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wide angle

If you think an arts lover looks like a grey-haired white lady trotting off to the opera, ballet or art gallery, think again. A new study of cultural consumption shows that a wide range of Canadians from diverse backgrounds and age groups are enthusiastic participants – as long as you let them define what a cultural experience is.

Culture Track: Canada imports a long-standing U.S. survey of cultural consumption to this country and reveals some surprising results. Allophones – that is Canadians for whom neither English nor French is a first language – are more culturally engaged than anglophones or francophones. Millennials, defined as Canadians age 20 to 35, are more eager participants than other age groups but, like older people, can be skeptical about using digital technology to get their fix.

The study conducted by Nanos Research challenges the common cultural sector fear that dwindling art audiences are made up largely of aging white people, but partly because it asks respondents to define culture themselves.

Commissioned by the advocacy and support group Business for the Arts with a long list of corporate sponsors and institutional collaborators, the study asked potential respondents if they participated at least once a year in any of 34 possible activities. These range from “benchmark” arts experiences such as attending a play or a ballet or visiting an art gallery, to less obvious candidates such as visiting a public park, a historic site or an ethnic festival as well as participating in a food or drink event, reading literature or watching television. Then, crucially, the researchers also asked if respondents considered the activity a cultural experience.

The point is not to measure how many Canadians participate in cultural activities, but rather to understand what self-identifying cultural consumers want so that arts organizations can serve existing audiences better and encourage more participation. (For that reason, the study did not ask about private hobbies such as playing a musical instrument or making crafts.)

The 6,444 respondents mentioned visiting a public park most often, at 88 per cent of those surveyed, but most did not consider it a cultural experience, while 68 per cent had participated in a “food or drink experience” and a majority did consider that cultural.

More than half mentioned visiting art museums, attending various types of festivals or seeing plays; about a fifth mentioned seeing opera or ballet, and a majority considered all these to be cultural activities. Watching television, going to movies and listening to contemporary music were all more popular activities, but most people did not consider them cultural.

“We are reaching out to Canadians to see what they see as arts and culture,” said Business for the Arts CEO Nichole Anderson Bergeron. “Canadians think about culture in an extremely broad way. They are cultural omnivores and highly engaged.”

The study’s key findings cast culture as a form of social engagement: those surveyed said they value their activities for building a sense of belonging, empathy and perspective. That said, their first motivation in seeking out a cultural activity is “having fun” while experiencing new things, and feeling less stress is also important.

Millennials are about one-and-a-half times more likely to participate monthly in any of the activities listed than other cohorts. They are also more likely to find out about them on social media, but only slightly more likely than older people to appreciate a digital angle on the arts.

Generally, Canadians are divided on that issue, with only 24 per cent saying they appreciate a digitally-mediated arts experience, 39 per cent saying they prefer analog and 37 per cent saying either will do. Canadians appear to be low-tech but common-sensical on this score: across all age groups, they tend to like digital interventions in museums but dislike them at concerts.

The study was originated by the cultural research firm LaPlaca Cohen in the United States in 2001, and digital skepticism was one significant difference it found when it compared Canadian to Americans, who were more open to digital interventions in their cultural experiences.

For those trying to reach new audiences, the report identified several opportunities. Noting the enthusiasm of allophones, who participate almost 50 per cent more often than anglophones and that 14 per cent of Indigenous or non-Caucasian people said they didn’t participate because cultural activities didn’t reflect all backgrounds, the survey would suggest a broader range of communities could be reached. Also, the survey indicated Canadians think the arts are funded by government and value other potential charities such as health care or human rights causes much more highly, suggesting cultural groups need to explain that most of their income is self-generated and to demonstrate their social value.