2. Cultural participation as a driver of social and economic impact

The direct and indirect impacts of culture on local development are largely achieved through cultural participation. Cultural participation includes the various ways and forms in which individuals may access or create cultural goods and experiences. Cultural participation can be active or passive. In active participation, individuals contribute directly and explicitly to the production of the cultural experience itself: playing a musical instrument, singing in a choir, drawing or painting, or writing a text. In passive participation, individuals’ access and enjoy the experiences and contents created by someone else. Passive participation includes listening to music, reading a book, watching a show, and attending an exhibition or a theatre performance. Cultural participation may have significant effects on many areas of social and economic impact:

  • Social inclusion: Access to cultural opportunities is far from uniform and depends on a variety of factors such as local access to cultural institutions or an individual’s income, education, ethnicity, and so on. Analysis of cultural participation patterns could help highlight mechanisms of social exclusion and marginalisation. In turn, the promotion of cultural participation can be a powerful driver of social inclusion and help mitigate factors leading to social and economic marginalisation through the development of social skills (Rivas, 2016[1]), of bonding and bridging social capital (Deloitte, 2019[2]; Tavano Blessi et al., 2012[3]; Brownett, 2018[4]), and of sense of self-worth and legitimisation of expression in many categories of disenfranchised individuals and communities (Matarasso, 1997[5]; Lindström Sol, 2019[6]).

  • Well-being and health: The COVID-19 related lockdowns and social distancing measures have made evident the importance of arts and culture for people’s mental and physical well-being (Ascolani et al., 2020[7]; Razai et al., 2020[8]), and to some extent health (Mak, Fluharty and Fancourt, 2021[9]). This recognition, which now builds on a vast and rapidly expanding body of research and experimentation developed in the last two decades (Fancourt and Finn, 2019[10]), provides a new opportunity to capitalise on the role of culture in the prevention and treatment of mental and physical illness across the lifespan, and more generally in the promotion of the broader goal of developing health and quality of life (salutogenesis), contributing to solutions for health and welfare systems, as defined in the Ottawa Charter (Eriksson and Lindtström, 2008[11]).

  • Cultural and creative entrepreneurship: High levels of cultural participation might be conducive to a favourable social environment for cultural and creative entrepreneurship (Bhansing, Hitters and Wijngarden, 2018[12]). Participation is therefore a tool to increase cultural and creative production and job creation as well as crossovers that generate innovation in other sectors (Lazzaro, 2017[13]).

  • Tackling societal challenges: In many cities and regions, cultural participation and the role of cultural and creative sectors are evolving. They are being used to tackle societal challenges (e.g. climate change, migrant integration) from new angles, favouring resilience, skills creation and prosocial behavioural changes (Giovanis, Akdede and Ozdamar, 2021[14]; Law et al., 2020[15]).

  • Social support for culture: High levels of cultural participation also create stronger support for public and private investment and cultural policies in public opinion, thus contributing to the financial and social sustainability of cultural and creative sectors (Miles and Gibson, 2016[16]).

Cultural participation is difficult to define due to the variety of ways in which it can occur, and can take both active and passive forms. While virtually every human activity has in principle a cultural meaning and cultural implications, cultural participation refers to involvement in experiences in which the creation and sharing of meaning with a strong symbolic and aesthetic connotation have a primary role. Cultural participation can be active or passive whether the individual is “creating meaning” or being exposed to the meaning created by others.

  • In active participation, individuals contribute directly and explicitly to the production of the cultural experience itself: playing a musical instrument, singing in a choir, drawing or painting, writing a text, performing in a play, etc.

  • In passive participation, individuals access and enjoy the experiences and contents created by someone else. Passive participation includes listening to music, reading a book, watching a show, attending an exhibition or a theatre performance, or playing a videogame (where there is clearly interaction, but according to the rules pre-defined by the game designer).

Several international definitions are used for cultural participation (Box 2.1). The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) framework identifies cultural participation as a distinct phase of a “culture cycle” whose steps are: creation, production, dissemination, exhibition/reception/transmission, and consumption/participation (UNESCO, 2009[17]). The European Union places special emphasis on the notion of access to culture for diverse population groups, which implies a policy objective of removing barriers that prevent such access (Pasukowska-Schnass, 2017[18]).

Traditionally, cultural participation definitions focus on participation as a form of cultural consumption. Although this form is central, there are opportunities to go beyond and include activities related to producing content. Today, people have at their disposal an unprecedented set of tools and skills that enables practically everybody to create and share cultural and creative content. Cultural participation should not be identified exclusively with passive exposure in the role of the “audience”. “High” art and culture itself is a cultural construct with complex social implications (Katz-Gerro, 1999[19]), therefore characterising participation in this way implicitly limits the scope of the definition.

Broader and more comprehensive definitions of cultural participation can help policies promote new active forms with greater social and economic impact. Cultural participation in its most general and comprehensive form encompasses both passive and active forms of participation, as well as both so-called “high arts and culture” and “popular arts and culture” activities. This also means that it is possible to find a participation dimension in practically all the stages of the UNESCO culture cycle: for instance, active participation may be directly related to cultural creation and production. Three different approaches to cultural production entail different notions of participation: the patronage regime, the cultural and creative industries regime, and the open platforms regime (Box 2.2) (Sacco, Ferilli and Tavano Blessi, 2018[22]).

