Sara Leonard

What’s the most common reason people who want to attend the arts don’t follow through?

Time. Or, more accurately, the lack of it. Not surprised? I figured.

Let’s be honest for a minute. How often do people say they can’t find the time for something when, in reality, it’s that they don’t make the time? According to the American Time Use Survey, 95% of Americans over 15 participate in leisure activities for an average of 5 hours a day. Nonetheless, the perception that they lack time keeps them from participating in a host of available activities, and the arts are no exception.

The arguably larger problem is that we arts marketers take this at face value. It makes sense, really. If the barrier that is keeping people away is their own lack of time, the problem isn’t ours, right? In short: it’s not us, it’s them. Their excuses become our excuses.

But, of course, it is our problem. And we compound it by focusing on our inability to control others’ time, rather than by treating the response as a clue to determining the challenges we need to address. To quote When Going Gets Tough, “The question becomes: How might arts organizations and presenters better tap into people’s personal values and preference sets, to curate activities on which more people choose to spend time.”

Either we’re asking people to give up leisure time to attend arts or to designate some leisure time to the arts, depending on whether they see the arts as a leisure activity. Regardless, the onus is on us to communicate why it is worth that time. How do we make our art and our organizations integral to the life of a person who, until now, has allowed their perception that they lack the time to come between them and a performance or exhibit they wanted to see?

  • By reading beneath the headlines. Crack the books and pound the pavement (yes, both!) to learn what motivates people like the ones you are trying to attract and build experiences designed to meet those needs. Use language that connects your art and organization to their interests and desires.
  •  Look for deep connections. You’re not just trying to get folks to go to any old performance or exhibit, you’re trying to get them to go to your performance or exhibit. What makes this the right fit and the right relationship to warrant reallocation of time? Remember, of course, that not all prospective audiences are going to be the right fit for your organization, and that’s okay. (More on that over here.)
  • Keep your ears open. Chances are that at least some of the people saying that time is the barrier keeping them away are impacted by others as well. Some may be practical and even related to time, like difficulty getting to a location that might be far from home, but it’s likely that some are perceptual, too. These are the more deeply rooted things that keep people away from the arts: the sense that they don’t belong, it’s not for them, or that the risk is too great.

 Sure, we all seem to run out of time to do the things we’d like to do, but as arts organizations, we cannot resign ourselves to the belief that a prospective audience that says they lack time is completely out of reach. How people choose to spend their time is a reflection of their identities, their priorities, and their values. Our challenge is to make attendance at our arts events a logical, and even critical, expression of those identities.

Check out the third and final post here, highlighting the findings of the National Endowment for the Arts’ new report When Going Gets Tough, which focuses on the ways arts audiences and would-be audiences conceive of themselves and their values.

Watch Photo Courtesy of Flickr User Peter Miller
Dancer Photo Courtesy of Flickr User Rajesh Karkera



The report says that time is a barrier. We can't do much about other people's time commitments, but we could create events that have shorter lengths and shorter time frames. For example, people could stop at the Seattle Art Museum for a 'shot' of art just after they've had their shot of espresso across the street at Starbucks on 2nd Avenue.

Or we could sell the first and second halfs of a concert as separate tickets. Or you can buy both halves if you wish.

Hi Jerry,

My apologies for the delay in responding to your comment. Yes, while I do think that time is sometimes over-cited to cover up more deeply held barriers, and I do think that we arts organizations can make this barrier into an excuse, you're exactly right that we need to be innovating based on what we're hearing. I like your ideas; especially the "shot" of art!

I see that no one else had the time to respond to this.

Touche! In all seriousness, though, my apologies for the delay in getting back to you.

Interesting and thoughtful response to the NEA research. I always say that people make time for (i.e. prioritize) what they value, and in that sense, align with this post. I also think that it's useful information to know that people cite a lack of time rather than flat out disinterest in the arts as a reason for lack of participation. Our job as arts marketers is keep our art relevant, and to the NEA's point (and Jerry's point), that could involve different formats. In all, I completely agree that we can't make excuses or put the blame for declining attendance on others, and knowing that people still express an inclination to consume art gives me hope that with savvy marketing and relevant programming we can change the trends in participation.

Thanks for your comment, Aubrey! You're totally right about the time vs. disinterest thing. Here's something good to know about this survey data. For the first time, those who did not attend the arts were asked if there was a specific performance or exhibit they wanted to attend in the prior year, but did not actually go to. If they said yes to that, THEN they were asked about other possible barriers, including time. So, this report is very exciting (I think) in that it separates out those who are completely disinterested from those who expressed an interest but didn't follow through. Check out the full report to see the numbers.

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