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Reggae to Rachmaninoff

How and Why People Participate in Arts and Culture

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Document date: November 30, 2002
Released online: November 30, 2002

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

About this Report

In 1997, the Wallace-Reader's Digest Funds launched a major national initiative to encourage community foundations to invest in broadening, deepening, and diversifying cultural participation in communities in the United States. The Community Partnerships for Cultural Participation (CPCP) initiative enlisted 10 community foundations as partners and local leaders in encouraging participation in arts and cultural life. These community foundations raised local funding to invest in programs and institutions intended to spur broader, deeper, and more diverse cultural participation in their communities through a wide range of activities.

In January 1998, the Funds commissioned the Urban Institute to evaluate the initiative. This monograph follows our first report from the evaluation — Community Partnerships for Cultural Participation: Concepts, Prospects, and Challenges — which presented our early findings from the first round of field investigations. On the following pages, Urban Institute researchers present findings from a telephone survey of cultural participation in five communities served by three of the community foundations. We offer these findings to inform those who aim to broaden and diversify cultural participation and promote the role of arts and culture in strengthening American communities.


Increasing Cultural Participation

A Theory of Cultural Participation

A Cultural Participation Survey

Patterns of Cultural Participation
A New Understanding of Who Participates in What, How Much, Why, and Where
High Rates of Participation in Arts and Culture
Different Definitions Influence Arts and Cultural Participation Rates
How Broad or Narrow Conceptions of Arts and Cultural Participation Matter to Communities
Audiences Overlap: Participation Spans Different Definitions
Frequency and Variety of Arts and Cultural Participation Intersect

Personal Motivations
Social and Community Reasons for Participation
How Motives Correlate to Frequency and Variety of Participation
Considering Motives to Broaden, Deepen, and Diversify Cultural Participation

Personal Factors that Influence Participation in Arts and Culture
Resources, Characteristics, and Other Civic Engagement
More Resources, More Participation
Other Characteristics Influence Participation: Life Stage, Race and Ethnicity, and Recent Immigration
Civic and Community Engagement of Arts and Culture Participants: Another Connection
Five Personal Factors Most Influence Participation in Arts and Culture
Organizational Membership: A Key Path to Engagement in Arts and Culture

Community Venues
A Powerful Influence on Participation

Lessons for Policy and Practitioner Groups
Lessons for Arts and Cultural Providers and Supporters
Lessons for Community Builders



  1. How and Why People Participate in the Arts: A Conceptual Model
  2. Arts and Cultural Participation by Art Form in Kansas City
  3. Arts and Cultural Participation in Kansas City under Narrow and Broad Definitions
  4. Arts and Cultural Participation in Five Communities under Narrow and Broad Definitions
  5. Arts and Cultural Participation in Mayfair, California, under Narrow and Broad Definitions
  6. Overlap between Narrow and Broad Definitions of Arts and Cultural Participation in Kansas City
  7. Participation in Multiple Forms of Arts and Cultural Events in Kansas City
  8. Reasons Why People in Kansas City Participated in Arts and Cultural Programs over the Last Year
  9. Patterns of Motivations for Arts and Cultural Participation in Kansas City
  10. Arts and Cultural Participation by Education Level in Kansas City
  11. Arts and Cultural Participation by Income in Kansas City
  12. The Connection between Cultural and Civic Participation in Kansas City
  13. Relationship of Civic Participation to Arts and Cultural Participation in Kansas City
  14. Arts and Cultural Participation by Type of Venue in Mayfair and Milpitas, California


Increasing Cultural Participation

Cultural participation includes creating, witnessing, preserving, and supporting artistic and cultural expression. Everything from attending a Broadway show to playing a violin solo with the community orchestra to reading literature can count as cultural participation.1 This monograph presents research that argues for a broad — and unconventional — definition of cultural participation. It is a definition that encompasses the extraordinary variety of artistic and cultural expression in a diverse society — from reggae to Rachmaninoff — and leads to higher-than-usual estimates of the level of cultural participation. The research presented here also provides new information about how and why people participate in arts and culture that has important implications for how arts and culture providers and supporters, and people engaged in community building, attempt to reach and involve their publics. Among the key findings are:

  • People participate in arts and culture at much higher rates than have been previously measured when a new, broader definition of participation is used. This is true for people with low incomes and less than college education as well as for groups with more advantages.
  • Frequent participants in arts and culture also tend to be very active in civic, religious, and political activities, and this is true at every income level.
  • Early socialization experiences make a difference in the cultural participation patterns of adults, regardless of income and education.
  • Most people who participate in arts and culture are involved in activities that span "classical" and "popular" forms, as these categories have been typically understood.
  • People are more likely to attend arts and Cultural events at community locations than at specialized arts venues.
  • People's motivations for participation in Arts and culture suggest strong links with other aspects of community life.

