Culture…by the numbers

Editor’s Note: Everyone knows that creativity is fueling local economies. (This recent Boston Globe article on how Somerville came to be hip tells this story.) As the November 4 elections draw near, we’re supporting Arts Matter, a campaign to raise awareness and support for the arts among voters and candidates.  Create the Vote is as coalition made up of more than 250 Massachusetts arts, cultural and creative institutions and leaders. The coalition is organized by MASSCreative.  How can you help further this creative sector that supports 45,000 jobs and contributes more than $4.6 billion to the state’s economy? You can sign the petition HERE , ask candidates questions about arts and culture, Tweet at them, email them and pose questions on their Facebook pages. Below, PEM staffer Victoria Glazomitsky takes a look at the state of the arts in the region.

I have a love-hate relationship with numbers. I love how concrete they can be, and that they tell a story. I hate how much we tend to rely on them, and how malleable numbers and statistics really are. So much depends on who is doing the calculation and to what end. Surely we have all heard the old saw about 63% of all statistics being completely or partially fabricated (and if you haven’t, give it some thought).

Still the amateur statistician in me – OK, maybe that’s a stretch, but I did ace my classes in MSIS (management science and information systems)  – loves a good survey and info-graphic. Lucky me: in the past few months two reports chock full of both have been published addressing the state of local culture.

ArtsBoston, in partnership with the Bank of America, issued the Arts Factor, which examines the impact of our local cultural sector. In a nutshell, the arts are rocking Boston and the surrounding areas. Not only is the cultural sector a HUGE financial driver – generating about 1 1/2 BILLION AMERICAN DOLLARS for Greater Boston in 2013 — but it has a number of softer and harder to quantify benefits.

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For instance, the report cites a Knight Foundation study shows that opportunities to engage with arts and culture are the top factor in how much people love where they live.  Good news for Greater Boston, since we have more cultural organizations per capita than any other city in the US.

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Why does anyone care about how happy people are about where they live? Well, there are endless reasons, and, of course, as an art lover I am delighted and completely not surprised that art has such a big impact on happiness. But consider the effects that reach beyond the cultural sector. As Boston’s technology, entrepreneurial, healthcare and financial industries continue to grow, local businesses will be looking for carrots to attract and retain talent. I believe that more people want to live in happy places than unhappy ones. So, you’re welcome non-cultural sectors! And, while I haven’t seen this statistic in some time, I cannot imagine that it has changed greatly: happiness is an inverse coefficient to crime rates and medical problems, creating a thriving and healthy society. A win for all!

The more detailed of the two reports is the table-heavy Culture Track ‘14 Report. The report is produced by the MFA, in partnership with LaPlaca Cohen and Campbell Rinker.  This report takes a deep dive into who is consuming all this culture in the Boston area, why they are doing so, how and where, and compares these responses to national data.

While the report cleverly places details about the cultural consumers questioned in this survey in the back, I like to know up front who the “average” survey responder is. And who is it?  Ever so slightly more female than male (60% of Boston respondents are female), she is either a Gen Xer (30-49) or a Boomer ( 50-69), doesn’t have children living at home, has at least an Associate’s Degree, makes over $40K annually and is white. This last category is overwhelming – 86% of respondents are white.

As I read through the data, I mentally bookmarked much of it into one of three categories. A few examples of each are sited below:

Say What!?!?

-          Boston is a pretty good city for the arts. Area residents are more likely than the national average to participate in any cultural activity, except Opera – which we are as unlikely to attend as anyone else.

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-          69% of Boston residents who have visited museums or historical sites have participated in a guided tour. Mostly these have been conducted by guides from within the organization, but one in four respondents has had tours with an unaffiliated guide, and one in eight has participated in game-style tours. Unsurprisingly, this last type of tour has an inverse relationship with age – the younger one is the more likely to have participated in something of this sort.

throwback game night

A mobile tour of the museum during our evening party series PEM/PM with the theme Throwback Game Night. Photo by Social Palates.

-          While not statistically viable, towards the end of the survey some interesting qualitative data emerges. Respondents were asked to define “culture” before taking the survey, and again after. The latter responses include:

  • “There are some things I didn’t realize could be considered cultural experiences, like accessing things through technology.”
  • Or, my personal favorite, “I saw culture as being  something that was carried from one generation to another by a group of people/race. Now I see it as something more related to our current time and reflects our communal identity.”


Hmmm, interesting but not too surprising…

-          PEM is the third most visited area art museum, behind the MFA and slightly shy of the Gardner.

-          The top two reasons that people participate in cultural experiences are (1) to be entertained and (2) to spend time with family and friends. This is above expanding knowledge or introducing culture to one’s family.

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-          Corporate sponsorship is viewed with skepticism by about one third of respondents. Not surprisingly, Millennials are particularly likely to view sponsorship as a marketing tactic.

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Some of the findings seemed obvious. Do we need a survey to tell us that newspaper readership among the young is diminishing? That Millennials and Gen Xers are more likely to use social media than Boomers and Pre-War generations? That cost and inconvenience of location are major barriers to cultural participation? I think not.  More granular information may have been more instructive – at what level is cost a barrier for the various generations? Which social media platforms are most widely used before, during and after a cultural experience by the younger generations? And what about those newspapers that have a solid readership and cultural cohort? But surveys, like almost everything else, are about constraints and boundaries.

I’m grateful and look forward to referencing this data in some of my work, and to quoting statistics and other findings at cocktail parties.

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