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Comfort levels vary for Michigan arts, culture customers

FILE- In a Dec. 1, 2018 file photo, people listen to the Luke Winslow-King band at the Rivera Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts in Detroit. When will people in southeast Michigan be ready to head back to museums, concerts, galleries and other cultural attractions? Research commissioned by CultureSource, which represents 160 nonprofit arts and culture groups in the region, has set out to track just that over the coming months. The first round of data shows that many ticket buyers, arts patrons and subscribers were still wary. (Eric Seals/Detroit Free Press via AP, File)

By BRIAN McCOLLUM

Detroit Free Press

AP Member Exchange

DETROIT — When will people in southeast Michigan be ready to head back to museums, concerts, galleries and other cultural attractions?

Research commissioned by CultureSource, which represents 160 nonprofit arts and culture groups in the region, has set out to track just that over the coming months, according to the Detroit Free Press.

The first round of data, gathered in May and recently made available, shows that many ticket buyers, arts patrons and subscribers were still wary — and had mixed levels of comfort when it came to various onsite safety measures.

WolfBrown, a Detroit research and consulting firm that specializes in the arts sector, is conducting its Audience Monitor Outlook studies in 20 cities, regions and countries.

For the southeast Michigan project, the company is working with a host of local groups to poll their patrons on a monthly or bimonthly basis.

The May data — collected while Michigan was still largely under lockdown though coronavirus rates were dropping — drew responses from nearly 4,000 people canvassed by institutions such as the Henry Ford museum, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History and the Detroit Zoo.

“It’s important because it gives the sector hard data to act on,” said Omari Rush, executive director of CultureSource. “There are a variety of (institutions) feeling pressured to move because their peers are reopening or restarting, or their boards or finance committees are saying, ‘You’ve got to get going.’ It’s helpful to have data that shows, in an ongoing way, what the public is planning to do.”

It’s worth emphasizing that those participating in the surveys have been active patrons in the past, part of the organizations’ mailing lists, donor groups and such. It’s not a random sample of the general population.

“We’re in the trenches with arts groups figuring out how many people want to come back, and under which conditions,” said Alan Brown, principal of WolfBrown.

A few takeaways from the May survey of 3,778 people, evaluating their comfort levels under reopening scenarios with social distancing and other protocols:

≤ 75% said they would be somewhat or very comfortable at a museum or gallery (though only 20% felt that way about hands-on interactive exhibits). Museums were highest rated among the various facilities and events measured in the survey when it came to public comfort levels.

≤ Just 27% would feel comfortable at a non-seated live music or comedy club, though that number rose to 62% for outdoor festivals and concerts.

≤ 91% of respondents were encouraged by noninvasive safety efforts such as daily disinfection of facilities.

≤ Masks and temperature-taking proved more polarizing: For instance, among those who reported they were ready to attend events “right away,” about a quarter said they’d decline to go if required to wear a mask.

≤ 22% said they would not return to cultural events or facilities until there is a vaccine or they have developed immunity.

≤ African American respondents were more wary about getting back quickly, presumably because of COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on the Black community.

Just 7% said they would return as soon as allowed, versus 17% of white respondents.

≤ Looking at the long term, 90% all those surveyed said they would attend events and visit institutions at the same or greater frequency than they did pre-COVID-19.

“There’s a lot of pressure for arts groups to reopen now, but you can see there are lots and lots of people not ready to come back,” said Brown.

Brown also sounded a note of caution for sites contemplating reopening plans: Be careful not to marginalize supporters who aren’t yet comfortable, and thus may wind up feeling they’re missing out on a celebration or made to feel disabled.

That especially goes for at-risk demographics — including the older patrons who are often the most generous donors.

“There’s a risk of alienating a lot of people, at a great cost,” he said.