ArtsEquator organised a webinar titled “Statistically Speaking: Analysing arts audience engagement in Singapore and Australia” on Thursday, 28 January. This panel brought together representatives from the National Arts Council (NAC) and the Australia Council of the Arts to elucidate on recent research results about arts engagement, and discuss what it tells us about the future of the arts.
In the first part of the webinar, which was attended by over 160 people, Dr Sharon Chang, Chief Research Officer, NAC and Chris Pope, Research Programme Manager, Australia Council spoke on the methodologies and insights of their respective recent national surveys. They were then joined by Tay Tong, Director of Sector Development Visual Arts, NAC and Jade Lillie, Head of Sector Development, Australia Council to talk about policy and programming implications and answer some audience questions. The session was moderated by Dr Charlene Rajendran.
Here are 8 highlights of the discussion:
1. What pre-COVID surveys can tell us
Dr Rajendran started off the webinar acknowledging that the research data that was being discussed was done prior to COVID, in 2019. These were national-level surveys. In Singapore, it’s called the Population Survey on the Arts and has been conducted for two decades. This research is done biannually – it was previously done every three years, but its regularity increased to account for the fast pace of life and lifestyles in Singapore. In Australia, it’s called the National Arts Participation Survey. The 2019 survey is the fourth in the series – the previous ones were conducted in 2009, 2013 and 2016. The Australian survey was also done prior to the devastating bushfires in 2019 and 2020.
In general, tracking audience attitudes to the arts over time helps in understanding the perceived value of the arts to people in that country. These results also have an impact on policy and programming. Within the context of a pandemic and even as the nations are slowly recovering from it, these surveys – when combined with results from COVID-related research – can offer valuable insights into what is going on, such as changes to the role and importance of the arts, challenges we still face, and responses to policy and programming.
2. COVID surveys and the essentialness of the arts during a pandemic
During the pandemic, both arts councils have embarked on multiple surveys to help track if people are valuing the arts differently. The NAC ran three full surveys and nine dipstick surveys. Through these surveys, the NAC wanted to find out how the pandemic, and especially Singapore’s lockdown or circuit breaker period, affected people’s consumption of the arts. Through the COVID-19 Arts Consumption Survey, the NAC found that online arts consumption rose, from 75% in the 2019 Population Survey, to 88% in the study done during circuit breaker, to 83% in the latest dipstick survey. Said Dr Chang:
“For us in Singapore, there was a little brouhaha over the fact that artists were not considered essential workers, but if you look at this type of data, where people, almost everyone was accessing the arts, it tells you that, really, artists are essential to the entire landscape.”
For Australia, being a much bigger country, the studies and their results take on an entirely different scale and complexity. The Australia Council developed COVID-19 Audience Outlook Monitors which looked at behaviours and sentiments of arts goers (i.e. people who are audience members of its participating organisations). Done over three phases in 2020, it found that people were willing to return to arts events, but the picture is different across Australia because of the difference in types of restrictions in different states and territories, and rates of community transmission. Chris noted that with safety measures and guidelines in place, comfort levels to return to live arts events do seem to be increasing, though there are “uncertain times ahead in terms of attendance”.
3. Methodology matters
Whilst the national surveys largely are looking to measure similar things, it is interesting to note how the surveys are carried out in each country, and how they are designed.
For Singapore’s Population Survey on the Arts, 2,000 Singapore citizens and permanent residents were approached. The survey was done door-to-door and conducted in English, Chinese, Malay or Tamil. Survey respondents were randomly selected from a sampling framework provided by the Singapore Department of Statistics, which are representative of our national population distribution in terms of age (15 years and above), gender, ethnicity, housing type (as proxy of income) as well as geographical spread.
The Australia Council surveyed 9,000 people aged 15 or over, a nationally representative sample based on age, gender, state, territory and locations. This year, the study was done entirely online – previous years had been done through a mix of telephone and online surveys.
Chris especially acknowledged the context of the Black Lives Matter movement and importance of listening to diverse voices. The Australia Council worked with specialist partners to boost representation of certain priority groups – for example, it worked with First Nations researchers to engage the regional and remote First Nations communities across the country. It also worked with a disability partner to boost the sample of Australians with disability. The 2019 survey was also translated to account for the “emerging and established language groups in Australia”. These languages were: Arabic, Dinka, Mandarin, Spanish, Urdu, and Vietnamese.
4. Arts engagement (vs attendance vs participation)
The 2019 national surveys in both countries boded well in terms of arts engagement, which is defined in terms of physical or live attendance at arts events. In Singapore, there seemed to be a Bicentennial effect – Dr Chang noted that 40% of the population had attended heritage activities such as exhibitions and arts events related to it. In Australia, Chris shared that attendance is high amongst younger Australians, parents with young children and First Nations respondents. He also noted that the growing number of arts and cultural festivals in Australia in recent years might have played a part in increasing accessibility to the arts.
Someone in the audience asked about the difference between access, participation and attendance, and why we use words like these. Dr Chang said that the NAC inherited this lingo from Arts Council England.
“At one time, I think the construct was that “attendance” is really a passive sort of engagement in the arts. You just go to an arts event. And if you were driven and motivated, it would be “participation”, and you’ll be going for talks, workshops, entering competitions, etc. But when it comes to the digital world, how do you differentiate between just watching something and being engrossed in the performance that you’re seeing online?”
The NAC still asks people whether they are attending versus participating (via that inherited lingo), but uses “engagement” when it comes to digital activities, and Dr Chang recognises that they are increasingly looking at more and more complex relationships between interest, exposure, levels of engagement and attendance.
