Klaver, Mieke & Burggraaff, Wim: Why do people engage in cultural activities?

How do people give meaning to life? How do they reflect upon their daily existence? What do they create or celebrate, either together or alone? And how do they do this? By singing, drawing, reading , visiting their church or mosque or…?In the Netherlands, there is an increase in the number of people visiting museums and cinemas and statistics show that half the population actively practices some kind of creative leisure pursuit. However, it is also true that the performing arts institutions see a need and a possibility for reaching a wider audience, not only in terms of numbers, but also in terms of diversity. Despite many interesting initiatives within the theatre sector, theatre audiences still mainly consist of the highly educated and show little cultural diversity.The fact that the legitimacy of cultural policy needs constantly to be affirmed and the fact that the cultural activities on offer are struggling to appeal to a wide and diverse audience is largely the result of the way in which we frame concepts like ‘culture’ and ‘art’. The underlying question is how we deal with phenomena such as ‘beauty’ and ‘meaning’ in our daily lives. Approximately one century ago, we decided to give these concepts shape in specific ways (inside museums, in the theatre, etc.), but perhaps it is time to reshape. Perhaps there are new ways to interact with beauty and meaning and perhaps these ways need not be the same for everybody.The research studies beauty and meaning in the lives of people in a city borough and from that angle aims to come up with a cultural offer that fits. This does not mean finding ways to improve the marketing of existing types of cultural products (performances, exhibitions, etc.), but truly seeking new formats for dealing with beauty and meaning. A better understanding of actual practice and of the cultural and creative potential of the inhabitants of the city can help make existing cultural facilities more attractive.

What forms of cultural participation can be found among residents of a city borough? Through qualitative research from direct contact with a group of residents, the researchers recorded the ways in which this group experiences culture. For this purpose, we selected as our research target one of the flats in the borough, whose occupants are representative of the population of the borough. Through interviews and observation we studied what represents beauty and meaning for our research population, both indoors and out. During the first stage of the research we interviewed 25 inhabitants of the flat. Semi-open interviews (topics) of approximately 45 minutes. Most of the interviews took place at home. The second stage of the research we performed two cultural interventions with the inhabitants : the jigsaw-puzzel and a theatre performance. Both interventions were intensive, successful, educational and a pleasure to perform. It resulted in great learning experiences about process and product and cultural life of the residents of the flat.

When undertaking (cultural) activities, the why is more important than the what. Policymakers: move your focus from counting visitors to more qualitative research into people’s motives for cultural participation. Social-cultural professionals: shift your focus from promoting your own cultural offering to connections with your (future) audience from their own stories and motives. We have to renew the frame of cultural participation: from supply & demand to dialogue and co-creation. We learned that cultural activities and objects were conducted because of their social connotations, also family ties, memories and religious motives were mentioned. We came across a wide variety of cultural activities. Beauty and meaning are part of everyday activities and objects. And the social context is the dominant motivation.And all these activities go beyond the cultural products offered by cultural institutions. For this we coin the concept of ‘cultural practices’.