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What will it take for Boston arts audiences to return? Here’s what a new survey found

Audiences packed the Boston Opera House for "Hamilton" in 2018.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/file

What will it take to get arts audiences back?

That was the basic question at the center of a June survey of over 3,000 local arts attendees affiliated with 16 different Boston cultural organizations.

The upshot: Audiences keenly want to return, but, despite living in a region where the pandemic is relatively under control, they are still very cautious about doing so.

Almost 90 percent of respondents said they would wait until epidemiological conditions improved, whether through a vaccine, improved testing and treatment options, or other measures. Over half of those surveyed indicated they did not anticipate coming back until January 2021 or later. When they do return, however, the vast majority (88 percent) said they don’t envision the pandemic changing their long-term level of attendance. Thirteen percent of total respondents said they plan to attend even more frequently in the future.


The results of the study, known as the Audience Outlook Monitor, will be closely watched as organizations try to anticipate emerging audience preferences in an arts landscape decimated by the pandemic. “We wanted to make sure the research and findings were actionable and could help inform decision-making for these organizations as they think about how they can reopen safely,” said Jennifer Falk, deputy director of Arts Boston, a co-sponsor of the survey together with the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture. “This gives arts organizations the opportunities to think about real world scenarios.”

The attitudes of Boston audiences are generally on track with those in New York, San Francisco, and other major metropolitan areas, according to Alan Brown, a principal at the arts consulting firm WolfBrown, which conducted the survey. The study is longitudinal and will provide new data as the pandemic runs its course. “Unfortunately what we’re seeing nationally, even over the past few weeks, is a slight regression to even more cautious attitudes toward going out, with the COVID situation itself changing, and the constant news coverage,” said Brown, adding that he expects the numbers will continue changing.


The Audience Outlook Monitor is just one of a number of studies currently tracking the impact of the pandemic on the arts. While some national governments have assisted their respective arts sectors in a sustained and targeted manner, there has been little coordinated federal guidance provided to arts organizations in the US, a source of frustration to some industry leaders. “The field is organizing around this in an ad hoc way,” Brown said, “but I would like to think there would be some policy-driven process for meeting the needs of arts groups in a time of crisis.”

Update: This article has been updated to clarify conditions under which respondents said they will return to arts events.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeremy.eichler@globe.com, or follow him @Jeremy_Eichler.