The three regimes of cultural production (and their associated forms of cultural participation) span the many possible ways in which the arts and culture of any kind may be meaningfully experienced by people. There may be market access where a price or fee must be paid. There may be free access, either individual or as part of a group or community. There may be access in the form of mutual exchange of content that is offered to others in certain formats and under certain conditions, and so on. Types of cultural participation are necessarily open-ended given the variety and complexity of possibilities, and their quick, ongoing evolution.

Cultural participation is one of the most overlooked variables in cultural policy, despite its clearly fundamental role in the functioning of cultural and creative systems. Policy traditionally emphasised specific consequences of participation, such as its economic impact on the local economy, or the actual participation of specific groups of people, such as minorities or people with disabilities. But participation as a measure of the level of cultural activity of a population at a given geographical scale has attracted less interest. Consequently, data on cultural participation have been seldom collected, generally on an occasional basis, leaving little room for medium- and long-term analysis and for international comparisons. Furthermore, the benefits of cultural participation are not easily convertible into specific outcome measures that can provide the kind of quantitative evidence base used in policy making, as they are mostly related to subjective experience.

However, there is now an increasing awareness that participation is a key cultural policy variable, whose relevance goes beyond the cultural sphere itself. There is an increasing recognition (and scientific investigation) of how cultural participation is an under-recognised driver of behavioural response and change, which may affect various spheres of considerable policy interest. For instance, the recent launch of the EU New European Bauhaus flagship project that connects cultural engagement and participation to the greening of the European economy and society is a powerful illustration of this shift in mentality and of the new roles that are being assigned to culture in the policy toolbox to tackle the societal challenges.

Cultural participation influences a very diverse range of social impact areas. A partial list that reflects the main trends in current research and policy experimentation includes: health and well-being, social cohesion and intercultural dialogue, innovation, environmental sustainability, inclusive education, minority empowerment, new forms of social entrepreneurship, and community-driven urban and territorial renewal (Sacco, Ferilli and Tavano Blessi, 2018[22]). This list is likely to expand in the next few years, as a direct consequence of the increasing focus upon, and experimentation with, new forms of cultural participation targeting specific social impact objectives. For example, museums have been very active in this space harnessing cultural participation to address a range of social impacts (see Box 2.3).

  • However, cultural opportunities are far from uniform and heavily dependent on a variety of factors such as income, education and ethnicity. Analysis of cultural participation patterns could help highlight mechanisms of social exclusion and discrimination (Bennett and Silva, 2006[23]). Promotion of cultural participation may accordingly become a powerful driver of social inclusion and a mitigator of factors of social and economic marginalisation (Trauth et al., 2019[24]). The existing evidence provides many concrete examples of practices and projects (Sommer, 2014[25]), which suggest the potential of cultural participation as a main policy variable for addressing conflict resolution (Marcow Speiser and Speiser, 2007[26]), intercultural dialogue (Gonçalves, 2016[27]), social integration of marginalised communities and subjects (Lamb, 2009[28]), and of migrants and refugees (McGregor and Ragab, 2016[29]), and better social integration of elderly and fragile citizens (Teater and Baldwin, 2014[30]). These are all issues that rank very high in the priorities of policy agendas in many countries worldwide, and in most OECD countries specifically.

  • Cultural participation has effects on people’s psychological well-being and health, which has been emphasised in the current pandemic. This area has been recognised as a field of primary strategic importance by the World Health Organisation, with the recent publication of a comprehensive scoping review (Fancourt and Finn, 2019[10]) illustrating the breadth and articulation of the numerous interventions, experimentations and scientific studies that explore various aspects of this relationship. The relationship between cultural participation and increased life expectancy is by now well documented by several longitudinal studies (Fancourt and Steptoe, 2019[31]). The relationship between cultural participation and psychological well-being is also clearly established (Grossi et al., 2012[32]), and such association is not explained by differences in socio-economic status (Fancourt and Steptoe, 2019[33]). For example, a 2019 World Health Organisation review identified a key role for the arts in preventing illness and promoting health, as well as managing and treating illnesses throughout the lifespan (Fancourt and Finn, 2019[10]). Moreover, it has been shown that the impact of cultural participation on psychological well-being depends on average levels of local cultural participation (Tavano Blessi et al., 2016[34]). Therefore, where collective cultural participation levels are higher, the well-being effect of participation on a single individual is higher, suggesting the existence of important social incentive mechanisms, but also the possibility of cultural poverty traps (Bucci, Sacco and Segre, 2014[35]). As the clinical experimentation of various forms of cultural participation in complementary therapeutic approaches is quickly developing (Nainis et al., 2006[36]), it is legitimate to think of cultural participation as a potential future pillar of an integrated health and well-being (salutogenetic) approach, to be applied to critical public health policy areas such as active ageing (Jacobsen, Lund and Bertelsen, 2018[37])., healthy lifestyles or disease prevention and coping (Stickley and Hoare, 2015[38]).

