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A man works on the marquee of an independent theatre in Ottawa, on May 6, 2020.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

When will Canadians return to theatres, recital halls and museums – and what public-health measures or signals will it take for them to return?

These are the questions the country’s arts institutions that focus on in-person experience are asking – and so the charitable organization Business/Arts and the National Arts Centre have teamed up with pollster Nik Nanos to conduct a survey of Canadians to provide answers and monitor how attitudes of “culture goers” shift over time.

The Arts Response Tracking Study – which will release all its results free and piggybacks on an omnibus poll of Canadians that Nanos regularly conducts – made public its first tranche of results on Tuesday.

Its clearest finding is that there will be two waves of returning culture goers – and that theatres and galleries do not need to prepare for a single reopening, but for two.

For the purposes of the survey, culture goers are defined as Canadians “who attended indoor or outdoor cultural performances or art galleries and museums in person in the 12-month period prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.” The results are broken up to speak to leaders of those three categories of arts experiences: indoor cultural performances, outdoor cultural performances, and galleries/museums.

Unsurprisingly, given what we know about the spread of COVID-19 outside (and will soon know even more about in the wake of recent massive anti-Black racism protests), more culture goers are more likely to return to outdoor events more quickly.

About 39 per cent of respondents said they will return to such events – say, concerts in public squares or festivals held in parks – “immediately after institutions are open and following public-health guidelines.” Physical distancing and masks will help many of them to feel comfortable doing so.

Meanwhile, only about 30 per cent of museum and gallery goers and 26 per cent of those who frequent other indoor cultural activities (such as the theatre or opera) say they will return “immediately” under similar circumstances.

These culture goers will be the first wave to return – and the results suggest that arts institutions will have to figure out how to function, and if they can, from a financial point of view with just 26 to 39 per cent of their regular attendance. This will depend, among other things, on the amount of their budget that comes from donors and government funding versus ticket sales.

How long will they have to function with that reduced audience or attendance? That will depend on the second wave of returning culture goers, those who say they will wait longer to return – an average of five months longer, according to the survey results.

These more reticent culture goers are 27 per cent of those who visit galleries and museums, 30 per cent of those who attend outdoor cultural activities, and 38 per cent of those who enjoy indoor cultural activities. The longer respondents said they were going to wait to return, the more likely they were to want a vaccine against COVID-19 in order to feel comfortable returning.

Nichole Anderson, president and chief executive officer of Business/Arts, notes that some of these culture goers could be out of the picture for in-person attendance for even longer than five months – pointing to the forecasters of the Good Judgment project who believe there is just a 34-per-cent probability of a widespread vaccine being available by Sept. 30, 2021, and a 63-per-cent probability of one being on hand by March 31, 2022.

“Can we adapt to a notion that this could be our new normal for quite a long time?” Anderson asks.

What about the rest of the culture goers surveyed? With the exception of the 1 per cent who say they will never return to culture going (which, Nanos notes, is within the margin of error), they are simply “unsure” when they will return.

In an online panel discussion held on Tuesday about the results, Nanos says this is one of the key points of the survey – a sizable number of culture goers are fluid in their views and are looking for guidance from governments and the leaders of cultural institutions.

Future survey results will show how this group of “undecideds” break – and will have a significant effect on what a first wave of reopening, or first moves toward a new normal for organizations using this pause to undergo significant transformation, might look like.

Another interesting set of results from Tuesday’s survey results: About half of Canadian culture goers have turned to digital alternatives during the COVID-19 pandemic – at-home experiences such as live-streamed performances or virtual gallery tours. Meanwhile, nine out of 10 culture goers say they are willing to pay at least part of what they would for a ticket in order to see cultural performances digitally.

Each run of the culture goer survey costs about $12,000 – and it will be run at least two more times over the next six months. In addition to Business/Arts and the NAC, the project is also supported by the Canadian Opera Company and Woodbridge Co. Ltd., which owns The Globe and Mail.

“What we’re trying to do is make widely available, almost open source, the findings and insight that will allow people to make their decisions,” says Christopher Deacon, CEO of the National Arts Centre, noting that not just different provinces, but also different cities are in different situations regarding reopening.

“Anyone who wants to can use the same research template in their local market – and, for a couple hundred of bucks, [Nanos] will run the analysis of it.”

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