The internet and social media are integral to the arts in America. A survey of arts organizations that have received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) finds that technology use permeates these organizations, their marketing and education efforts, and even their performance offerings. Moreover, many organizations are using the internet and social media to expand the number of online performances and exhibits, grow their audience, sell tickets, and raise funds online, while allowing patrons to share content, leave comments, and even post their own content on organizations’ sites.

The internet and digital technologies have also disrupted much of the traditional art world, according to these organizations. It has changed audience expectations, put more pressure on arts groups to participate actively in social media and, in some circumstances, undercut organizations’ missions and revenue streams. Even the notion of art is changing: 77% of respondents strongly agree or somewhat agree with the statement that digital technologies have “played a major role in broadening the boundaries of what is considered art.”

Tied to this embrace of technology is a widespread sense among arts group leaders that digital technologies are critical to the spread of the arts:1

  • 81% of the organizations in this survey say the internet and digital technologies are “very important” for promoting the arts
  • 78% say these technologies are “very important” for increasing audience engagement
  • 50% “strongly agree” with the statement that the internet “has increased engagement in the arts by providing a public platform through which more people can share their work”
  • 65% say digital technologies are “very important” for fundraising
  • A majority of these organizations also agree that the internet is “very important” in increasing organizational efficiency (63%), and for their engaging in arts advocacy (55%)

Most of the participating organizations strongly or somewhat agree with the statements that technology and social media have made art a more participatory experience (92%), and that they have helped make art audiences more diverse (83%).

Yet the majority of these arts organization respondents also say that technology contributes to an expectation that “all digital content should be free”: 74% agree with that statement. Survey respondents are divided over whether technology has negatively impacted audiences’ attention spans for live performance, but they uniformly disagree that it has “diluted the arts” by opening new pathways to arts participation and arts criticism.

Some 1,244 arts organizations that have received funds from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) between 2006 and 2011 participated in an online survey by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project.  The online survey was conducted from May 30 to July 20, 2012 among a diverse sample including respondents from visual arts, music, theater, dance, literature, photography, and media arts. The largest representations of organizations in the survey are performing arts group and arts service organizations. This national, non-probability sample included arts organizations of all sizes, and represents a wide array of organizational functions, such as performance, curation, exhibition, education, and philanthropy.

Among the key findings:

Technology use is pervasive in arts organizations

Arts organizations today have dozens of internet and mobile technology tools at their disposal; tools that can be used to create awareness of their organization, promote events and exhibits, provide customized experiences for patrons, sell tickets or merchandise, streamline customer service needs, and expand their mission-driven work. But there are costs associated with the embrace of technology, even in instances where the internet-based tools are free; there are issues of staff capacity and training, and there are challenges connected to serving patron bases with varying tastes for tech-mediated experiences of art. Without hesitation, though, arts organizations are plunging into the world of digital technology.

  • 99% of arts organizations in this survey have their own website
  • 97% have a social media presence on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr or other platform. In addition, 69% have individual employees who post to their own social media profiles in their capacity as a representative of the organization. Some 45% of the organizations with a social media presence say they post updates daily, including 25% who post updates several times a day
  • 94% of these organizations post photos about the organization or its work
  • 86% accept donations online
  • 72% sell tickets online
  • 50% maintain a blog
  • 47% sell merchandise online
  • 34% make information about their organization available through RSS feeds
  • 31% offer discounts through online services such as Groupon or Living Social
  • 27% host podcasts
  • 22% host webinars or educational or instructional content

Social media allow new forms of audience participation in the arts

There is a broad consensus among these arts organizations around the value of social media. Some 58% of respondents say the phrase “social media is worth the time our organization spends on it” is “very true,” while another 33% thought it is “somewhat true.” There is also strong support for the notion that social media helps organizations reach new, broader audiences, and that it helps audiences feel more invested in arts organizations.

  • 90% of the arts groups in this survey allow patrons to share their content via email, Facebook, or Twitter
  • 82% use social media to engage with audience members before, during, and after events
  • 77% of these organizations also use social networks as a barometer to monitor what patrons and the public are saying about their organizations
  • 65% use social networks to learn more about their patrons through more direct communications, as well as online surveys and polls
  • 52% use social media to crowdsource an idea, from possible programming decisions to the best times for sessions or seminars
  • 35% of these groups use location services such as Yelp, Google Latitude or Foursquare to interact with patrons
  • 28% host discussion groups or threaded conversations

Asked to recount any major impacts that social media has had on their work, several themes emerged:

  • Social media helps organizations clarify what they do, and better describe how audiences can engage with their mission-driven work
  • It also helps organizations communicate with alumni, patrons and audiences
  • It also makes it possible for patrons to engage with each other, and for messages to spread virally

These respondents also described both positive and negative outcomes from their social media use. On the positive side, the most common responses related to:

  • Increased attendance at events
  • More ticket sales
  • Increased public awareness of the organization
  • An ability to support fundraising efforts

On the negative side, a handful of organizations mentioned issues such as the time and effort of maintaining internet tools. But the most common negative outcome for respondents is unfiltered public criticism of the organization. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Yelp give the public easy opportunities to air grievances, disagree with programming decisions, or complain about customer service issues. For the most part, organizations say they are able to cope with the new visibility, and have turned criticism into an opportunity to learn, engage, and improve their services.

Mobile apps find a place

Mobile connectivity is beginning to drive some activity in arts organizations. Some 24% of these respondents say they use apps to provide content to the public; 17% say they use apps to facilitate work in their own organization; 15% use apps to sell tickets or services; 5% use apps to train and educate employees.

