The value of panel and omnibus surveys exploring the whole population regardless of cultural engagement.

October 6, 2023
Photo of the author - Jonathan Goodacre

Jonathan Goodacre

Making the Invisible Visible

We know quite a lot about cultural attendance. In our own work at The Audience Agency in the UK, we handled 446,705 surveys in the 2022-23 year through Audience Finder and the number of ticket bookers in the database stood at 4,052,645. With coverage coming from a diverse range of organisations it provides useful insight into the nature of public engagement.

However, we are only seeing part of the picture with those already engaging with arts, culture and heritage organisations in some form. This is what makes the panel or omnibus surveys so valuable, as they look at whole populations regardless of whether they are already engaged. It’s one of the reasons why so many people are interested in the Cultural Participation Monitor (CPM) produced by The Audience Agency and Centre for Cultural Value, about which more below.

Internationally, there are some notable pieces of similar research. In Ireland for example, the National Arts Engagement Survey produced by B&A for The Arts Council has been running a national survey for the last 5 years. Back in 2019/2020, it was a useful baseline/benchmark comparator when we were evaluating the Galway 2020 European Capital of Culture.

As with the CPM, by standardising certain questions it can monitor change over time. For example, the most recent findings (Summer 2023) demonstrate that although attendance has risen again since the COVID-19 pandemic, it is still below 2019 levels. This, it appears, is due to a lower frequency of attendance rather than fewer people attending as such.

Particularly interesting is its monitoring of ‘attitudes to the arts’ with 92% Strongly Agreeing or Agreeing that ‘Ireland is a Creative Nation’ – the top result of all the options presented. Year after year, the biggest change has been the increase in people saying that ‘I cannot afford to attend as many arts events as I wish’ (23% up from 17% in 2021).

007.1 has written about the topic of the Eurobarometer in the past, which is one of the few research projects to work across several countries. It doesn’t always place culture at the centre of its work, but a careful look at other questions is insightful. A recent Eurobarometer 99 for example found that when asked about the two most important issues facing their country, 45% identified ‘rising prices/ inflation/ cost of living’ before all other factors, which perhaps links us back to the point in the Ireland Survey above.

It's a shame that the UK is no longer in this survey, but as an aside, it is interesting that one of the results shows that trust in the EU is now much higher than trust in national governments (47% compared to 33%), the disparity gradually increasing since 2014 (when it was 31% compared to 28%). Again, such results show the utility of benchmarking over time.

What’s missing?

Where these panel/omnibus studies become more fascinating is when they go beyond looking at levels of participation to understand related factors or make useful comparisons between different questions. In Spain for example, the regular Survey of Cultural Habits and Practices in Spain in 2018-19 managed to show a connection between the rise of streaming platforms and the decline of ‘online piracy’ as reported in El Pais.

In conjunction with Fraunhofer, as part of Museum Booster’s Future Museum, we have been looking at a range of factors related to digital online, hybrid engagement and other rarely researched aspects of museum attendance. It is a panel survey of the German general public and provides informative insights which will be publicised later in the year.

Meanwhile, our own CPM is now on Wave 9. It began as a way of understanding the impact of Covid-19 in relation to cultural engagement in the UK, but has proved so popular that it's been transformed into an ongoing panel survey. The results are regularly shared at our monthly TEA Breaks.

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