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Esme Gotz and Lorraine Levinson admire Canadian studio pottery at the True Nordic exhibition at the Gardiner Museum in Toronto on October 24, 2016. (JENNIFER ROBERTS For The Globe and Mail)
Esme Gotz and Lorraine Levinson admire Canadian studio pottery at the True Nordic exhibition at the Gardiner Museum in Toronto on October 24, 2016. (JENNIFER ROBERTS For The Globe and Mail)

Making arts experiences accessible to all is more important than ever Add to ...

The National Ballet of Canada is programming Cinderella and Pinocchio; the Royal Ontario Museum is celebrating its 10th season of running a Friday-night dance party and the Vancouver Opera has decided to reinvent itself as a festival next spring.

Everywhere you turn, arts institutions are getting wildly creative about drawing new audiences – or is that wildly desperate? Anecdotal evidence from arts administrators suggests their audiences are in serious decline. And this week the Canadian Index of Wellbeing came out with a challenging report suggesting that the decline is real and part of a larger social trend.

Charted by researchers at the University of Waterloo and mainly relying on Statistics Canada numbers from 1994-2014, the index tracks Canadians’ well-being as measured with a shopping basket of 64 indicators in such areas as health, education, democratic engagement, and leisure and culture. Its 2016 national report How Are Canadians Really Doing? reveals a large and growing gap between Canada’s GDP and our wellness. The report reveals a society increasingly committed to education – as measured by such indicators as rates of graduation and student-teacher ratios – but also shows that health-care outcomes are inconsistent, citizens are ambivalent about democracy and many of us are too busy to see our friends or get out to a show.

Of the eight areas the index tracks, culture and leisure was the one that showed the most steady decline over the past 20 years: Participation was hit hard by the recession in 2008 and while it has recovered somewhat, it remains well below what it was in the 1990s. So, the report certainly reinforces the perception that arts audiences are shrinking – but it also provides a social and economic context for these losses that could be useful for those who want to turn the situation around.

If you separate out the indicators, several marked declines pull culture and leisure down: Canadians are volunteering far less for cultural and recreational organizations than they did back in the 1990s; they cut back on both vacation travel and attending live performances after the 2008 recession and they now spend a bit less time socializing with their friends than they did 20 years ago. Meanwhile, their spending on cultural activities has dipped and the time they devote to them (whether listening to music at home or going out to a movie) is flat.

Put those observations next to indicators in the time-use category that show increased commutes, less sleep and more work that involves non-standard hours, and you get the picture: Many Canadians may be too busy to participate in cultural activities. Then add in the evidence from the standard-of-living area that shows fewer people living in poverty but more income inequality, more precarious employment and a higher percentage of income spent on housing: Many Canadians may be too financially stretched to participate in cultural activities.

Of course, arts organizations are aware of these barriers and so respond not only with populist programming and events intended to draw younger patrons but also by offering free admission, rush seats or creative scheduling. But whatever acrobatics the marketing department can perform, arts participation is a social habit that, once lost, can be hard to restore.

Look at volunteerism for cultural and recreational organizations, a strong indication of citizens’ commitment to these activities: It has fallen from an average of 47 hours a year in 1997 to 34 hours in 2014. Behind those stats, you can imagine a few retirees who volunteer hundreds of hours every year and the rest of us who barely volunteer at all: As the older volunteers die off, it doesn’t look like the next generation is replacing them even as it reaches retirement too.

So why does it matter? The Index of Wellbeing believes that, like leisure time, cultural participation is beneficial because it can promote mental health, socializing and learning, but it does not actually measure the experience or the perceptions of those who participate – only because there are so few statistics available. One of the few Canadian studies is Hill Strategies’s 2013 report The Arts and Individual Well-Being in Canada, which found a correlation between attendance at arts events and better health and more satisfaction with life. Even once factors such as education or income level were taken into account, the research showed that people who read books or attend pop or classical concerts, theatres or cultural festivals reported better health and more satisfaction than those who didn’t. The research couldn’t conclude that the cultural participation improved the participants’ lives – it is possible that healthier and happier people find it easier or more appealing to participate – but it did paint a vivid social picture of why we value the arts.

As the GDP line rises so much faster than the well-being line, the 2016 Wellbeing report is about the starkest evidence you could find of the old adage that money can’t buy happiness. But money can buy a concert ticket or admission to the museum, and if stats on cultural participation highlight anything, it is that making the experience accessible to everybody has become more crucial than ever.

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