Cultural Participation: A Survey about Arts & Cultural Activities on Chicago’s South Side

March, 2013


Each year our graduate research class at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy undertakes a project to address a major issue in cultural policy. In 2013, our project was locally-based, but focused on an issue with global implications: charting the multiple and varied ways that people are now engaging in cultural activities and experiences beyond the focus in recent decades on arts attendance at established cultural venues.

Conducted periodically since 1982, the National Endowment for the Arts’ Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA) serves as the preeminent source of arts participation data in the US. Historically, the most widely reported summary statistic from the SPPA has been attendance at the seven benchmark arts events.1 The 2008 SPPA found that only 34.6 percent of American adults had attended any benchmark arts performance or exhibit in the preceding 12 months. This finding, along with the general downward trend in attendance across all art forms and among all age cohorts, sent shock waves through the cultural community of artists, arts professionals, audiences and supporters. And the persistent finding that the majority of cultural attenders tend to be white, well-educated, and older than the median age of Americans was also cause for concern and questioning. New questions have subsequently arisen about the nature of arts and cultural participation: What arts experiences are most relevant to people’s daily lives? Through what means and in what settings do people feel that they are participating in creative or cultural activity? Does the SPPA adequately capture these activities?

Such issues about the extent and scope of cultural participation are now being addressed in countries around the world. A 2012 UNESCO study compiled the kinds of survey questions that are now being asked internationally, including “did you go to a library, attend the cinema, or play videogames in the past 12 months?” “How often do you read books, newspapers, magazines, or listen to the radio?” “How often, if ever, have you taken photographs, or made videos or movies?; played a musical instrument, sung, acted or danced?) [UNESCO 2012]. Increasingly, arts are not perceived as a luxury, but as an inherent cultural right to self-expression and community participation (Ivey 2008). Acts of individual creative expression, as well as attendance, are vital aspects of a healthy arts ecology.

Our project to investigate the ways and means by which individuals participate in arts and cultural experiences took shape as a pilot project in Chicago’s South Side community, where the University of Chicago is located. With the help of the University-sponsored South Side Arts and Humanities Network, we brought a local focus to the questions of:

  • What “counts” as cultural participation?
  • How often do people participate?
  • What are the physical and social contexts for participation?
  • How and why do people participate in the way they do

Ten cultural organizations of varying sizes and membership, all of which actively engage people in a range of cultural activities and experiences, agreed to participate in our pilot study. Our students conducted interviews with staff and volunteer members of South Side arts and cultural organizations on the topic of cultural participation, then developed and conducted an online survey to gauge what kinds of cultural participation take place in this local context. Although our sample of respondents is an online convenience sample, not representative of the South Side as a whole, it does allow analysis of participation patterns within our sample of 263 respondents. It also generates a snapshot view of our local cultural landscape that can be used to encourage researchers and policymakers to think much more expansively about what cultural participation in the 21st century means.

The opportunity to address the question of “what’s happening culturally?” in our local neighborhood proved inspiring, particularly at this time when the latest 2012 NEA Survey of Public Participation in the Arts results are forthcoming. In conjunction with the NEA’s recent efforts to energize research to understand arts and cultural engagement, we present our survey results and report with the hope that it can make a contribution to a new and broadened understanding of cultural participation.

Jennifer Novak-Leonard and Betty Farrell
Instructors, PPHA 39703
Harris School of Public Policy, The University of Chicago
March 2013

Download the Report