Poverty Proofing Culture: Imagine If…

In our latest team guest blog, Emma Leggott our Poverty Proofing Co-Ordinator for arts, culture and heritage shares her vision for a sector that challenges itself to break the cycle that sees financial background influence engagement, sharing her Poverty Proofing© expertise along the way.

‘Imagine If… 2022’ is the theme of this year’s brilliant Culture Bridge Annual Conference, which is exploring how organisations can take action to ensure that each child and young person has access to arts and culture, today and every day. 

Imagine if…admission to all museums was free, imagine what the impact would be for children living in poverty and the gains that would be made in addressing class inequality. Huge right?  

Well, perhaps not. My work in cultural settings has given me insights that encourage me to challenge some of the assumptions around free admission and provides some alternatives that could prove more effective.   

Poverty and class aren’t the only determinants influencing someone’s likelihood to take part in the arts or visit a cultural setting. Ethnicity, geographical location, parental beliefs, attitudes and experiences are all up there as deciding factors (Brook et al 2020).  

As a society our appetite for arts and cultural attendances is not as widely pursued as one might think. Even cinema which is viewed as pretty mainstream only sits at around 60%, with 1/3 of Brits attending only one live music concert per year, 5% attending ballet, 1/5th art galleries, 1/12th classical music, 4% opera and 3% contemporary dance (Brook, 2021).  Overall attendances at museums and libraries appear to be declining too, as people opt instead for film and video (one of the few areas to see an increase in participation – 49% to 71.1%) according to audience survey data (Whitaker, 2016, The Warwick Commission, 2015).  

It is worth pointing out that ‘culture’ – in the context of an article about poverty, cultural inequality and class divide – is in and of itself ‘ordinary.’ Food, music, hobbies, interests, TV, religion, family routines, community rituals are all ‘expression of beliefs and values in the everyday conduct of life’ and are all forms of culture (Williams cited in Matrasso, 2021 p33). 

Where access to culture becomes less ‘ordinary’ is in the domain of – often publicly funded – art galleries, theatres, music venues and heritage sites where it is that a privileged minority make up the majority of programmers, participators and attendances (Warwick Commission, 2015, p33, Brook et al, 2022). 

The reasons why this is so and why people from lower socio-economic backgrounds are less likely to take up this space is complex and well debated. Generally speaking, barriers to access tend to fall into two main categories- either practical (relating to transport and cost) or social or attitudinal (relating to beliefs, experiences, feeling welcome, sense of belonging) (Whitaker, S. 2016). 

From a Poverty Proofing© perspective, organisations, at the start of their journey, tend to have an awareness of social and attitudinal barriers (grand-off-putting-buildings, feelings of ‘it’s not for me’), yet tend to focus more of their thinking and resource towards addressing the more tangible, practical barriers such as free admission when looking to improve access for people from lower socio-economic backgrounds. 

Free Admission 

Is this down to the premise that cultural leaders find it ‘traitorous to acknowledge’ that free admission doesn’t work?  

This was the conclusion arrived at by Colleen Dilenschneider in her 2019 article ‘Digesting the Data – Five Cultural Organisation Findings Even We Found Difficult to Swallow.’ She wrote that cultural organisations can’t let go of the idea that being free is the same as being welcoming. She argues it is not and goes further in her data to show the opposite in fact – that ‘free admission does not significantly impact attendance’ and ‘free admission to museums does not attract lower income individuals’ (Dilenschneider, 2019). 

When, for example, DCMS (Department of Culture, Media and Sport) made entry to its London museums free only 13% of attendances were taken up by people from lower socio-economic groups, compared to 87% from higher (Warwick Commission, 2015). 

According to Dilenschneider visiting a cultural organization as a child with family is one of the most likely determinants influencing participation in later in life. She also pointed out this impact is not the same for children who only ever visited as a group or with school. These visits tended to be ‘one-off’ encounters, more likely to leave a negative lasting impact’ where people reported falling asleep, feeling bored or unwelcome. This was in contrast to visiting as a family where the lasting impact was associated with more positive memories and experiences. 

The Poverty Proofing© Principles 

Poverty Proofing principles recognise the need to strike a careful balance between the diversification of income for cultural organisations, whilst also removing barriers in access to families in poverty. Making things free – as this article has shown – is not the ‘magic bullet’ in addressing cultural or class inequality (nor is targeting school groups).  

The challenge is to widen thinking beyond free admission and instead think about how to create and achieve the same sense of warmth and belonging for those who did not get to experience it as a child. Here are six key Poverty Proofing© principles to help achieve this goal:  

  • Welcome & Belonging; If you don’t hold intrinsically warm memories of cultural institutions, how do you change hearts and minds? An imposing building and a bad experience can be broken down by a warm and friendly welcome from someone with whom positive associations can be made. Human contact and relationship building is key to this by people who are representative and relatable and who share lived experience of the issues you are trying to address. 
  • Programming & Voice; There is not a lack of demand for culture, remember culture is ordinary! Rather, there is a mismatch between the ‘public tastes’ of the majority and the ‘high-brow’ tastes of the minority in charge of funding and programming the cultural offer in this country (Warwick Commission, 20XX). The antidote to this is championing the voices of wide and diverse audiences through meaningful participation programmes.  
  • Permission; Letting people know it’s okay and giving permission is singly one of the biggest things you can do. Let’s face it, you need to be pretty self-assured and self-confident to engage with something new for the first time, especially as an adult.  
  • The hook; if you’re not a culture vulture, a history buff, or a theatre goer then why would you go, what’s in it for you. This will take some thinking outside the box. So many venues have event and activity programmes beyond their core offer why not diversify further, what are the needs in your community and how do you engage hearts and minds creatively. Food often helps! 
  • Understanding & Communicating the value; How do you let people know the bang for their buck, if you’ve never been somewhere you’re very unlikely to part with hard earned cash for something you’ve never done before. Making films showing what goes on behind the doors, heritage open days, taster days, word of mouth and people championing their experiences are all ways beyond a corporate mailing list, especially because despite what marketing departments think, not everyone has the internet!! 

Poverty Proofing© is a concept developed at Children North East. For further information or to look at a bespoke process designed around the needs of your organisation please contact [email protected].



Brook, O. et al (2020) ‘Why Culture is Bad for You,’ Manchester University Press. 

Brook, O. (2021) Culture and Privilege, Thinking Allowed, BBC Radio 4, 08 September 2021. 

Dilenschneider, C. (2019) School Groups vs Family Visitors: Which Kids Come Back as Adults, online, available from: School Groups vs. Family Visitors: Which Kids Come Back As Adults? (DATA) – Colleen Dilenschneider 

Dilenschneider, C. (2019) Digesting the Data – Five Cultural Organisation Findings Even We Found Difficult to Swallow, online, available from: Digesting the Data – Five Cultural Organization Findings Even We Found Difficult to Swallow – Colleen Dilenschneider 

Matarasso, F. (2019) A Restless Art: How Participation Won and Why it Matters, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, London, UK. 

The Warwick Commission (2015) ‘Enriching Britain: Culture, Creativity & Growth,’ University of Warwick, available from: warwick_commission_final_report.pdf, accessed 09.10.22. 

Whitaker, S. (2016) Hurdles to the participation of children, families and young people in museums: a literature review, Kids in Museums, available from: Hurdles-to-Participation.pdf (kidsinmuseums.org.uk), accessed 09.10.22.