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Mass. residents both value the arts and see racism in them, new survey shows

In the Barr Foundation-funded study, 8,000 people also weighed in on how they’d like arts organizations to change

From left: Melody Buyukozer Dawkins, a researcher with Slover Linett, joined arts leaders Doneeca Thurston, executive director of Lynn Museum/LynnArts; Marquis Victor, founder and executive director of Elevated Thought; and Catherine T. Morris, founder and artistic director of BAMS Fest, to discuss the survey on Wednesday at the Boston Public Library.Jules Faña

A new survey shows that while a majority of people in Massachusetts value arts and culture organizations, residents of the Commonwealth are significantly more likely than Americans generally to think systemic racism is at play in the arts, and there’s a broad desire here for arts organizations to become more welcoming and address social issues.

The survey, sponsored by the Barr Foundation, comprises interviews with more than 8,000 people across the state, including 5,600 in Greater Boston. Researchers from Slover Linett Audience Research, which conducted the survey in April 2021, presented their findings to around 200 arts professionals Wednesday at the Boston Public Library’s Rabb Hall.

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Jen Benoit-Bryan, president of Slover Linett, said she was most surprised by respondents’ appetite for arts and cultural groups to tackle social issues such as racial injustice, even while many of them said they thought systemic racism was present in arts organizations.

They’re “holding both ideas at once,” said Benoit-Bryan. “There is systemic racism in many different parts of the arts and culture sector, but they still believe in the power of arts and cultural organizations to address that very same issue, even though they know it’s still being grappled with internally.”

The survey results, which offer particular detail on the perceptions of Black, Indigenous, and people of color, are benchmarked against similar national data drawn from interviews with some 75,000 respondents.

E. San San Wong, Barr’s director of arts and creativity, said the foundation commissioned the survey to help arts organizations better understand how audiences are changing during the pandemic and ongoing racial justice movement.

“There’s just this huge unknown about what audiences’ behavior and attitudes are going to be,” said Wong. “How can we help arts organizations anticipate and understand how audiences are going to come back to whatever the arts are — under what conditions do they want to come back?”

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All told, roughly two-thirds of state residents interviewed for the survey described arts and culture organizations as “highly important,” nearly 10 percentage points above the national rating.

Still, the survey found 92 percent of respondents across the state want arts organizations to change, becoming, among other things, more welcoming, inclusive, and accessible.

The survey also found that more than three-quarters of respondents statewide want arts and cultural organizations to address social issues, with racial justice, income inequality, and climate change topping the list. That result was more pronounced among BIPOC respondents in Greater Boston, 92 percent of whom said they’d like to see arts organizations tackle social issues.

“Systemic racial injustice emerged as the issue that people are most likely to say there’s a role for arts and culture to address,” said Benoit-Bryan.

Even so, respondents in Greater Boston are significantly more likely than national respondents to believe arts organizations harbor systemic racism. For example, nearly half of respondents in Greater Boston believe systemic racism is present in history and science museums. Meanwhile, less than a third of respondents nationally hold the same belief.

The disparity is more pronounced among the area’s BIPOC respondents, more than two-thirds of whom believe systemic racism can be found in theater groups, and roughly 60 percent of whom think it can be found in dance groups and science museums. Nationally, around a quarter of all respondents think systemic racism exists in those art forms or institutions.

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Black respondents in Greater Boston were even more likely to believe systemic racism was at play in arts and cultural organizations, with more than 80 percent saying it was present in art museums and theater groups.

The survey, which several arts leaders discussed on stage at the presentation Wednesday, also covered online engagement, and offered ideas about how arts groups might use the findings to serve audiences.

“We commission a lot of data,” said Wong. “This is one of the partnerships where we’re actually thinking about how to translate it into action.”


Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him @malcolmgay.