Technology expands access to the arts

Presenting and hosting events is a core function of many arts organizations. Indeed, 94% of survey respondents say that they host or sponsor in-person events or exhibits. And 29% say they host online events, such as webinars, virtual performances, or virtual exhibits.

Survey participants were asked if their organization had expanded the number of online events or exhibits it hosted in recent years. Some 86% of those who responded say they had. Moreover:

  • 81% of these organizations currently post or stream videos of their performances or exhibits
  • 15% present online exhibits

New challenges: getting tech funding and bringing staff up to speed

Survey respondents were also asked to describe the greatest challenge for their organizations in adopting these kinds of digital technologies. The majority who answered this open-ended question cited such things as “cost and staffing issues,” “capacity/funding” or “time and staff resources.” One organization summed up the challenges associated with staff capacity and simply keeping up with the velocity of change:

Staff time, plain and simple. We have been very lucky to have supportive, encouraging, and inspired leadership and experimental, smart, and creative staff. We have been careful and judicious in prioritizing which digital technologies should be pursued based on our mission and content. Without resources to add staff, digital projects have been integrated with existing workflows. We’re all doing our best to do more with less. Staying on top of (and sifting through) the rapidly changing field of digital technologies also remains an ongoing challenge.

Half of the organizations in this survey (49%) have sought funding to support projects that expand their use of the internet or other technologies, such as apps and social media. But, many have found it difficult to secure funds for these projects through traditional means.  When asked in an open-ended question whether it is easy or difficult to obtain funding for technology-related initiatives, one respondent wrote:

Difficult. The amounts are small, and the process cumbersome and slow. Often, by the time grants are awarded (6-12 months post application period) the market has shifted and the original idea needs to be modified or scrapped. This requires entrepreneurial approaches that many funders aren’t comfortable with, i.e. rapid pivots and radical changes in strategy.

Other key findings about the impact of technology on the arts world

The arts groups in this survey were asked a battery of questions about some additional impacts of digital technologies:

  • 63% say digital technology is “very important” for helping them use their organization’s resources more efficiently
  • 33% say digital technology is “very important” for providing arts education to the public
  • 28% say digital technology is “very important” for enabling artistic creation and collaboration
  • 27% say digital technology is “very important” for improving arts cataloging and collections management

When it comes to potential negative impacts of technology, the most significant concern expressed by these groups is that they sometimes struggle to find the resources to make social media work for them: 74% of these organizations say it is “very true” or “somewhat true” that they do not have the staff or resources to use social media effectively.

There were other concerns, too:

  • 40% agree with the statement that digital technology is “negatively impacting audience members’ attention spans for live performances,” including just 9% who strongly agree this is the case
  • 22% strongly or somewhat agree with the statement that digital technologies are “hurting arts organizations by decreasing attendance at in-person events.”
  • 10% strongly or somewhat agree with the statement that “the internet and digital technologies are diluting the arts by giving everyone interested in the arts and arts criticism a public platform”

One other impact is cited prominently by many of these organizations: 37% of respondents strongly agree (and another 34% somewhat agree) that “digital distractions such as ringing cell phones and audience member texting are a significant disruption to live performances.”

In an environment filled with ever-more dazzling tools and apps, on-demand content, and instant sharing, arts organizations also state their concerns about increased audience expectations …

The audience has already moved from “arts attendance as an event” to “arts attendance as an experience.”  This desire for a full-range of positive experience from ticket purchase, to travel, to parking, to treatment at the space, to quality of performance, to exit – this will only increase over the next 10 years.

… and having the financial capacity to serve audiences:

Organizations will continue to need to adapt and incorporate digital technologies into their programming. This will be a good thing for art consumers and patrons by increasing accessibility and improving collaboration. At the same time, organizations will struggle with funding to keep up with technology. Funders so rarely fund some of the infrastructure necessary to create top-notch digital programming, and that will be a major struggle.

On a purely practical level, digital technology, the internet, and social media are powerful tools, giving arts organizations new ways to promote events, engage with audiences, reach new patrons, and extend the life and scope of their work. “We can reach more patrons, more frequently, for less money,” said one respondent. “That’s been a huge change in the 30 years I’ve been in the business.”

About this survey

The survey results reported here are based on a non-probability sample of 1,258 arts organizations that received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in the years 2007-2011.  Of these 1,258 organizations, 1,155 completed the entire survey; all percentages reported are based on those answering each question separately.  The sample is not a probability sample of all arts organizations because it is not practical to assemble a sampling frame of this population. Instead, Pew Internet submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to obtain the list of all arts organizations that received grants from the NEA during the 2006-2011 time period. Several individuals from the same organization may have been awarded NEA funding during that time period, thus the sample file Pew Internet received included 5,773 grantees representing 3,644 separate arts organizations. To improve response, advance letters and email invitations to participate were sent to the full list of grantees, and grantees were asked to coordinate with colleagues so that each organization completed the survey only once.  The final sample includes organizations of all sizes, from very large to very small, with widely varying operating budgets, staff sizes, and organizational missions. It also includes organizations from disciplines across the arts world.  Though there is no national registry against which we could compare this sample, it is possible that it skews toward larger and older organizations compared to all the arts organizations in the country. The nature of the sample also means that smaller organizations among the grantees will have a bigger voice in the survey since they tend to be more numerous – and yet may serve smaller numbers of people in the aggregate. This is inherent in any organizational survey that includes organizations of very different sizes.