What is a ‘Cultural Experience’ in Minnesota?

What is a ‘Cultural Experience’ in Minnesota?

Is visiting a museum a cultural experience? What about attending a street fair? A new survey examines how we view culture.

Culture Track is a national survey of cultural consumers’ attitudes, motivators and barriers to taking part in cultural experiences. In late November, the national road show to present the 2017 survey results made a stop in the Twin Cities.

The study’s principals offered their conclusions and insights, and a panel of local cultural leaders offered their reactions to the crowd of 170 assembled at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia).

The survey, an initiative of national strategy firm LaPlaca Cohen first conducted in 2001, has two data sets. One follows key trends within a select set of cultural activities, remaining constant since the survey’s inception. The second tracks responses to updated questions that are future-focused and intended to help cultural institutions adapt to the evolving landscape. Together the data sets comprise some 4,000 respondents’ input. Demographic characteristics (age, gender, race) and geography closely mirror the U.S. population.

Culture Track ’17 delivers thought-provoking trends for nonprofit cultural institutions, but also for businesses engaged in offerings within the broad definition of “culture.” In fact, one of the key findings is that respondents have a vastly expanded definition of culture, “democratized even further [than prior studies], possibly to the point of extinction.”

Street fairs, food trucks and rock music festivals have taken their places next to traditional European-based art forms, including opera, symphony concerts, ballet and art museums, that are among the “cultural experiences” audiences are seeking out.

The authors go further: “The very audiences that are breaking down the definition of culture are also helping to rebuild a new one.” Audiences describe culture as “any activity that makes you feel anything and question what you already know; bringing people who may not think they have much in common together; and broadening horizons, understanding life situations and helping me learn about other peoples in the world.” What they’re not saying? That “culture” is equivalent to a high art form in the European tradition.

As survey participants describe their motivation for cultural engagement, the top reason is “having fun.” They also are seeking exposure to new ideas and personal development. The desire for self-improvement through cultural activities “is consistent across generations.” Further, a whopping 76 percent of respondents say they engage in cultural events for stress relief.

Kristin Prestegaard, Mia’s chief engagement officer, says in the previous Culture Track survey, stress relief was something that showed up for millennial audiences on what they’re seeking from cultural experiences. “Now, we see that the whole world is stressed out,” she says. “It’s across all the age groups. People want a ‘shoulder-drop moment’; it’s a time when you can just be present where you are.”

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More insights concern shifting ideas of what constitutes loyalty. “Loyalty is not a transactional program,” Prestegaard says. “Loyalty is a relationship you build with audiences and customers.” The study draws on respondents’ own words to describe their loyalty to places that offer them experiences that are “trustworthy, consistent and kind.” This is the first study where the word “kind” shows up, further emphasizing that for audiences and customers, it’s a tough world out there.

A final takeaway is that audiences are getting their information in many different ways. Nimble organizations will provide multiple entry points for creating experiences, and for programs that will be relevant to different audience types and segments. From the audience perspective, museums, theaters and music venues are competing for the public’s time and engagement alongside restaurants, TV shows and recreational activities such as sports. They are all a “cultural experience” from the participant’s vantage point.

How might we see this showing up in Mia’s work? “We know that audiences define what culture is,” Prestegaard says. “We do not [define it]. We are working to tell the stories of transformation that visitors experience when they encounter works of art. The biggest challenge is how to tell and share those stories and to convey art’s real impact.”

What might others take away? People are looking for meaning, connection and places where they can relax and be “in the moment.” But one size does not fit all. A “portfolio approach” is needed in order to serve different kinds of people in different ways, and for different moods and contexts. Audiences want experiences that are meaningful and reciprocal, not transactional. And to provide financial support, the public wants to see “clear, measurable and tangible impact” from cultural organizations, comparable to what health, education and humanitarian relief organizations can deliver.

All these trends represent challenges for cultural organizations, but also huge opportunities for connection and engagement. Feeling stressed? Try immersing yourself in live music, visiting a museum or gallery, or maybe hanging out in a park for the afternoon. They’re all “cultural experiences.”

Sarah Lutman is a St. Paul-based independent consultant and writer for clients in the cultural, media and philanthropic sectors.

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