These research findings come from an evaluation of Community Partnerships for Cultural Participation (CPCP), an initiative of the Wallace-Reader's Digest Funds that began in 1997. The Funds created the CPCP project to support efforts to "broaden, deepen, and diversify" cultural participation in selected communities. (See box for a description of the communities.2) To broaden cultural participation is to reach more people — artists, supporters, and audience members — like those who already participate. To deepen participation is to enlist those who already participate to do so more frequently and more intensely; for example, to encourage people who are audience members to also become supporters of arts and culture. To diversify participation is to reach people who have not previously been involved — in specific types of arts and cultural events, or forms of art, or at specific venues, for example — creating a more inclusive community of participants drawn from all parts of society. Backed by the Wallace Funds' support, 10 community foundations raised local funding to invest in programs and institutions intended to spur broader, deeper, and more diverse cultural participation in their communities through a wide range of activities.

Among the strategies adopted by the community foundations participating in the CPCP initiative were those designed to help local organizations and artists to:

  • Revise programming to respond to a diverse range of values and tastes.
  • Improve public awareness of cultural opportunities through marketing and other outreach.
  • Perform in nontraditional venues where performances can reach new and different patrons.
  • Improve access to cultural opportunities by people who must overcome barriers of distance or cost.

The community foundations also designed their projects to increase the ability of local nonarts organizations to build arts participation.

In many cases, these strategies, or individual activities supported by the participating community foundations, departed from the prevailing practice of arts and cultural funding. Historically, donors have supported arts and cultural sectors (such as music, dance, and drama) or institutions (such as museums, theaters, and ballet companies) without aiming for specific participation goals.

The research presented here focuses on individuals and their arts and cultural participation, drawing from a survey of five CPCP communities. The reasoning for trying to understand arts and cultural participation by surveying community residents is based on two propositions: (1) cultural participation is something individuals do;it is the result of a series of individual choices about whether to participate at all, and if so, where, when, how often, with whom, and in what forms of art and culture; and (2) the decisions of individual community members add up to a community pattern of cultural participation, a pattern that is the base for broadening, diversifying, and deepening participation.

Scholars and social observers interested in civic engagement suggest a relationship between cultural participation and a sense of community. In this view, cultural participation helps people identify with their personal heritage and the larger community in which they live, thus encouraging attitudes, values, and social ties that underpin a well-functioning society.3 Other community benefits are claimed for cultural participation as well, including strong city and neighborhood economies, educated and self-confident youth, and socially vibrant neighborhoods.4 While the CPCP initiative was not intended as a community-building effort, some of the activities sponsored by the individual sites do have that purpose or potential, and many of the findings indicate that people participate in arts and culture in ways that suggest strong links with other aspects of community life.

The key questions answered by this monograph are: Who participates in arts and culture, why, how often, in what forms, and where? What distinguishes the analysis of cultural participation presented here from others5 is that the people surveyed were asked about their attendance at any live presentation of music, dance, drama, or visual art, without limiting the definition of these art forms to conventional categories. This survey approach made it possible to analyze the responses according to both the conventional definitions of arts and culture and broader definitions. The picture of cultural participation that emerged from this dual-definition analysis is complex, and a bigger, brighter, more colorful and varied picture than has been seen before.

The research has important implications for arts and culture leaders who aim to increase Cultural Participation in the communities they serve. Leaders with this goal often seek strategies to bridge racial and ethnic, cultural, and linguistic divides that deter some people from active participation in mainstream arts and cultural institutions, as well as strategies to strengthen community-based arts and cultural organizations that present or exhibit works from particular racial and ethnic communities. The research presented here offers information to help formulate such strategies. It also identifies bridges between people and institutions that may appear to have little in common. These strategies are useful to leaders interested in building stronger communities, as well as to those seeking to increase participation in arts and culture.

The next section outlines a conceptual model of the cultural participation choices of individuals. Subsequent sections present analyses of survey data that illuminate critical elements of the model, including the motives of people who participate, the resources they need to do so, pathways of engagement to arts and cultural opportunities, and features of the structure of participatory opportunity. The last section presents some implications of the research for efforts to promote cultural participation and strengthen communities.


The Boston Foundation
The Boston Foundation Arts Fund was established to provide donors with a creative way to support the essential work of building a vital and livable community through the arts. The Arts Fund also ensures that the Boston Foundation will continue to focus the same attention on the arts as it has traditionally centered on housing, health care, education, and jobs.

