Study: Houston's Arts and Culture Workforce Does Not Match the Diversity of the Greater City

Jun, 13 2019 / In /
houston arts

Houston is one of the most racially and ethnically diverse cities in the country, yet that diversity is not proportionally reflected in the workforce and audiences of its arts and culture organizations. However, this is beginning to change as younger, more ethnically diverse individuals enter the job market.

These are among the findings of a new study assessing the demographics of Houston arts and culture workers and audiences that was released today by SMU DataArts, a national arts research center based at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. The study was funded by Houston Endowment, a private foundation that works to advance equity of opportunity for the people of greater Houston and enhance the vibrancy of the region.

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The three-part study was conducted in 2017 and 2018. The workforce component included survey results submitted by nearly 1,600 staff members, board members, volunteers and independent contractors from 187 cultural nonprofits in greater Houston. The audience component included two different methods of assessment – a direct survey of audience members at 221 nonprofits, and a “data append,” a measurement that matched nearly 600,000 patron records from 49 organizations with demographic information for those patron households, obtained from a larger vendor database.

“Advancement toward a future where everyone has equal opportunity to participate in the arts begins with a baseline understanding of who works in and attends the arts today,” said Zannie Voss, director of SMU DataArts. “Our findings point to areas of opportunity for growth and change.”

The third part of the study was conducted in 2018 to develop and pilot test an Audience Opportunity Tool (AOT), which shows arts groups how likely area households are to attend their events and provides sociodemographic characteristics of area neighborhoods.  The goal of the AOT is to empower arts and cultural leaders with knowledge about the local market that can help them to understand, attract and better serve their community.

“We believe that arts are critical to a vibrant community. While we recognize that there are significant barriers that may prevent Houstonians’ full engagement with the arts, we believe that the first step to broadening arts audiences is knowing arts audiences,” said Long Chu, program officer at Houston Endowment. “But knowing your audience can require resources and expertise many arts groups simply don’t have. We hope SMU DataArts’ new tool will make gathering and synthesizing demographic data more accessible for Houston arts groups.”

Six key findings emerged from the study:

  1. The general profile of the arts and culture workforce and audience does not currently match the racial and ethnic diversity of greater Houston. However, younger workforce members tend to be more diverse, indicating that the ecosystem will become more representative of people of color as younger individuals enter and move up in the workforce and engage as audience members. Whites are over-represented; African Americans and Hispanics are under-represented. Those of Asian heritage are represented proportionally. Whites make up roughly one-third of Harris County residents, but three-quarters of the arts workforce and over two-thirds of audiences. African Americans make up 18% of residents, but only 6% of the arts workforce and 4% of audiences. Hispanics comprise 41% of residents, but only 11% of the workforce and 12% of audiences. The percent of Asians in the local population and in the arts workforce and audience is 6%.
  2. Smaller organizations have a more racially and ethnically diverse staff than larger organizations. In addition, general staff members are more diverse (33% people of color) than senior staff, board members or volunteers. Organizations with budgets over $10 million have a workforce that is 73% white, whereas the workforce at smaller organizations (budgets under $250k) is about 50% white. African Americans and Asians make up a larger part of the workforce in organizations with budgets under $250k than they do in larger organizations, and Hispanics make up a higher proportion of the workforce in organizations with budgets between $250k and $499k compared with organizations in other budget categories.
  3. In terms of age, the arts and cultural workforce closely aligns with the area’s adult population, and it is fairly well balanced. About 56% of arts workers are aged 35-64, and 53% of the Harris County population falls in that age category. General staff members tend to be younger than senior staff, volunteers or board members. About 43% of general staff members are under 35, while only 8% of senior staff are.
  4. There is greater representation of women and LGBTQ individuals in the workforce and in the audiences of arts and cultural organizations than in the larger adult population. Harris County is 50% female, while the proportion of female arts and culture workers is 65%. About 3% of Harris County residents identify as LGBTQ, while 13% of arts and culture workers do – more than four times as many – and 9% of audience members do.
  5. Free programming attracts more diverse audiences than paid programming, while members/subscribers tend to be less diverse than single ticket/admission patrons. Attendees at paid events are 70% white, 5% African American and 7% Hispanic; attendees at free events are 52% white, 12% African American and 13% Hispanic. Members/subscribers are 79% white, 2% African American and 4% Hispanic.
  6. The levels of educational attainment and income are higher in audiences of participating organizations than in the Harris County population as a whole. While 29% of Harris County residents have a bachelor’s or advanced degree, the figure for arts patrons is 75%. The median household income in the county is $53,822, whereas 77% of arts patrons come from households with annual income above $56,000.

“Within the next decade, a majority of the U.S. population under 18 will for the first time be non-white,” said Voss. “As this increasingly diverse population enters working age, the base for potential workers and consumers will be chiefly people of color, and will remain so into the future. These demographic changes pose a challenge and opportunity for arts organizations to better understand and respond to their local communities, to diversify their workforces and audiences, and to begin considering strategies now for how to become increasingly inclusive.”

Audience Opportunity Tool: Measuring Likelihood of Attendance

To help organizations make use of the demographic study results, Houston Endowment also supported SMU DataArts in the creation of an Audience Opportunity Tool (AOT), which provides specific market data to help organizations develop their audiences. Eight area organizations representing different sizes, arts sectors and locations took part in the pilot test project. Using long-term arts patronage data from several million households in five U.S. markets, SMU DataArts built a model that can estimate the likelihood that someone living in a particular neighborhood will  attend an arts organization’s offerings, taking into account their distance from the organization, sociodemographic characteristics, and the community’s characteristics. To use the tool, arts leaders input their organization’s location, arts sector, budget size and average ticket price. The AOT then gives them a map that displays every neighborhood within 30 miles of their venue location, color-coded to show the likelihood of attendance from that neighborhood, and how many purchases they can expect. Clicking on a neighborhood provides detailed information such as number of households, racial and ethnic diversity, socioeconomic levels and more. Organizations can use the information to target neighborhoods to increase purchases or diversify audiences. They can also use it to see how changes in venue location or average ticket price affect purchase likelihood.

“The AOT can help identify which segments of the population are under-served and where an organization can direct its efforts to both broaden and diversify its audience base,” said Voss. “It’s intended to serve as a resource for arts leaders and other decision-makers who are striving to build capacity and serve their communities but who struggle to overcome the challenges of their organization’s location, sector, size and access to market knowledge. Ultimately, the outcome we hope to achieve is higher levels of engagement in the arts.”

SMU DataArts intends to continue pilot testing and refining the AOT in several markets around the country before making it available to arts organizations throughout the U.S.

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About SMU DataArts

SMU DataArts, the National Center for Arts Research at Southern Methodist University, compiles and analyzes data on arts organizations and their communities nationwide and develops reports on important issues in arts management and patronage. Its findings are available free of charge to arts leaders, funders, policymakers, researchers and the general public. The vision of SMU DataArts is to build a national culture of data-driven decision-making for those who want to see the arts and culture sector thrive. Its mission is to empower arts and cultural leaders with high-quality data and evidence-based resources and insights that help them to overcome challenges and increase impact. Publications include white papers on culturally specific arts organizations, the egalitarian nature of the arts in America, gender equity in art museum directorships, and more. SMU DataArts also publishes reports on the health of the U.S. arts and cultural sector and the annual Arts Vibrancy Index, which highlights the 40 most arts-vibrant communities around the country. For more information, visit