BLOG 8th August 2023

Can’t or won’t? Barriers vs. motivations in missing audiences

In June, I attended the 'Interest Into Action' TEA Break session hosted by the Audience Agency. This webinar looked at data from the Audience Agency's Cultural Participation monitor to get an insight into where and when an individual’s interest in a particular art form turns into attendance. What influences a person to switch from thinking ‘oh, that looks cool’ to actually buying a ticket? Their research found some interesting things, including:

  • Film, music, and museums have the highest rates of audience interest and are the likeliest art forms to turn that interest into attendance.
  • While children and family events have low rates of interest, they're very likely to turn that interest into attendance. This is probably because there's a niche group of parents or carers keeping an eye out for these kinds of events to bring their children to.
  • If people feel they're better off than they used to be, they're more likely to turn interest into attendance. The cost-of-living crisis means that these individuals are fewer and further between.

One of the main takeaways from the research was that the age of audience members plays a hefty role in how likely they are to a/ have numerous artistic interests and b/act on those interests by attending events. The research found that as people get older, they tend to have fewer interests and attend fewer events.

I was fascinated by this, and started thinking a bit more about why this might be the case. What are the factors at play when it comes to keeping people who are interested in arts and culture from showing up at events? Do these factors have a heavier impact on older people?

The webinar touched on the need to find ways to motivate people to attend events. By finding the motivations of our audiences, we can make the idea of attending an event more inviting to them. When I did some digging into some common motivations for arts attendance, there was very little UK-focused research out there. However, the US National Endowment for the Arts, noted that people are mostly motivated to attend events to socialise, to learn new things, to experience the arts and to support their community. This echoes what we’ve found in our own research when working with audiences and organisations in Northern Ireland. On paper, it would appear that if organisations focused on prioritising these things in their programming, people would be more motivated to attend. However, this approach focuses a lot on creating reasons for audiences to want to attend. What about the reasons they can't?

This 2020 study noted that there are a few key reasons that certain people might be missing from our audiences. People with poorer mental or physical health experienced more barriers overall, while those with poor mental health struggled when it came to finding the motivation to attend. Poor health and/or disability appeared to be a common cause of people not attending events. When we consider the conclusions drawn in the webinar about age, it's worth considering that elements like disability and poor physical health may play more of a part in deciding to go out and about to events as people get older - especially during and following the pandemic. According to House of Commons Library research from 2022, 42% of pension-aged UK citizens reported having a disability, and 59% of those over 80 years old reported having a disability, compared with 21% of working age adults.

A pre-pandemic UK government survey found that a lack of interest was the most likely barrier to attendance, followed by a lack of free-time, and then disability. Age UK research noted that things like access to transport, lack of support to attend and a lack of knowledge of what's going on in the local area are the biggest barriers to older people's participation in the arts. It's interesting that reasons why people don't want to attend and reasons why people are unable to attend are being looked at in the same studies and questions. This could be a great place to start for further research: what are the differences between the people who aren’t interested in attending and the people who would attend if they felt they could? How do we reach out to these two groups? How should our approach to programming and marketing the arts change when trying to engage one or the other?

If we consider the importance of accessibility when it comes to the findings of the Audience Agency's research, encouraging more people to attend may have more to do with removing their barriers than focusing on their motivations. Accessible public transport, event advertising and on-site accessibility could play a huge part in turning interest into attendance, and showing older people, and people with disabilities, that they have a place at cultural venues.

Eve Murtagh

Sector Programme Coordinator

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