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Getting In On The Act


Arts participation is being redefined as people increasingly choose to engage with art in new, more active and expressive ways.

This movement carries profound implications, and fresh opportunities, for the nonprofit arts sector.

We are in the midst of a seismic shift in cultural production, moving from a “sit-back-and-be-told culture” to a “making-and-doing-culture.” Active or participatory arts practices are emerging from the fringes of the Western cultural tradition to capture the collective imagination. Many forces have conspired to lead us to this point. The sustained economic downturn that began in 2008, rising ticket prices, the pervasiveness of social media, the proliferation of digital content and rising expectations for self-guided, on-demand, customized experiences have all contributed to a cultural environment primed for active arts practice. This shift calls for a new equilibrium in the arts ecology and a new generation of arts leaders ready to accept, integrate and celebrate all forms of cultural practice.

This is, perhaps, the defining challenge of our time for artists, arts organizations and their supporters — to embrace a more holistic view of the cultural ecology and identify new possibilities for Americans to engage with the arts.

  • How can arts institutions adapt to this new environment?
  • Is participatory practice contradictory to, or complementary to, a business model that relies on professional production and consumption?
  • How can arts organizations enter this new territory without compromising their values or artistic ideals?

The James Irvine Foundation commissioned this report to deepen our own understanding of these changes and to help spotlight exciting examples of participatory arts practices. This report and case studies of illustrative projects help provide a better understanding of how people are engaging in the arts, and of how arts organizations are enabling this involvement. Researchers at WolfBrown investigated active arts participation across the arts sector in the United States, United Kingdom and Australia, learning from more than 100 organizations currently engaging in participatory arts. The report helps address many of the concerns that arts organizations may have in embracing participatory arts practices and illuminates the various trends in the field that are responsible for this shift. This report also presents the “Audience Involvement Spectrum,” a helpful new model for understanding various levels of arts engagement.