The New European Agenda for Culture has launched an innovative approach that links cultural participation to specific areas of social impact, as a basis for research and policy design (EC, 2018[39]). The agenda introduces the notion of “cultural crossovers” to denote the systematic and intentional “contamination” between the cultural sphere and specific social impact spheres, such as health, well-being and social cohesion. The notion of crossover is intentionally meant as an alternative to the more widely used notion of cultural spillover that emphasises the accidental, non-planned nature of the social impact of cultural activities. An example is the emergent “cultural welfare” policy paradigm creatively combining culture and health policies (Sacco, 2017[40]). This cross-contamination perspective is especially appropriate to explore possible strategies of social impact policies that combine apparently unrelated policy areas and related goals in innovative ways as a form of “lateral thinking” in collaborative, trans-sectorial policy design (O’Leary and Vij, 2012[41]).

One of the most commonly sought outcome measures of cultural participation is the educational performance of students. Some empirical research has highlighted that cultural participation does improve educational performance, for example in the field of music (Guhn, Emerson and Gouzouasis, 2020[44]). However, the capacity to translate the benefits of cultural participation into school performance can be mitigated by many other factors, notably the family environment and more generally socio-economic status (Willekens and Lievens, 2014[45]). Moreover, occasional or compulsory cultural participation is unlikely to generate permanent benefits in this regard (Nagel, Damen and Haanstra, 2010[46]). Regular, sustained access is needed (Timoszuk et al., 2020[47]), and this becomes especially challenging for individuals from deprived neighbourhoods or with poor socio-economic and educational backgrounds who have fewer opportunities to cultivate their cultural interests (Mak, Coulter and Fancourt, 2021[48]).

However, cultural participation may exacerbate existing social differences. A large stream of research in the sociology of culture has documented how cultural participation, and in particular access to high arts and culture forms, may function as a powerful marker of social distinction (Atkinson, 2011[49]) by facilitating the reproduction of class divides, rather than promoting social inclusion. The issue persists in the apparently more diverse and open digital participation sphere, threatening the development of an inclusive knowledge society (Mihelj, Leguina and Downey, 2019[50]).

The capacity of culture to elicit complex emotional responses, and therefore influence behaviour, is under-used in policy discussions. The developmental potential of culture, and in particular of cultural participation, has been mostly considered in terms of its direct economic impact in relation to cultural tourism and cultural and creative production - therefore as an instrumental form of value creation (Belfiore, 2012[51]). In addition, there is an intrinsic capacity of culture to generate social value (and often, consequentially, also relevant economic value) by affecting human behaviour (Box 2.4).

In the current debate on behavioural science-inspired policy, much attention is being devoted to mild, benevolently paternalistic forms of behavioural programming such as nudging (Halpern and Sanders, 2016[52]). However, top-down nudging approaches have not always proven effective (Osman et al., 2020[53]). They can also raise problems of fair and/or effective agency in the policymakers implementing them (Frey and Gallus, 2016[54]). Bottom-up, inclusive approaches to cultural participation which directly involve and empower citizens, bypass many of the drawbacks that are generally made to nudging and other “engineered” forms of choice architecture (Belknap et al., 2013[55]). Nudging approaches have also been applied to fostering cultural participation in the young, with little result beyond momentary priming (Lattarulo, Mariani and Razzolini, 2017[56]). Nonetheless, in the past few years, there has been a growing awareness that a culture-based approach is an especially promising policy perspective in the design of innovative strategies to tackle societal challenges from different angles than the ones of mainstream social and economic policies (Clover, 2011[57]; Heras et al., 2021[58]).

Cultural policies can be effective at tackling issues where aspects of behavioural change or the understanding of pro-social emotions and attitudes plays such a central role. These issues include intercultural dialogue and conflict resolution (Bang, 2016[59]), global climate change (Burke, Ockwell and Whitmarsh, 2018[60]), welfare policies in favour of the most fragile members of society (Erel, Reynolds and Kaptani, 2017[61]), and the human development and empowerment of youth at risk (Brader and Luke, 2013[62]), to name just a few examples.

Cultural participation interacts with, and possibly reinforces, other forms of civic participation such as political participation, volunteering and community engagement (Campagna, Caperna and Montalto, 2020[72]). Cultural participation might either reinforce motivations to pursue collective and public interest goals (Gilmore, 2013[73]) or preclude alternative forms of participation (for instance when it encourages discriminatory forms of in-group cultural identification (Jarness and Friedman, 2017[74])), and there are in principle reasons that might support both perspectives. It is likely that the mutual reinforcement vs. the social competition between different forms of cultural participation might depend on specific local conditions and circumstances. For instance, performing classical theatre as a high arts and culture activity, directly appealing to exclusive social circles and regulating admission through expensive tickets, might have as its main social consequence to limit participation to highly educated, affluent members of the upper-middle class (Gerhards, Hans and Mutz, 2012[75]). This would preclude interaction and cross-fertilisation with local forms of popular culture. On the contrary, the same theatre repertoire could be enacted to tackle outstanding social issues by reaching out to less typical audiences such as marginalised groups or prison inmates (Keehan, 2015[76]). Which option prevails is basically a consequence of the social and institutional context in which a certain cultural experience is proposed and how it engages different potential constituencies.

