Stephanie Pitts – Dropping in and dropping out: understanding cultural value from the perspectives of lapsed or partial arts participants.

I have been interested in musical participation for some time (see Pitts, 2005), and have carried out a number of case studies that have investigated the experiences and motivations of amateur performers and composers, and of regular audience members at jazz and classical events. While the richness of participants’ musical experiences is always fascinating, and the social and personal satisfaction that they gained from their involvement demonstrates ‘cultural value’ in everyday life, the question that has increasingly troubled me is “If musical participation is so great, why aren’t more people doing it?”

Previous researchers have identified a sector of ‘culturally aware non-attenders’ (Winzenried, 2004; Dobson & Pitts, 2012) – people who are receptive to arts involvement, but are currently minimally engaged. These people seemed like the ideal starting point for an investigation of cultural value ‘from the edges’: being well-disposed towards the arts, they might be willing to contribute to the research, but being minimally involved, their perspectives on arts engagement might be different from regular participants, so shedding light on what makes one person join a choir or go to the theatre while another in similar circumstances uses their time and energy differently. The next challenge, then, was where to find such people…

With my research assistant, Katy Robinson, I have embarked on three interlinked studies of lapsed and partial arts involvement. The first of these (confusingly labelled Study 2 in my initial planning) is a questionnaire survey of arts audiences in Sheffield, in which we ask respondents about their knowledge and experience of a range of arts, genres and venues, and also to describe and evaluate their most recent arts attendance. Thanks to interest from cultural venues in Sheffield, we hope to extend this study to include an ‘audience exchange’ element, where regular concert goers, for instance, will be taken to some contemporary theatre and then join a focus group to discuss their experience of being in an unfamiliar audience. We have been distributing flyers for our survey at cultural events around the city, through mailing lists and social media, and are so far receiving a steady flow of interesting responses, to be followed up in the new year with Study 3: life history interviews with a range of survey respondents to explore their varied routes into adult arts engagement.

Finally (rather than first) we have Study 1, or ‘the violin in the attic’: here we are interested specifically in music, and in those amateur musicians who have ceased to play or had a long gap in their membership of choirs and ensembles. We’ve begun this study with a pilot that follows up on Katy’s MA research, and that of her classmate at Sheffield, Kunshan Goh: both of them completed dissertations looking at musical participation in adulthood, and so we are returning to some of the ensembles that they worked with to seek out members or ex-members who have stories to tell about dropping in and out of ensembles. We are also beginning to approach other ensembles, to ask their members to complete short questionnaires about their current involvement, and to help us recruit lapsed musicians amongst their former members or from their own past experience.

Our data collection is in its early stages but progressing well, and we hope that our findings will help broaden the debate about what ‘cultural value’ means from a range of peripheral perspectives, from lapsed arts participants to occasional arts attenders, and so to bring new insight to what is already known about the use of the arts in everyday life.

You can keep up with our progress on the Sheffield Performer and Audience Research Centre website