From Attendance to Engagement

November 18, 2011 - Is the notion of "arts attendance" becoming obsolete?

Over the month of October, two important studies and one colloquium have come to converging conclusions, namely:

  1. Arts consumption – "attendance" as we know it – is being redefined, as people increasingly choose more active modes of arts participation;
  2. The notion of "place" – the arts venue – is also being challenged, as more and more arts participation takes place in informal settings.

While these shifts may represent challenges, they also offer new opportunities for presenting organizations and present new ways to conceive of audience development. Arts attendance is certainly not becoming obsolete, but how we think of it is bound to change.


Here's a closer look at some of the findings behind these conclusions, as well as some recommendations:


Ontario Arts Engagement Study
Study commissioned by the Ontario Arts Council and conducted by WolfBrown.

  • Online participation is a central aspect of the arts participation of younger adults, and, increasingly, many older adults. For example, 75 per cent of Ontarians age 18 to 34 download music at least once a year or more.  Consequently, programming efforts to increase arts engagement amongst younger adults should incorporate online tools and activities.
  • Age is highly correlated with arts engagement. Although levels of engagement in attendance-based activities like visiting art museums is relatively constant across age groups, Ontarians under 35 are twice as likely to be engaged in personal practice activities, such as playing an instrument, as those over 65.


  • Arts engagement is generally higher for Ontarians of racialized communities – driven primarily by overall higher levels of engagement in community-based arts activities and arts learning activities, especially arts learning and skills development activities (such as taking lessons or classes). Overall, engaging visible minorities will require a renewed focus on participatory activities, such as dance demonstrations and lessons after professional performances.


  • The home is the main setting for arts participation. The home is the predominant setting for engaging in music (89%), dance (51%) and visual arts (71%) activities.
  • While traditional arts venues (like theatre or concert facilities and museums/galleries) remain common settings, much arts participation takes place in informal settings like parks and outdoor spaces, bars/nightclubs, community centres and places of worship. This is particularly true of visible minorities, who are more likely to engage in music, theatre and visual arts in restaurants, bars and nightclubs, indicating a preference for informal and social settings.
  • The question of “where” arts participation happens, and how much emphasis should be given to informal versus formal settings is an essential conversation for arts organizations when considering programming and audience development.

This is only an incomplete snapshot of this important study. There is much more to it, including data that can inform arts promotion activities.


Youth, Cosmopolitanism and Digital Environment: Cultural Participation in Flux
Colloquium presented by Culture Montréal and Culture, October 3-4, 2011

Here are some conclusions from this colloquium, as reported by Denis Bertrand, consultant and blogger [translations].

  • Young adults find and consume the arts online:
    • Young adults use technology (including social media) to connect with the world. They first seek their arts intake online. They also create and share works of art online without any external support.
    • Social media are youth's main communication channel. They hardly use the phone any longer, and we cannot reach them via traditional media (newspaper, radio, television).


  • Younger people and ethnoracial communities participate in the arts outside of traditional arts venues:
    • In the digital era, art is no longer meant to be met at a dedicated date and time; art is accessible 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Traditional cultural infrastructures (i.e., theatres) are no longer the sole places for cultural vitality in a community. Any venue or context has a cultural potential.
    • Ethnoracial communities have their own networks for cultural participation, creation and presentation. They hold with success their cultural events in public venues, such as places of worship or community halls.


  • Other findings:
    • Younger adults are more ready to be open to other cultures and to decipher their codes.
    • Teenagers are first interest in popular culture. They develop interests in classical arts later, at school and through their social networks.


Getting In On the Act: How Arts Groups are Creating Opportunities for Active Participation
Study commissioned by The James Irvine Foundation and conducted by WolfBrown

  • Arts participation is being redefined as people increasingly choose to engage with art in new, more active and expressive ways... We are in the midst of a seismic shift in cultural production, moving from a “sit-back-and-be-told culture” to a “making-and-doing-culture.”

This study proposes an Audience Involvement Spectrum, a five-stage model illustrating a progression of involvement from “spectating” – in which the audience member plays only a minor role in shaping the artistic experience – to the point at which there is no conventional “audience” at all because every person involved is creating, doing or making art.

The study also proposes an outlook of the new cultural ecology and includes several illustrative case studies, with the aim of illuminating a growing body of practice around participatory engagement.


What does this mean for the presenting field?

Because series presenters and festivals are at the end of the creative chain (creation - production - presentation - consumption), they have little direct or indirect control over the engagement modes that involve participation of the audience in the creation or production processes. They however have control over their programming choices and can deliberately seek and select artistic propositions that rely on audience participation.

Moreover, presenting organizations also have control on how they communicate and develop relationships with their patrons, in person or via social media. They also have some varying degree of control over their choice of venues – including informal venues – for their presentation activities. All in all, they have the capacity to seize the opportunities created by this transformation of arts attendance into arts engagement.

Agents and managers may also have a role to play, by orienting their artists to these new practices of audience involvement, and by working along with presenters to facilitate participatory engagement around performances.

As Simon Brault, CEO of the National Theatre School, concluded at the end of Cultural Participation in Flux closing debate:

"It is important to take action ... This is not a matter of being pro or con [the digital era]; it is a matter of joining the conversation of the next generation." [translation]


Prepared for CAPACOA by Frédéric Julien