Does free admission guarantee accessibility to art?

Photo:  Isaac Bordas

Photo: Isaac Bordas

Originally published by Frieze on September 20th 2013

It’s now nearly 12 years since it became mandatory for publicly funded museums and galleries in the UK to offer free admission. Whilst visitor numbers have rocketed, studies have shown that the demographics of visitors have barely shifted. In essence, those from low-income backgrounds are still massively underrepresented.

Just 29% of visitors to Arts Council England ‘Renaissance Hub’ venues are from so-called ‘lower socio-economic groups’, though they make up 52% of the general population. Perhaps what is most alarming, is that the flagship art institutions of London’s TateV&A and the British Museum only had 9-10% of their visitors from ‘lower socio-economic groups’, suggesting that these institutions fared worse in this respect. What is more, for the former two, this percentage had actually decreased from the previous year.

With free admission minimizing financial barriers, it begs the question what else is preventing these groups from accessing art? The most simplistic answer is background and exposure; if people from poorer backgrounds have consistently been underrepresented in visitor numbers to art institutions, then it follows that a child growing up in such a household is less likely to experience the art housed in these venues.

In addition to being less likely to be taken to free galleries and museums, children in working class families are also less likely to learn to play an instrument, less likely to see a play, and so on. The arts are holistic; appreciation for one art form fosters appreciation for the arts as a whole, so engaging people with one form of arts should be an effective way to increase engagement more generally.

Research carried out by the Arts Council England in 2008 found that the two biggest factors determining levels of engagement with the arts were education and ‘social status’; the higher someone’s level of education and the greater their social status, the more they likely they are to engage with the arts.

Following from this, the more affluent your background, the more likely you are to have access to private education, and private schools often offer a broader range of cultural experiences to their pupils than state schools. Michael Gove’s education policy has tended to downplay the importance of the arts in favour of more ‘vocational’ subjects, meaning state schools who educate the majority of children from lower income families, will provide even less of an education in the arts than they did previously.

When it comes to higher education, students from low-income families continue to be underrepresented at the top universities. This year, applications for creative arts and design degrees saw the sharpest decline of any subject area, with a reduction of16%. In the context of austerity, there is a danger that only those from backgrounds that are affluent enough to provide a safety net and financial support will pursue a career in the arts, which is notoriously hard to make a living from. We have yet to see how the decreasing numbers of students from low-income backgrounds studying the artswill affect the demographics of visitor numbers for art institutions across the country but I can’t imagine it would be positive.

When the Arts Council looked into why certain groups weren’t accessing free events and exhibitions, they found that many people wanted to engage with the arts, but felt they were not for ‘people like me’. This indicates that our engagement with the arts is affected by our concept of identity and how we view ourselves and is closely linked to our social status. There is a certain amount of jargon and intellectualism that surrounds contemporary art in particular, and this can no doubt alienate people who are not familiar with the ‘language’ of art; it can be intimidating, and takes practice and specialist knowledge to decode.

But I think the most important relation to social status is how confident people are in their own opinions and abilities. Those with lower social status often think they don’t ‘get’ art. The truth is meaning inscribed in artworks are contested and multiple. It’s not that privileged people with higher social status necessarily better understand art, it’s more the fact that they have confidence that their own interpretations are valid.

I’m not arguing for the dumbing down of art; rather that it’s important to teach those with a so-called ‘lower social status’ that their opinions are valid and that art is open to different interpretations. This has to start with better education, which means teaching people how to critically engage with art from a young age, as part of the curriculum. At university level, it means recognizing the social value of the arts cannot simply be measured by the salaries they pay. Ensuring there is ample opportunity for those from low-income backgrounds to exhibit their work and make successful careers in the arts will surely help engagement levels. Unfortunately, in the context of austerity, cuts to the arts and draconian education reforms, it seems access to the arts will get worse before they get better.

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