- Audiences are proving slow to want to return, with a continuing sense of risk to health and only slow rises in engagement.
- Wellbeing has taken a serious blow across the population, although many say that arts do help increase wellbeing.
- There are already indications that audience behaviour will be different in the 'new-normal' after the pandemic, particularly in relation to more local attendance, greater digital engagement (alongside, and in some cases replacing, live attendance) and openness to changes in event formats from significant minorities of the population (e.g. through blended digital and live events).
1. Audiences are Proving Slow to Return
Respondents were asked: “In terms of attending cultural events, as things open up, what best describes how you feel?” Fewer than a third said that they would be “happy to attend”. More concerningly, this was only a 2% increase on the response to an equivalent question asked in late February. This is despite the substantial changes in circumstances since then (notably vaccination rates [rising from c. 30% to 80% having had a first dose and 50% having had a second]; drops in case rates, hospitalisations and deaths, presentation and delivery of most of the ‘road map’).
Part of this continued reluctance is linked to continuing concern about health, whether their own or others’. 15% Strongly agree and 38% Agree that they are “worried about falling ill with COVID-19” (cf. 18% and 41% in late February); 21% Strongly agree and 42% Agree that they are “worried about others falling ill with COVID-19” (cf. 28% and 45%). These measures are moving in a positive direction, but only slowly.
Similarly, there is some positive movement in forward booking, but it remains limited. For example, respondents were asked whether they had booked for a live performance in the next two months. Of those who said they had been to live arts and/or music events in the year before COVID-19, 19% said “yes, and I expect it to go ahead” and 14% said “yes, but I expect it to be postponed or cancelled”. This is up on February (5% and 11%). Put another way: two thirds of previous live event attenders (65%) have no plans for attending live events in the immediate future.
2. Wellbeing has Taken a Serious Blow, but Arts can Help
As might be expected, wellbeing measures show substantial drops during the pandemic. For example, 36% said they had felt lonely “more often than before the pandemic” (and only 15% “less often”); 22% rated their “satisfaction with life at the moment” at 4 or less out of 10 (and 38% are “less satisfied with their life” compared to the year before the pandemic, with only 18% “more satisfied”).
Arts were believed to help improve wellbeing. Respondents were asked about which types of events they had attended during the pandemic and whether they had a positive impact on their wellbeing. 68% of ratings for arts activities were “yes” (with only 21% “no”) and 79% of rating for heritage activities were “yes” (with only 12% “no”).
Similarly, when the whole population were asked about different types of activity and whether they agreed or disagreed that “this activity is important to my wellbeing”, there were substantial positive responses.
3. Indications Audience Behaviours May Change After the Pandemic
More Local Attendance
Substantial minorities of respondents agreed that they would look to change their arts and cultural engagement after the pandemic, in various ways. For example, 33-40% agreed or agreed strongly that they would stay more local to attend various types of arts and culture.
This varied from a net of 8/9% agreeing for live events and indoor galleries and museums (perhaps because of a combination of less local availability and more specialised content) to 16% for Outdoor parks, gardens and heritage spaces and 23% for Film. This suggests that, all things being equal, there is a desire to shift to more local engagement.
Greater Digital Engagement
Similarly, of those who were interested in differing types of online activity over the next couple of months, there were substantial proportions who would use it to replace some, or most, of their in-person engagement, even after COVID-19 had gone away. This suggests that there will be some displacement of physical to digital engagement, among digitally engaged audiences (although these aren’t large proportions of the whole audience).
Openness to Changes in Format
Audiences may change their behaviour digitally in other ways. Combinations of digital and physical engagement look to be important in the future. 40% Agreed that “I am interested in experiencing my preferred types of arts and culture BOTH online AND in person” (11% Strongly agreed). There is openness to digital enhancement of the live experience, as well: 36% Agreed (and 9% Strongly) that “I am interested in how digital could be used to enhance a physical visit to a museum or gallery”, and similar numbers (35% and 9%) for performing arts events. Encouragingly, there were substantial numbers who said that they would also spend more for physical events which are enhanced by digital activity (29% replying Yes, 27% Not sure). There was further appetite for digital interactivity that affected performances and the core content of cultural experiences, with 9% “Very interested” in the first two of the following options and 11% for the third (totals for “quite interested” and “very interested” are shown in brackets):
- Live events that include digital interactivity during the performance (e.g. interact with performers, other people in the audience, or to change parts of the performance) (33%)
- A virtual reality experience that includes interactions with other participants (29%)
- A virtual reality experience that you can explore on your own (35%).
Between these various types of change, there is considerable potential for engagement patterns after the pandemic to be different from what went before, whether by location, platform or format.
 Respondents were asked which types of arts and cultural activity they had done and then for each, whether it had a positive impact on their wellbeing. This meant that an individual respondent could give more than one rating. Percentages are of all ratings given.
 “When there is no threat of Covid-19, will you do online arts and cultural activity…?” [Answers: “Instead of most physical visits”; “Instead of some physical visits”; “As well as physical visits”].
 The question wording was: “Overall, would you be willing to spend more on ‘in person’ events that were enhanced by these types of digital content or experiences?” Examples previously listed included: exclusive 'teaser' content in the build-up to the event; exclusive interviews with the artists or performers; extra artistic content; 'behind the scenes' footage; online discussion with other audience members or attenders; recommendations from artists or performers for other events.
About the Research:
The Cultural Participation Monitor is a year-long programme of research into representative samples of the UK population, to identify their cultural attendance, participation and online consumption before, during and beyond COVID-19, along with a range of other relevant information about profile, behaviour and attitudes. These findings are from Wave Three of the Monitor, with fieldwork taking place online from 4 to 10 June 2021. There were 2,002 responses, selected using quotas for age, gender, ethnicity, region and Audience Spectrum (The Audience Agency’s arts-based profiling model), weighted to ensure representativeness.
This report is part of a national research programme led by the Centre for Cultural Value in collaboration with the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre and The Audience Agency.
The project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) through UK Research and Innovation’s COVID-19 rapid rolling call.