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Report shatters myths about cultural activities

People of color are far more likely to participate in some cultural activity during the course of a year than are white people.

People of color are far more likely to participate in some cultural activity during the course of a year than are white people.

Ditto families with children over childless couples.

Yet people who attend a performance or a museum are not likely to return within a year, or maybe even longer.

These conclusions, drawn from a report scheduled for release today at the annual meeting of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, represent a particular challenge for the region's arts organizations, alliance officials suggest. A budget deal reached late Friday in Harrisburg that includes an extension of the state sales tax to cultural performances and venues - including museums - could heighten that challenge.

Some findings, such as the greater cultural participation of families with children, contradict prevailing conventional wisdom.

And the higher "cultural engagement" - as alliance officials call it - of African American and Hispanic communities is of enormous significance to arts groups, particularly in the context of the rapid growth of those already large populations in the area.

The alliance's 73-page report, Research Into Action: Pathways to New Opportunities, mines the data from five other studies and concludes, in the words of alliance president Peggy Amsterdam, that opportunities are out there "despite the economic challenges" now confronting cultural organizations.

"Our research still reveals multiple opportunities to expand participation" in the arts, she said last week.

Tom Kaiden, the alliance's chief operating officer, said the report seeks to help "cultural organizations adapt to 21st-century tastes and to provide them with the ammunition to do that."

"We know it's not business as usual," he said.

The alliance highlighted several key research findings emphasized in the report.

First, based on a broad demographic study, the report notes that virtually all regional population growth between 2000 and 2020 will result from an increase in nonwhite residents. By 2020, the region's 2.3 million people of color will represent more than a third of its population of 6.4 million. That's up from about 28 percent in 2000.

At the same time, based on the alliance's broad definition of "cultural engagement" - it includes not only patronizing cultural venues but personal cultural involvement, such as playing a musical instrument or singing in a church choir - nonwhite residents tend to be far more culturally involved than white residents.

"We've known about that for a long time," said Laurel Raczka, executive director of Philadelphia's Painted Bride Art Center, adding that her organization had focused on community programming for two decades. "The Bride grew up as a venue of voice outside the mainstream, the voice for people of color, the voice for people who had no other place."

Retaining those audience members is a problem, however, she added, another key point in the alliance report.

Despite generally high attendance, regional cultural venues have trouble getting people to return. In fact, two out of three new patrons did not return to any of 17 cultural organizations studied within a year.

"We have a loyal subscription base," said Amy L. Murphy, managing director of the Arden Theatre. "But with single-ticket sales, it is hard to get them to come back. The study made us more fully aware of it. It's pretty shocking."

That said, one often-ignored major segment of the cultural audience is parents with young children. Conventional wisdom in the arts community has been that once people have children, they drop out of outside cultural activity.

Not so, according to the new study. Families with children actually increase their involvement in the sector.

"We had been operating under a false assumption," said Beth Yeagle, an Arden spokeswoman. "We assumed that people were tired and wanted to be with their child. That presumption is not true."

The report also suggests ways arts organizations can begin addressing some of these issues.

"The emergence of social networking is a sign of emerging trends," said the alliance's Kaiden. "Do we use all opportunities to help people connect with each other?"

John McInerney, an alliance spokesman, said some funding would be available shortly for programs designed to help arts organizations grapple with audience issues emerging as the region evolves. Specifics will be available by early October, he said.

"We need to know where this area is going," Kaiden said. "We need to understand what Philadelphia will look like in 2020. Each organization will evaluate its current productions and its strengths and determine how best to meet those 2020 needs."

Gregory T. Rowe, director of culture initiatives and deputy director of the Philadelphia program of the Pew Charitable Trusts, said the alliance study had provided "some tools" that organizations of all kinds could use to address some intractable issues.

Pew was a key funder of the research and report.

Some of these tools are simple - timing and scheduling of programming, for instance; some are more nebulous - making venues more inviting, establishing "mentoring programs."

"I don't read bad news in any of this," Rowe said. "I think there is something here for even mainstream arts organizations to work with."