In an increasingly digitalised contemporary culture, levels of cultural participation might help achieve better levels of digital literacy (Hobbs, 2017[77]). Such literacy is quintessential to the full-fledged development of knowledge societies (Minariková and Novotny, 2020[78]) and mature democracies (Polizzi, 2020[79]). Of special interest in this regard is the Indicator Framework for Culture and Democracy (IFCD) promoted by the Council of Europe (Anheier et al., 2018[80]). Digital skills include access to, and familiarity with, innovative technologies such as virtual and augmented reality, and the capacity to make use of digital creation tools, especially in the case of active cultural participation (Burgess, Foth and Klaebe, 2006[81]). With more and more cultural activities being mediated through digital means, cultural participation can help close gaps in digital fluency in lagging regions and geographically marginalised areas (Prinsloo and Rowsell, 2012[82]). However, this benefit of cultural participation relies on the availability of digital infrastructure, which is uneven across countries and regions. For example, OECD data shows that regional differences in broadband access between households significantly vary between capital regions and other regions, reaching a gap of over 30% in some countries (Figure 2.1) (OECD, 2020[83]).

Economic impact studies tend to privilege forms of cultural participation that are mediated by the market and involve the payment of a ticket or fee. An unintended consequence of this approach is the assessment of cultural activities in terms of their capacity to generate revenues, therefore putting under pressure all those institutions where revenue generation is, for several reasons, not a central concern or at odds with the institution’s mission and scope (Belfiore, 2014[85]).

However, new forms of economic impact, as promoted by the New European Agenda for Culture (NEAC) (EC, 2018[39]), can also occur from cultural participation, such as innovation and entrepreneurship, which plant the seeds for future impact. This agenda highlights the crossovers between cultural participation and innovation, on the one side, and education, on the other. These crossovers are based on the recognition that art-related skills may play an important role in innovation processes (Oakley, Sperry and Pratt, 2008[86]); that access to culture improves educational performance in students (Holochwost et al., 2017[87]); and, more generally, the accumulation of human capital (Crociata et al., 2020[88]). Moreover, high levels of cultural participation might be conducive to favourable social environments for the development of entrepreneurial models outside the sphere of cultural and creative sectors, but in which cultural and creative elements play a key role (Altinai et al., 2021[89]). Familiarity with challenging cultural experiences might help entrepreneurs develop skills of lateral thinking and problem solving, which are not typically developed in engineering or business schools (Berthoin Antal, 2012[90]).

Finally, high levels of cultural participation can induce wider recognition of the professional opportunities and status of cultural and creative workers (de Miranda, Aranha and Zardo, 2009[91]). The fact that the social relevance and benefits of cultural participation are not sufficiently acknowledged may provoke negative consequences that further exacerbate the marginality of culture. These include insufficient revenue streams for many providers of cultural and creative services (Siebert and Wilson, 2013[92]) and content (Moyon and Lecocq, 2013[93]), low social appreciation and recognition of many cultural and creative professions (Geller and Denny, 2013[94]), with consequent limitations in their capacity of access to credit (IDEA Consult/Ecorys, 2013[95]), limited employability in non-cultural economic and social sectors (Mao and Shen, 2020[96]), reduced willingness of educational institutions to provide courses and training in the cultural sphere (Kingston, 2015[97]), and so on. Higher levels of cultural participation could not only improve professional opportunities for those working in cultural and creative sectors (CCS) and attract more skilled talent to these sectors but could also lead to greater recognition of the importance of cultural and creative skills in other economic and social activities beyond CCS (Higgs, Cunningham and Bakshi, 2008[98]). For example, such skills provide important and still under-recognised contributions in corporate environments, health systems, social services, and research and development (R&D) labs (Tom Fleming Creative Consultancy, 2015[99]).

Even in fields that might seem weakly related to cultural participation, such as the environment and climate change, participation may provide important new routes for innovative policy design. For what concerns pro-social behaviours, such as complying with the guidelines of waste recycling, cultural participation is the best predictor of actual compliance, more than income or education (Crociata, Agovino and Sacco, 2015[102]). For some forms of cultural participation, a relationship with energy-saving behaviours (Quaglione et al., 2017[103]) and sustainable mobility choices (Quaglione et al., 2019[104]) also exists. More generally, future sustainability scenarios will be heavily influenced by the ability to internalise social norms of environmental responsibility by local communities (Yamin et al., 2019[105]). On the basis of the existing, preliminary evidence, culture is already providing a significant contribution in the deployment of the Agenda 21 (UCLG Committee on Culture, 2008[106]). Moreover, cultural participation might favour the emergence and diffusion of circular economy practices by stimulating individuals to embrace more sustainable consumption patterns which are less centred upon practices of purchase of material goods and more orientated toward the pursuit of meaningful experiences (Sacco, Williams and del Bianco, 2007[107]).

Despite the importance of cultural participation for many social and economic benefits, its measurement is infrequent and inconsistent. A general framework that defines participation in a comprehensive, widely adopted way, and that develops common standards of measurement and common systems of indicators would be of great value (Cicerchia, 2015[108]). Currently, there is a wide discrepancy as to what is defined to be part of the cultural sphere of participation in different countries, how it is measured, how often, and to what purpose. The most common measures tend to take into account time use, participation in particular cultural activities or attendance rates of specific entities, or even access through geolocalisation of cultural amenities (Box 2.6).