5. “Climate change” in the arts (and languaging)
Dr Rajendran introduced an interesting provocation during the webinar, that what the arts is going through is a kind of “climate change”, and that this might be signalling towards the need for systemic changes, changes in policy and programming, and pointing to other gaps in the arts.
Chris noted that with the huge shift to online and more hybrid offerings, the big question is whether there is a sustainable model for artists and arts organisations going forward. He said:
“We need to explore the digital angle in more detail… The main thing is to ensure that business models and monetising strategies are in place for organisations or artists who are putting on performances and presentations, ensuring they’re appropriately paid for these livestreamed events or digital productions.”
Dr Chang spoke about systemic factors and other barriers. She noted that with Singapore being a young country with pragmatic concerns, it was once hypothesised that cost would be the top barrier to attending the arts. But the data shows that “lack of familiarity” is the top barrier, indicating that people are, in the busy-ness of their lives, often not inclined to go for something they are not already familiar or comfortable with. But through the COVID surveys, the NAC found that people who had no prior interest in the arts did not realise that they actually had been accessing the arts, such as going for concerts in their neighbourhood.
“Just the word “arts” was a little foreign to them. So what it says to us as a government is that there has to be this continuous investment in arts in the neighbourhoods. If people are not coming to the arts, we bring the arts and culture to the people,” she said, adding also that there has to be a continuous push, policy-wise, such as through having more free programmes, and investment-wise in education to expose more children to the arts.
Chris also agreed with this existing perception around the term “the arts”. He shared that in the last study of attitudinal questions, they ran a split sample to see if respondents would react differently to “cultural experiences” rather than the term “the arts”. He said:
“But interestingly, there was little to no difference across most of the results. But we know from focus groups, and all the research that we’ve run over the years, that there’s something in there about that language and how people perceive it. It didn’t seem to pull through in the results, but the impact of language is definitely something we will continue to investigate.”
6. The future of the arts and The Reckoning
Both the Australia Council and the NAC are in touch with what’s happening on the ground, engaging with artists and arts organisations during this time, while having their eye on the future of the arts. For example, Tay Tong shared how the NAC is supporting artists’ immediate needs via the $55 million Arts and Culture Resilience Package, but that it is thinking ahead on new policies and programmes coming up that will better support the industry in the future.
Jade shared that her team is focused on the future of the industry, what they want it to look like in 10 years’ time, and what it takes to get there. She introduced the term “the reckoning” brought on by the pandemic – recognising that it has completely levelled the experience, and provided more access and opportunity to people to participate in the arts in so many ways – and that the Australia Council would like to support the sector who want to transform in response to this reckoning. Said Jade:
“For me, our work is very much in the gaps, between prioritising First Nations communities, for example, in all of our work and practices, or the precarity of artists and the fact that artists – without whom we don’t have an industry – are the most vulnerable and some of the most marginalised, as we’ve seen through the COVID experience. How do we change that and make sure that artists are more secure, supported, and able to practise in a more long-term and ongoing way?”
7. Collaboration and the non-arts sectors
Both councils outlined their work in engaging non-arts industries. Jade highlighted how, in her conversations with their collaborators – health, education, engineering, tech, community development, etc – they had no issue articulating the value of arts and culture to their sectors, for example, in collective meaning-making, introducing and promoting compassion, empathy, belonging and processing of collective trauma.
“And I thought to myself, no wonder we have a difficult time measuring the impact of arts and culture,” said Jade, to laughter from the other speakers.
Indeed, it is difficult to measure a soul, retorted Dr Chang, though she added that they do try to approximate values of compassion and empathy by giving respondents statements such as “the art helps me understand people better”.
Tay Tong also acknowledged that the arts needs to be working more closely with auxiliary industries and other sectors, and that a greater level of communication and collaboration is needed on all levels so that we can better solve problems in the short-, medium- or long-term. He also briefly mentioned a separate (and ongoing) work he is doing in trying to think of how it can “get the arts more involved in the day-to-day operations of a corporation”.
8. Research, policy and communication
So why all this research? The speakers certainly gave us many reasons as to why and how we can use research results in a more meaningful way. The webinar helped distill the importance of closely looking at survey results, and how survey results can offer insights not just to the arts sector, but other sectors as well, and also potentially, give the arts a seat at the table when it comes to national matters.
Research, Jade shares, helps the Australia Council participate in important conversations with the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC), key decision makers from a health perspective, to talk about the experience of artists and arts organisations within the larger national context of the pandemic. The arts is thus part of that larger conversation about how and when Australia is able to move forward in the COVID context.
And spoken like a true former arts practitioner, Tay Tong stressed the need to square the research with feedback on the ground. “How do they coincide? Or how do they depart from each other? I think we need to make some kind of a judgment call, right? You can’t be 100% sure,” he said, demonstrating that policy making, perhaps as with survey designing, is both an art and a science.
Whilst naturally there are differences between Singapore and Australia, the results are clear. Listening, whether it be in the form of surveys, feedback or in everyday conversation, is important. Hopefully, the webinar also encourages more people to re-evaluate the relevance and resonance of research to the arts and our lives today.
Watch the entire “Statistically Speaking: Analysing Arts Audience Engagement in Singapore and Australia” webinar here.
This article is sponsored by the Australia Council of the Arts.
About the author(s)
Nabilah Said is an award-winning playwright, editor and cultural commentator. She is also an artist who works with text across various artforms and formats. Her plays have been staged in Singapore and London, including ANGKAT, which won Best Original Script at the 2020 Life Theatre Awards. Nabilah is the former editor of ArtsEquator.