors of U.S. cultural consumers.” This year’s survey, the sixth since 2001, polled a sample of 4,026 Americans that reflects the country’s demographics.
What did it find? In a 45-minute presentation this morning, Arthur Cohen, CEO of LaPlaca Cohen, laid out the not entirely surprising results in a series of colorful and friendly digital slides that were focused, in his words, on “storytelling.” The story contained both good and bad news: cultural participation has increased almost across the board since 2011, most prominently at all kinds of museums (“living,” e.g. zoos, as well as science, history, art); on the other hand, the number of events people attend each month has decreased, and memberships and subscriptions have dropped drastically. One of Cohen’s buzz words to describe cultural consumers today was “promiscuous” — the idea that we’re less likely to be tied to one art form or medium and more likely to sample across the board (I prefer the term “cultural omnivore,” but hey, I don’t make the PowerPoints).
To that end, Culture Track also contends that people are thinking more broadly about what constitutes a cultural experience than they have before. To back this up, Cohen’s slides offered the following information:
- 79% of those surveyed consider going to the park a cultural activity
- 66% say the same of seeing a broadcast of a live performance in a movie theater
- 64% each with respect to street art and “food and drink experiences”
- 56% with respect to seeing a film at an independent theater
- 51% regarding watching noncommercial TV
- 41% regarding watching a live or recorded lecture online
Now, you may be wondering, as I was, what year it is if we’re marking it noteworthy or surprising that people count filmgoing at an independent theater as a cultural activity. Cohen’s curious distinctions gave the presentation an antiquated air, hinting back at dated metrics that consider theater, classical music, and visual art the consummate cultural experiences. This wasn’t helped by a tangent explaining his only recent revelation that “television is important” or his mispronunciation of the famous street artist’s moniker as “Bansky.”
On the topic of sociability, Cohen and Culture Track were a bit more illuminating. “Culture is first and foremost social,” he said, leading into a slide that showed participants’ top reasons for participating in culture: first came entertainment and enjoyment, followed by spending time with friends and family. Almost half of millenials (43%), he added, say they won’t go to an event if they have to do so alone.
Social, of course, means social media too, and Culture Track’s findings indicate, predictably, that millenials use online networks (Facebook and YouTube the most) as a heavy source of decisions about how and where to participate in culture, whereas those in older generations still rely on sources like newspapers and TV. Interestingly, it also found that while the number of people who think that sponsorship is just a marketing tactic has grown to from 26% to 35%, more than half of respondents (55%) nonetheless think highly of those sponsors. “Everyone’s a brand; everyone’s cool with marketing,” Cohen said.
Mobile device ownership has grown tremendously since 2011, but according to Culture Track, usage of those devices to enhance cultural experiences remains quite low. Among those who are using mobile devices, the numbers confirm what you might have guessed: 66% are taking photos, and 47% are sharing photos. That chart was preceded by a slide featuring a terribly staged picture of a woman holding out her cell phone and taking a selfie with an ancient Greek or Roman sculpture. The picture became a sticking point for director Julie Taymor in the panel “discussion” — it was, if we’re being honest, more a series of questions for each participant than any kind of discussion — that followed Cohen’s presentation. Joining Taymor were Max Anderson, director of the Dallas Museum of Art; Stephen Bruno, president of marketing for the Weinstein Company; Rebecca Eaton, executive director of Masterpiece; and Jordan Roth, president of Jujamcyn Theaters and founder of a cultural lists website called Culturalist (get it?), with New York Times Culture Editor Danielle Mattoon moderating.
Taymor was by far the most animated and entertaining, if not the most articulate. She spoke in jumbled thoughts and seemed at times to be completely out of touch — “What is that about?!” she asked of the selfie picture, and claimed never to have heard the word “millenial” before — while at other times quite incisive, as when she pointed out the strange exclusion of television from the study and discussed the breaking down of boundaries between art forms. Anderson was largely mum, but what he did speak about was interesting enough to potentially spark another whole discussion: the success of the DMA’s new free membership program, which has inspired tens of thousands of people to join the institution, and the fact that the median income of those new members is $40,000, well below comparable figures at other museums with more traditional membership models.
By its end, the panel devolved into an all-too-common discussion about the meaning and future of technology as it relates to the arts, and no one was saying anything particularly interesting. One audience member raised her hand to point out that everyone onstage at the TimesCenter was white and asked how race factored into Culture Track’s findings and breakdowns. The short answer? It didn’t. A missed opportunity to examine an issue we don’t discuss enough, rather than speculate on something already approaching death by overspeculation.
Highlights from the Culture Track 2014 report can be accessed on LaPlaca Cohen’s website.