There is an opportunity for a more systematic approach to measuring cultural participation taken up by national statistical institutes and other data-oriented institutions. The recent commitment of Eurostat to produce systematic data on cultural participation across Europe is an important step (Eurostat, 2021[20]). Several countries such as Denmark and Germany conduct annual surveys on some elements of cultural participation, and other countries and regions also focus on specific issues such as barriers to participation (Box 2.7). As to the kind of indicators that could be useful as a first, basic benchmark that could be viable in terms of time and resources across countries in the OECD and beyond, considerations include:

  • Available audience data for all sectors of cultural activity for which they may be, or are already, routinely measured: theatres, cinemas, newspapers, museums, television, digital content platforms, etc.

  • Sales data for cultural and creative products (books, music, cinema, videogames, etc.)

  • Access data for online cultural and creative content (number and type of products accessed, total viewing time, reactions such as comments, likes, etc.).

  • General cultural participation indices such as the average number of cultural events from a given list of categories attended yearly by a given individual.

  • Active cultural participation indices such as the total number of hours spent yearly in activities from a given list of categories by a given individual.

  • Specific cultural participation indices, measuring individual time shares of passive and active cultural participation, for given spheres of activity (music playing/listening, writing/book reading, art-making/attending exhibitions, etcetera).

It would also be useful to include cultural participation-related questions in national censuses and surveys. This would help to track cultural participation choices and relate them to key demographics such as socio-economic and educational levels, age, sex, civil status, geographical location, etc. This would allow the possibility of designing and conducting survey experiments and to build in time longitudinal evidence to infer causal relationships between cultural participation and specific spheres of social and economic value creation.

Given the fragmented and incomplete cultural participation data, it is difficult to analyse comparable evidence for a large number of countries. However, in 2015 Eurostat compiled results of an ad-hoc module on social and cultural participation that formed part of EU statistics on income and living conditions (EU-SILC). This relatively homogeneous and comparable cultural participation statistics for European countries provide a first useful benchmark in comparing participation rates across European countries. Due to the richness of cultural diversity across European countries, comparison of cultural participation data at the country level offers a number of interesting insights.

Europe is divided into geographic blocks concerning levels of passive cultural participation, suggesting that factors of geographic and cultural proximity may influence participation rates (Figure 2.3). Splitting passive participation rates into four levels (low, moderately low, moderately high and high), we see that low levels of cultural participation (less than 48%) are found in South-Eastern Europe, mainly Italy and the Balkans. Moderately low participation rates (between 48% and 63%) are found in all Eastern European countries minus the Czech Republic, Estonia, and Slovenia, plus the remaining Southern European ones (Portugal, Spain, etc.). These two tiers are the ones that include countries whose levels of cultural participation fall below the EU average. Moderately high participation rates (between 64% and 79%) can be found in the Western side of Central Europe plus Estonia, Ireland and France. It is interesting to remark that Eastern European countries such as the Czech Republic and Slovenia are closer, in terms of cultural participation patterns, to the German-speaking part of Europe than to their Eastern European neighbours. Finally, high levels of cultural participation (80% or more) can be found in the Nordic countries plus the Netherlands and Switzerland.

As a consequence, the expected impact of passive cultural participation on the various spheres of interest – health and wellbeing, social cohesion, innovation, etc. – is likely to be very different across European countries. Upper-tier countries will therefore likely provide the most favourable environment for the largest effect sizes. This means that also experimentation with cultural crossovers should take into account the differences in levels of cultural participation and design projects and interventions accordingly. In countries where effect sizes are expected to be comparatively larger, it would be possible to launch country-wide projects and experimentations, whereas in countries with lower levels of cultural participation it would be more constructive to experiment with regional or urban contexts where levels of cultural participation are likely to sit above the country average, and to progressively extend the pilot projects in high participation areas to lower participation ones.

Disaggregating overall passive cultural participation into three main categories (cinema, live performances, and visits to cultural sites) shows that even in countries with low total cultural participation, some attendance of certain activities can be high (Figure 2.4). Whereas for certain countries the participation rates for the three categories of activity are fairly similar, others show larger variations. Balkan countries such as Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia, Serbia and North Macedonia present low participation levels for all categories. In the case of Greece and Italy, however, we find much higher levels of participation for certain categories (cinema and live performances for Greece, cinema only for Italy). It is meaningful that, in the case of these two countries which are especially renowned for their physical cultural heritage, visits to cultural sites attract significantly less participation than other categories. It is also of interest that the three Baltic States, together with Slovenia and Portugal, stand out for particularly high levels of participation in live performances. More generally, live performances are the category that features the highest level of participation in most countries, followed by cinema. Only in five European countries, visits to cultural sites are the category with the highest participation.

However, each country is characterised by its own mix of participation levels for specific activities that further reflect local socio-cultural and economic characteristics. For nearby countries whose aggregate passive participation levels are comparable, the country-specific mixes may differ. For instance, in two Nordic countries such as Denmark and Finland which both sit in the top cultural participation tier, in the former cinema is the most widely participated category and live performances the least participated one, whereas the opposite is true for Finland. In fact, although one can find some similarities in the disaggregated patterns across nearby countries (such as in the case of the three Baltic States where live performances clearly prevail upon the other categories), each one has its own mix, despite the similarities at the aggregate level.

