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Arts Participation

Steps to Stronger Cultural and Community Life

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Document date: July 31, 2003
Released online: July 31, 2003

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.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).

People participate in arts and culture in four primary ways: they attend programs and events, encourage their children to participate, make or perform art as amateurs, or support the arts through donations of time and money. The more ways people participate—and the more often—the more likely they are to engage in other activities that support community life. These findings can enhance the efforts of arts and cultural providers and supporters to increase arts and cultural participation by working with their existing bases of support to intensify involvement. Encouraging people to advance along a "ladder of increasing commitment" within these four types of cultural participation will benefit not only artistic institutions but civic and community organizations as well. Increased participation, in turn, strengthens the case for providing political and economic support of arts and cultural institutions as valuable community assets.

These findings come from the recent Cultural Participation Survey conducted by the Urban Institute and funded by The Wallace Foundation as part of an evaluation of the Community Partnerships for Cultural Participation (CPCP) initiative.1 The survey asked residents in five communities about their attendance at live music, dance, and theater performances and their visual arts experiences, as well as about other forms of participation in arts and culture and in civic affairs. Responses to the survey suggest new ways to think about connections between arts and cultural participation and community participation.

Indications of Americans' declining involvement in civic affairs have recently attracted media attention and national concern.2 If participation in community activities is indeed declining, continued civic health may depend on nurturing those institutions in which people remain actively involved. Promoting more arts and cultural participation, and the institutions that foster it, is therefore an important way to help strengthen communities as well as the arts and cultural institutions themselves.


The Urban Institute conducted a telephone survey of adults in five of the CPCP communities in the fall of 1998. The purpose was to collect information about individual participation in a range of arts and cultural activities. A random sample of adults in the five communities was contacted, producing 2,406 responses. The main topics of the 20-minute survey were:

  • Methods of Participation — defined as attendance at live arts and cultural programs and events, donations of time and money to arts and cultural organizations, and pursuit of personal artistic expression.
  • Motivations for participation.
  • Venues for participation — where people had attended live music, theater, and dance performances and where they had viewed painting, sculpture, architecture, and other visual arts.
  • Participants' Background — questions about respondents' income, education, religion, immigrant status, organizational memberships, and other personal and household characteristics.

The five communities surveyed are diverse in terms of their populations' background characteristics. They are:

  • The Kansas City Metropolitan Area
  • Humboldt County, California
  • Mayfair, San Jose, California
  • Milpitas, California
  • Gilroy, California

The Kansas City Metropolitan Area, including 1.4 million residents of five counties in Missouri and Kansas. This area resembles the rest of the country in its mixture of urban and suburban, rich and poor, and crowded and sparsely populated sections. More than four out of five residents are white; most of the rest are African American and, increasingly, Hispanic.

Humboldt County, California, a largely rural county of about 120,000 people, with the largest population centers in the cities of Eureka and Arcata. Humboldt County's economy was built around the timber industry, although the southern part of the county is dotted with farms. About 88 percent of the county's population is white, although there is a substantial Native American population, which was oversampled in the Urban Institute's Cultural Participation survey.

Mayfair, Milpitas, and Gilroy, California. Within Silicon Valley, a popular name for Santa Clara County, Mayfair is a one-square mile, low-income neighborhood in San Jose, with about 6,000 Hispanic and, increasingly, Asian residents. Milpitas, an affluent suburb of San Jose with about 50,000 residents, is about one-half white, one-third Asian, and one-fifth Hispanic. Gilroy is an agricultural town containing 39,000 residents, about half of whom are Hispanic.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).

1. Some of the findings presented in this brief are published for the first time here. Others are discussed at some length in Chris Walker and Stephanie Scott-Melnyk with Kay Sherwood. 2002. Reggae to Rachmaninoff: How and Why People Participate in Arts and Culture. Washington, D.C.: Urban Institute.

2. See Robert D. Putnam. 2000. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster.

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