In a few days, the cultural sector will close out a transitional year that saw museums recalibrate both their physical and digital programs for post-lockdown audiences. And how have visitors responded? Before the Omicron variant prompted a wave of closures in the UK, in-person cultural participation within the country actually saw positive recovery. According to the Audience Agency’s latest report, attendance levels were double that of 2020 figures, with cinemas, museums, and heritage sites being the leading draws.

The consulting firm’s latest research represents the fifth wave of its Cultural Participation Monitor, a year-long study recording the sentiment of UK audiences toward cultural activities in the age of COVID. Running between October and November 2021, the pre-Omicron survey documents 6,957 audience responses on their evolving behaviors, appetites, and demands. Here are three key data points from the report.

Willingness to attend in-person experiences rises

Compared to the study’s earlier waves, UK audiences are reporting a growing willingness to attend in-person cultural events. Image: The Audience Agency

After nearly two years of lockdown, audiences are eager for in-person experiences. According to the Cultural Participation Monitor, one-third of participants, compared to 27 percent in February, expressed interest in resuming in-person activities. Simultaneously, only five percent of respondents were not comfortable resuming IRL participation, compared to February’s 24 percent.

That said, a majority of in-person attendees also emphasized the need for continued health and safety precautions such as ventilation, masks, and designated COVID-prevention staff. However, most audiences were satisfied with the existing measures already put in place at performing arts venues and heritage sites.

Online engagement dips

Cultural Participation Monitor 5th Wave

The rise of in-person attendance has accompanied a fall in online engagement, with only 8 percent of respondents saying they participated online in the last two weeks. Image: The Audience Agency

In concert with the rise in in-person appetites, online engagement recorded a drop in the latest Cultural Participation Monitor report. Compared with the high of 31 percent in 2020, respondents who reported participating in digital activities in the last two weeks is now at 8 percent. But since the emergence of Omicron will likely put a damper on physical events, these numbers are bound to shift, giving cultural organizations good reason to sustain their online presence and programs.

Long-term audience loss post-COVID

Consistent with the majority sentiment of COVID’s long-term impact, most groups of audiences expect to participate in IRL activities less often in the future. Image: The Audience Agency

In-person attendance may be increasing, but that doesn’t mean the same number of people will be in attendance — unsurprising as the survey found 78 percent of audiences expect COVID impacts to last into 2022. 

Looking ahead, about a quarter of respondents said they expect to visit the cinema and performing arts venues less often. Conversely, about the same number reported they intend to visit outdoor heritage sites more often. While older groups are more averse to attending in-person events, students and younger visitors under 35 were more likely to participate more often, representing a new demographic that cultural venues could tap and cultivate once Omicron wanes.


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