Statistics on overall passive cultural participation also disguise differences in concentration of cultural participation, as some countries may have fewer people attending cultural activities, but these participating individuals could be attending cultural events more frequently. Looking at frequency of passive cultural participation (Figure 2.4) country specificities become even more marked. For instance, as to the share of citizens that go to the cinema at least once a year, there are Nordic countries such as Sweden and Denmark that present higher overall values than France, but France has the highest share in Europe of citizens that go to the cinema at least 4 times a year. That is to say, aggregate levels of cultural participation may fail to reveal that in countries with relatively lower participation levels there may be a large share of “core” participants with especially high involvement in certain activities. A similar pattern is found for instance for live performances, where Finland has the highest share of attendance but Slovenia has the highest share of strong attendance (at least four times a year).

The country differences in terms of frequency of access appear to be related to socio-economic inequalities in cultural participation (see Figure 2.5 and Figure 2.6). Cultural participation, in Europe at least, presents a strong positive correlation with educational and income levels, pointing out that still much is to be done to ensure more inclusive access to culture, especially given the potentially positive effect cultural participation could have on those that are socio-economically disadvantaged.

Indeed, in every country in the panel, the level of cultural participation increases with the level of educational attainment. In many countries, the participation gap between highly educated and less educated citizens is very large, whereas in a few others it is much narrower. The gap tends to be particularly big in countries with an overall low aggregate level of cultural participation, where the highly educated have levels of access that are close to the aggregate ones of high participation countries, and the less educated have extremely low levels of participation. In high participation countries, even the least educated have relatively high participation rates, and generally the higher the aggregate participation rate, the narrower the gap between the most and least educated. Therefore, in Nordic countries, the overall gap is relatively narrow, in other countries sitting in the next lower participation tier such as France, Slovenia, the Czech Republic and Ireland the gap is wider. Policy action is therefore more urgent in countries with low aggregate participation rates.

Looking at active participation (e.g. playing a musical instrument, dancing, painting, etc.), shows a slightly different pattern across national contexts (Figure 2.7). Some low-participation countries in terms of passive participation have a much higher position when considering active participation. For example, in Greece, 44% of the population had engaged in active cultural participation in the last year, well above the OECD average of 37%. Additionally, some of the countries with relatively high passive participation rates such as France and Belgium present some of the lowest active participation rates in the EU.

Overall, around two-thirds of European citizens are estimated to never engage in active cultural participation (Figure 2.8). On average, 65.7% of people across the EU27 had not engaged in active cultural participation in the last year. In Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, France, Ireland, Italy, North Macedonia, Portugal, Romania, Serbia and Spain this figure was above 75%. The large share of people not participating in cultural activities deserves special attention given the potential expected benefits.

Better understanding of country differences in the rates and forms of participation could help to fully leverage the potential of cultural participation for economic and social value creation as well as inclusion. Although sizes are very different across countries, in every single European country there is a participation gap between the most and the least well-off, which implies that there is a need for more targeted inclusive cultural policies, the more so the lower the cultural participation level of a country overall.

Attendance data for some cultural activities are available from both European and non-European countries. Attendance data is gathered at delivery point (museum, library, cinema, theatre, etc.) rather than by user survey, and therefore covers attendance both by residents and by tourists.1 The list of data sources can be found in Annex Table 2.A.1. Specifically for European countries, this includes cinema attendance, library attendance (distinguishing between library visits and library users, as different European countries measure participation by using either one or the other indicator), museum and live shows attendance. For non-European countries, data is available only for museums and cinema attendance.

  • Libraries and museums are institutions that are the pillars of public cultural policies. These institutions have a primary mission is enable people to participate for educational and public interest purposes, and not to optimise revenues from paying visitors, and this is generally the case also for privately owned museums and libraries. Therefore, participation data on these institutions help us understand how non-profit-oriented cultural institutions engage residents vs. tourists.

  • Cinema and live performances are mainly profit-oriented and industrially organised. These data help to understand the balance of the cultural participation mix in a certain country as to entertainment versus educational motives.

Different cultural activities present different geographies of cultural participation across European and non-European countries and regions (Figure 2.9 to Figure 2.11). Certain activities, such as museum attendance, generally feature high and often prevailing shares of tourists with respect to residents, whereas others, such as libraries, are mainly attended by residents. National orientations seem to count with respect to cultural participation, with Southern European countries (as well as countries such as Israel and Mexico) relatively more interested in activities where the entertainment component is stronger, such as in live events and cinema, and Northern European countries which are more interested in activities with stronger high art and culture components such as museum and library attendance. Moreover, countries with relatively low income are more limited as to access to relatively expensive entertainment opportunities such as cinema – similar to the relationship between income levels and cultural participation in the Eurostat data.

These data reveal a clear North-South divide, with Northern European countries reporting much higher rates of cultural participation than Southern European ones, but the regional picture is more nuanced. The highest rates of cultural participation are typically reached in each country’s capital city regions. This reflects both the fact that such regions often host some of the most important museums at the national level and that they are also among the most attractive tourist destinations, such as Paris, Berlin, Rome, Madrid, Stockholm, Helsinki, Vienna, Prague, and Budapest.

However, there are also different general patterns across different European countries. In France, the dualism between Paris and the other regions is very apparent, whereas in Spain almost all regions present relatively high rates of museum attendance. Italy is somewhat in the middle, with Tuscany and Campania getting close to Lazio (the capital city region), and other regions presenting lower rates, similar to the French case. It is interesting to notice that in Italy, a border region like Friuli-Venezia Giulia presents high levels of cultural attendance that partially reflect those of bordering Austrian and Slovenian regions.

