This literature review, conducted in May 2014, synthesized the findings of 46 Canadian research articles regarding the “holistic case for the arts, i.e., outcomes of the arts related to the quality of life, well-being, health, society, education, and the economy”. The report concluded that “there are a myriad of potential benefits of the arts”. That being said, the report cautions that “studies of causal links (rather than statistical associations) are very challenging to conduct”.
This brief Scottish report highlighted the statistical relationship between cultural attendance, active participation in culture or sports, and health and life satisfaction based on findings from the 2010/11 Scottish Household Survey, which interviewed nearly 10,000 Scottish adults. The report found that, even after controlling for demographic and other factors, “participation in culture and sport are independently and significantly associated with good health and high life satisfaction”.
Based on qualitative and quantitative evaluations, this report examined the relationship between the arts and well-being among 51 Vancouver seniors who participated in the arts in four community centres. The long-term goal of the project was to “contribute to the development of strong, healthy communities that engage seniors as full and active participants and that value the arts as a key contributor to health”.
Based on a two-year research process, this study attempted to “gain a better understanding of how residents engage with the arts at a community level, explore barriers to arts access, and identify ways to strengthen local arts engagement”. The study’s 17 researchers made “300 connections” including interviews, focus groups, and surveys with 191 “residents, artists, arts groups and social service organizations” in three Toronto neighbourhoods: Malvern, St. James Town, and Weston Mount Dennis.
Beyond simple attendance rates, what can be said of the outcomes of cultural participation? Are there relationships and connections that have broader social impacts? One participant noted that a recent Italian study found a direct correlation between cultural consumption and individual wellbeing. A symposium speaker indicated that Canadian research has shown strong correlations between arts participation and positive social outcomes. The key question of outcomes research, as phrased by one speaker, is “How do we think about healthy places?”
Who uses arts participation data? Are the data used by arts organizations to improve their connections to audiences? Are the data connected to arts policy? One speaker argued that many artists and arts administrators have a hunger to better understand the world in which they work, especially the trends shaping demand for the arts. Some noted that involving arts administrators in survey design might improve their use of surveys.
Arguing that current practices are unsustainable, some speakers outlined how “big data” or “organic data” could be combined with sample surveys in order to better track and study human behaviour. Organic data can be thought of as data that are captured as part of other processes (e.g., Google searches, data scraped from websites, tweets, retail scanners, credit card transactions, etc.). It was argued that this type of data, which can be nearly real time, is better at capturing people’s behaviour than their values and opinions. Challenges related to organic data include privacy concerns, the high computing power required to “scrape” records, and the current lack of data mining techniques that could combine imperfectly coordinated datasets.
In an environment of media convergence and digital multi-tasking (with many people paying only partial attention to multiple concurrent tasks), can arts participation surveys capture an accurate picture of people’s activities? Some participants argued that behaviour is observable without a survey, but attitudes, thoughts, and feelings can best be captured by surveys. Others contended that, without benchmark surveys, our understanding of cultural participation would be significantly lessened.
The symposium tackled some large and challenging questions, such as “what counts as ‘the arts’? and “what do people consider culture?” In many jurisdictions, there has been a broadening of the types of cultural participation or engagement factors measured via surveys. The complexities of cultural participation in a digital world were discussed at the symposium. The importance of places and spaces to cultural participation was also discussed. The complicated reality of cultural participation is difficult to measure.
The report notes that, other than a few differences, diverse Canadians attended at similar rates to other Canadians. Based on these findings, the report concludes that “the range of arts offerings in Canada – from art galleries, classical concerts, and theatre performances to pop concerts and cultural festivals – manages to attract most Canadians to at least one type of activity."