Cultural institutions in the United States, particularly those that focus on history, have long seen a decline in the number of young adult audience members. Historical exhibits are typically attended by older generations; the staff of these institutions reflect their audience members. Why don’t 18 to 35-year-olds attend cultural institutions on the same scale as their predecessors?
In a nationwide online survey that was distributed to undergraduate and graduate students majoring in arts administration, nearly half of the participants cited lack of interest as the primary reason why they would not attend an arts event, be it in-person or virtually. 75% of participants were avid museum-goers. However, a surprising 51.5% attended historical or cultural events—contrary to statistics, which show that adults under 50 make up the smallest percentage of historical and cultural event-goers.
Data gathered between 2012 and 2018 showed that no more than 14% of the total audience for the Minnesota Historical Society (which contains 26 sites in Minnesota, nine of which are in the Twin Cities metro region) was composed of young adults in any given year. In fact, many cultural organizations have stopped focusing on attracting young adults altogether due to their lack of success in the past. Pandemic budget cuts to marketing and programming departments have made this audience a particularly low-return investment. In addition to simply lacking interest in the subject matter, young adults have more options than ever before to compete for their time. Thus, Millennials and older Gen Zs are much more selective about how they spend what limited free time (and income) they have.
Social media has expedited a culture of customization: 18 to 35-year-olds expect to be in control of their own participation. Long gone is the traditional arts-goer who purchases a ticket, passively allowing an expert to curate their viewing experience. Instead, young adults want to be engaged from the moment they learn of the event until the end of the show. They want to be able to supplement their attendance with the opportunity to socialize with friends over food and drinks and use technology to better understand what they are seeing, all while curating a series of Instagram-worthy photos and videos to post on their story after the event.
In an era where they are constantly being bombarded with information, young adults need help staying engaged. Options such as customized art tours and interactive performances help them to feel in control of their experience. Moreover, they are more interested in events that other people are going to. The Australia Council of the Arts found that one-third of young adults learned about arts events online in 2010; this number has only grown since. Not everything is about following the crowd, however—young adults seek events reinforcing their self-perceptions. Experiences that ignite a personal connection between the viewer and the work are crucial to the longevity of cultural organizations in the years to come.
Editorial note: This publication is an excerpt of Patricia Stachowicz’s master’s thesis for the Arts Administration program at Baruch College, City University of New York. The cited figures are part of academic and personal field research conducted for the professional consultancy that informed this paper.
Australia Council for the Arts. Connecting://arts audiences online. June 2011. https://australiacouncil.gov.au/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/connecting_arts-audiences-onli-54325bda24842.pdf
Minnesota Historical Society. Phone interview. November 2021.
Stachowicz, Patricia. Polish Cultural Organization Survey. November 2021.