In the case of museums, attendance data per capita is a misleading indicator of local cultural participation, as much of these attendance rates can be attributed to tourists. Museums are typically visited more by tourists than by residents. However, in less tourist-oriented regions, museum visits may also reflect the attendance of locals. For example, the country that presents uniformly high levels of museum attendance rates is Norway, which also has high cultural participation of rates of actual residents. Also of interest are the high participation rates of small, but very dynamic countries such as Estonia and Iceland. Eastern regions in Germany are characterised by higher participation rates than Western ones. There is also a relatively high level of cultural participation across the regions in Central Europe, spanning Southern Germany, Austria, the Czech and Slovak Republics, Northern Hungary, and South-Eastern Poland – an area with several cultural tourism destinations such as Prague, Vienna and Salzburg.

Libraries, on the contrary, almost exclusively represent local attendance and therefore are more reliable markers of local cultural participation. Two alternative measures need to be considered, visits and users, as different countries use different criteria to measure library attendance. In Spain, for instance, the average rate of users is uniformly high across the country. However, the visit rates show that there are significant differences in terms of access, with Catalonia leading at the national level. Indeed, one of Catalonia’s most important festivals, the day of the Saint Patron Sant Jordi, is celebrated by girls buying books for their friends, showing how reading is deeply ingrained not only in cultural, but also in local social practices. For libraries, the geography of attendance is not easily organised in terms of a North-South divide within Europe. Once again, the unavailability of data for many European regions is a big limitation.

Moving beyond Europe, there are interesting national and subnational distinctions, albeit regional divides within countries are more marked for museum relative to cinema attendance (Figure 2.12 and Figure 2.13).

  • In Asian countries such as Korea and Japan, participation patterns are also different across countries. Korea presents very high participation levels for both museum and cinema attendance, reflecting a broad interest in various forms of both high art and culture and popular culture experiences. In the case of Japan, there is a sharp split between high participation rates for museum attendance, but surprisingly low participation rates for cinema attendance.

  • Canada presents uniformly high rates of cultural participation for both museums and cinema, but the regional hubs are different. Quebec, which in the Northern American context is especially closer to Francophone Europe in terms of cultural distance, shows higher participation for museum attendance, whereas Ontario is more inclined toward the entertainment-related sphere of cinema attendance.

  • Israel, on the contrary, is overall more of a low-attendance country, but also with a regional dualism. Regional leadership in high art and culture is found more in Jerusalem, while entertainment-oriented forms of participation are more prevalent in Tel Aviv.

Another important kind of data about cultural participation comes from time-use surveys which measure how citizens allocate their time across different activities. It could provide detail on the actual role and importance of culture-related experiences in the daily activity of people, which could be of great importance in designing a new generation of cultural participation-driven social impact policies. However, survey formats vary from country to country and discerning what is actually cultural participation is not obvious.

In examples from Germany and Spain, there is not a specific category of time-use that directly refers to cultural participation (Table 2.1, Table 2.2). In fact, in the classification from Germany, culture-related activities may fall into different categories at the same time: qualification and education, social life and entertainment, sport, hobbies and games, and media use. For Spain, cultural activities are split across many categories (social life and entertainment, hobbies, the media, and possibly also the outdoor activities part associated with sports (for instance visits to heritage sites). Currently, it is difficult to extract the needed information from the available data in countries.

Cultural participation activity that is related to the production and dissemination of user-generated content in particular is still very poorly understood and structured in terms of statistical measurement. For instance, internet activity is typically generically classified as leisure time or media use. Such information will be needed to understand how new forms of participation (related to the “open platform” approach) is changing individual and collective attitudes and habits for both passive and active cultural participation. The measurement frameworks developed need to reflect the complex reality of cultural participation in the digital age.

Household expenditure could be another source of information on cultural participation activities, but it only considers those forms of participation that have to do with paying a ticket or fee.2 This kind of data is of special importance in tracking how market-mediated access to culture is influenced by economic cycles. Expenditure data can provide detailed insights into how the cultural participation of households responds to varying economic and social conditions. However, understanding fluctuations, for example substituting between higher and lower cost of cultural services, is not easy to discern without complementary data such as for time-use.

Another source of indirect information on cultural participation patterns is the share of public expenditure devoted to culture-related activities. It can be helpful to compare, for example, the patterns of regional differences in local government spending (see Chapter 5) alongside household expenditure since both can indicate the net impact on cultural participation. In times of economic crisis, households spend less in market-mediated forms of leisure but may find a richer offering from publicly financed institutions (if public financing is maintained), possibly driving adjustments in cultural participation choices.

In selected European countries, there is a positive correlation between public expenditure on culture and cultural participation (Figure 2.14). This relationship is found even for participation in areas that generally receive less or no public financing such as cinema and live performances. This seems to suggest that there could be a complementarity between public and private expenditure: as publicly financed cultural institutions enrich their offering thanks to more public spending, increased attendance also stimulates attendance in non-publicly-financed cultural activities. At the same time, it could be that high levels of cultural participation create the political consensus conditions for high levels of public spending in culture, so a causal relationship may be at play, and in either direction.