Community Foundation Silicon Valley
The Arts Build Community (ABC) initiative focuses on three target areas in California: the towns of Gilroy and Milpitas, and the Mayfair neighborhood of San Jose. The ABC initiative has used a mix of small grants, technical assistance conferences, and incorporation of arts and culture into community systems to promote cultural participation in these three very different sites.

Community Foundation for Southeastern Michigan
The Community Foundation for Southeastern Michigan works to improve the quality of life in southeastern Michigan by supporting a wide variety of activities benefiting education, arts and culture, health, human services, community development, and civic affairs. The Venture Fund for Cultural Participation awarded nearly $2 million in grants designed to help organizations build their capacity to attract audiences and increase public participation in cultural programs.
Dade Community Foundation
Dade Community Foundation approaches grantmaking with a focus on community building. Through the Community Partners for Arts and Culture fund, the Dade Community Foundation supported organizations seeking to forge partnerships among arts providers, artists, and other community organizations that can broaden and increase audiences for arts and culture, particularly in underserved communities.

East Tennessee Foundation
The CPCP initiative focuses on programs that enhance the cultural life of communities and encourage people to make arts and culture an active part of their everyday lives. Grants are available in three categories: Technical Assistance Grants, Project Grants, and Endowment Challenge Grants.

Greater Kansas City Community Foundation
The Community Arts Initiative increases access to and participation in the arts. Secondly, the initiative aims to improve access to the arts at the neighborhood level so that all citizens — regardless of education, income, age, race, or economic status —are able to incorporate the arts into their everyday lives.
Humboldt Area Foundation
Humboldt's CPCP program brought together residents in an inclusive planning process, which resulted in new and ongoing cultural programs on public television, support for traditional and contemporary art of the region's large American Indian population, grants to individual artists, and a new era of regional and cultural partnership.

Maine Community Foundation
pARTners: The Art of Building Community, serving the cities of Portland and Waterville, and all of Hancock County, focuses on building organizational capacity, with cultural inventories conducted in Waterville and Hancock County, and grants made to organizations in each area.

New Hampshire Charitable Foundation
In New Hampshire, the Art Builds Community initiative was independently run in Portsmouth, Manchester, and Newport. In Portsmouth and Manchester, grants were awarded for community-based projects, which led to citywide cultural plans in both communities. In Newport, funding was used to document the role of cultural heritage in the town's economic development.

San Francisco Foundation
The San Francisco Foundation focuses on community health, education, arts and culture, neighborhood revitalization, the environment, and social justice. The Cultural Participation Project maps the cultural resources of selected neighborhoods and increases direct participation of youth and adults in arts and cultural activities.

This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF), which many find convenient when printing.


1. Although private acts of participation, such as reading literature alone, are considered cultural participation, the research reported in this monograph was limited to live program or event attendance.

2. More information can be found at www.wallacefoundation.org. The Urban Institute's report of initial findings from the first year of the initiative can be obtained from the Urban Institute publications office.

3. This view is most closely associated with the group that convened as the Saguaro Seminar to discuss ways to reinvest in America's social capital. See Better Together: Report of the Saguaro Seminar on Civic Engagement in America. 2000. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, John F. Kennedy School of Government.

4. For discussion of the relationship between arts and culture and neighborhood economies, see Gottlieb, J., ed. June 2000. "The Creative Economy Initiative: The Role of the Arts and Culture in New England's Economic Competitiveness." Report prepared for The New England Council. Somerville, Mass.: Mt. Auburn Associates. The potential of arts and culture to support the positive development of young people is discussed in Costello, Laura, ed. 1995. Part of the Solution: Creative Alternatives for Youth, published by the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies in cooperation with the National Endowment for the Arts and the U.S. Department of Justice.

5. This includes the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, which is the usual source for such information.


The authors of this report — Chris Walker and Stephanie Scott-Melnyk, with Kay Sherwood —acknowledge the time and effort contributed to the research by staff of the community foundations involved in the Community Partnerships for Cultural Participation initiative.

We also acknowledge the assistance of Edward Pauly, Michael Moore, and Lee Mitgang of the Wallace-Reader's Digest Funds, the comments of Paul DiMaggio, Francie Ostrower, Heidi Rettig, Elizabeth Boris, Cory Fleming, Mark Hager, and Betsy Reid, the statistical help of John Farrell, Mark Narron, Jeff Shumway, and Stephanie Stillman, and the help of Maria-Rosario Jackson, Elizabeth Boris, and Harry Hatry, who assisted in development of the survey instrument. Errors are those of the authors, whose views do not necessarily represent those of the Urban Institute or the Wallace Funds. We would also like to extend our thanks to our administrative staff, Pho Palmer, Diane Hendricks, Tim Ware, and Angie Weatherwax, for their production work and technical assistance.

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