Cultural participation has been a relatively neglected policy topic, calling for greater policy action given its manifold impacts across policy spheres. It can be used to address key societal and economic challenges, such as fostering social inclusion and cohesion or promoting entrepreneurship and innovation, from very different angles and through very different methods compared to the policy mainstream. On one hand, it is through participation that culture may spark individual and social processes of behavioural change that positively impact social value creation and the pursuit of public interest goals. Cultural participation has been shown to promote human development and active citizenship, facilitating the acquisition of important capabilities and the prevalence of pro-social dispositions. On the other hand, cultural participation also provides an important basis for the support of cultural and creative production, irrespective of whether access to such production entails the payment of a ticket or fee that results in a direct economic impact.

In countries with higher levels of cultural participation, one can also expect relatively higher spending on culture and, vice versa, high levels of cultural spending pave the way to higher levels of cultural participation. This is likely a process of mutual causation, where more cultural participation causes more spending, but also vice versa where more spending invites even more participation. Moreover, high participation rates can be reflective of broader societal values, which also influence public spending decisions and public policies which further reinforce this relationship.

The policy rationale for public spending in culture, and for the development of cultural participation, generally tends to be narrowly focused on support for culture as a merit good. However, cultural participation may have important implications for health and well-being, innovation, social cohesion, and even responsible environmental behaviours. This implies that the policy approach to cultural participation could evolve to broaden in scope. Cultural participation should be considered relevant in all other policy contexts where cultural participation brings about major effects: e.g. health, social change, research and innovation, environment and climate, and education, among others.

One example of this broader approach is found in the European Commission’s, New European Agenda for Culture (NEAC). Through the innovative notion of cultural crossovers, the NEAC explicitly recognises the importance of the trans-sectoral impacts related to cultural participation. However, it is important that the principles set forth in the agenda are both pursued in future policy choices and promoted beyond the European policy sphere. For instance, the interest toward the impacts of cultural participation on health and well-being is now quickly escalating both in the global research scene and in the policy sphere.

For cultural participation to be viewed as a vehicle to achieve multiple policy goals, timely, systematic, comprehensive and consistent statistical frameworks are needed. This data would help to underpin measurement and the evaluation of policy actions on cultural participation. Promoting the development of such a framework, in collaboration with national statistical institutes and other relevant institutions collecting and analysing statistical data at various territorial scales and capacities, is one of the most pressing needs to further this agenda. Promoting this at an international scale is also very valuable for benchmarking and learning.

More research is needed on the causal effects of cultural participation on target areas of special relevance for social impact. Even in fields such as the relationship between cultural participation, health and well-being, much of the available evidence is of a correlational rather than causal nature. This is due to the longer timeframes and significant resources needed for longitudinal analyses and randomised trials to ascertain causal effects. Further research could be connected directly to specific experiments in policy design, to improve the connection between new evidence and concrete policy implementation. The development of a solid basis for experimentation, according to rigorous scientific evaluation standards, is required for a truly evidence-based approach to cultural participation.

Given the promise of culture-driven crossovers with high potential for social and economic impact, it is important to create the conditions for them to unfold. To make this happen, there is a need to break old silos and build bridges between different disciplinary and professional spheres. New collaborations between cultural and non-cultural institutions can help in innovating, experimenting and implementing crossover projects (e.g. between museums or theatres and hospitals, between orchestras and educational institutions, or between independent art spaces and urban planners, etc.). This new dialogue requires careful preparation on both sides. The launch of pilot programmes to establish common ground and understanding, build trust, and develop professional skills with bridging functions can help in this direction. The monitoring and evaluation of such pilot projects will be important for learning and building the evidence base to better inform wider policy initiatives.

The regional scale is in an intermediate position between the country-wide scale, which necessarily calls for macro policies, and the local scale, which requires adaptations. The effects and appeal of cultural participation also depend to a large extent upon the local socio-cultural environment and on local history. The regional scale can therefore be helpful for experimentation on cultural participation-driven crossovers. In certain contexts, entertainment-oriented vs. high arts and culture-oriented forms of participation may have a different appeal. In others, income inequalities may or may not become a barrier to certain forms of pay-walled participation. The relationship between the cultural participation of residents and the logic of cultural tourism development, especially in art and heritage cities, is another field. Peer learning across different regions and territories may be extremely useful to build more expertise and awareness of the potential and pitfalls of culture-driven local development. Promoting the creation of a community of practice within regions, across countries and across continents may therefore be a promising opportunity to promote greater experimentation, learning and impact.


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Due to a lack of a common source of cultural participation statistics, different official data sources have been used. The selected data were harmonised as much as possible to facilitate comparisons across countries. The exclusion of some countries depends on data availability and/or extreme heterogeneity. Data was also modified to reflect the OECD TL2 territorial classification. The population-weighted values have been obtained from OECD demographic data.


← 1. Data are fragmented and incomplete, and often reflects different criteria, both in apparent ways (such as in the measurement of library attendance), and in subtle ways (when measures that nominally refer to the same variables might in practice follow different criteria in different countries).

← 2. In addition, in most countries it is included in broader categories that cover recreation, which can also include activities such as watching sports, gambling, non-cultural tourism, and so on.

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