Is the Falling Trend in Arts Attendance Surprising or Alarming?

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toastIt may be best for bloggers with a finer facility for statistical analysis — top of my list would be Ian David Moss at Createquity — to fashion a more comprehensive analysis of the NEA’s 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, which was released last week. It’s the first report of its kind since 2002.

But it seems to me that after all the public fretting and strutting over the last few years with regard to, among other chronic ills, public participation, funding, access and affordability of the arts, these collective worries appear to coalesce most unhappily in the NEA’s 104-page indictment of the sector. It makes dispiriting reading.

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But no one, I would argue, should be surprised by the findings of the NEA’s report, which are encapsulated most easily by the executive summary. Here I’d make a key distinction between the usefulness of being surprised and the usefulness of being alarmed. In my view, one doesn’t need an arts administration degree — or to ascend the throne as one of the executive directors of an arts-service organization — to understand that the ever-increasing diversification of electronic-entertainment options during this decade has been accompanied by more and more pressure on the arts to compete for people’s leisure time. The arts has had to up its game, and the NEA’s report is suggesting something between the 1969 Mets and The Bad News Bears.

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Indeed, it’s my view — one I’ve reiterated all year — that the nonprofit arts sector has done a relatively mediocre job in terms of reinventing its dysfunctional business model, turning it into one capable of such competition.

Critics of my criticism are always quick to ask, “What business model are you suggesting?” — and that is very legitimate question. I am, of course, not an economist. I have also pointed out that many of the variations on our philanthropic themes are still in their nascent phases (low-profit limited liability companies come to mind). Yet, if it seems fair to criticize my criticism by asking what business model I’d prefer, surely it’s fair to ask the following: If the nonprofit business model now employed by the arts in the U.S. is doing so well, why are the NEA demographics so horrendous?

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I am, perhaps, getting ahead of myself — the horrendous information is bullet-pointed below this commentary. My point is there remains an institutional resistance to change. I first identified that resistance late last year, as our arts leaders, such as Theatre Communications Group’s Teresa Eyring, decided it would be best to look to government — federal funding, and growing state and/or local funding whenever possible — as anchor tenants to the sector they want to continue to build as is (or as was). What the NEA report lays bare, however, is how much the nation’s cultural tastes are changing, how they have shifted sufficiently that, in a few years time, the arts could legitimately be perceived as a minor social frill. Isn’t that what advocates have repeatedly and loudly argued against to anyone who’ll listen?

I used to write news analyses of many of these types of reports for Back Stage; it was considered a vital aspect of news gathering there for years. It says something that despite the admirable efforts of the current news editor (who I very much happen to like), it isn’t the kind of content given much priority nowadays.

I should add that I have always been impressed by the way arts researchers can spin sour statistics positively. In this sense, these first three paragraphs, from the preface to the NEA report, really communicates how alarming things are:

…The 2008 survey results are, at a glance, disappointing. As reported in Arts Participation 2008, a summary brochure of the survey’s findings, a smaller segment of the adult population either attended arts performances or visited art museums or galleries than in any prior survey.

Nor were bad economic conditions in 2007-2008 the only factor at work. From 1982 to 2008, audiences for performances in classical music, ballet, non-musical theater, and-most conspicuously, jazz-have aged faster than the general adult population. Even among the most educated, adults are participating less than in previous years.

A single survey cannot explain all reasons for the nationwide decline. But this report offers many possibilities, not only for locating likely causes, but also for seeing a way forward. Take one observation: since 1982, the share of 18-24-year-olds who report having had any music education in their lives (now 38 percent) has dropped by more than a third. For visual arts training, the proportion (now 21 percent) has nearly halved. Or another finding: that a gulf exists between the participation rates of certain geographic areas-notably the Northeastern and South Central states-suggesting regional disparities in access to arts opportunities of the type captured by the survey. This nuance bears directly on the overall reported rates…

Moving into the report itself, the aforementioned executive summary is where the most bitter medicine is fed to the reader, like spoonfuls of castor oil guaranteed not to stave off the illness:

–Relatively fewer adults attended performing arts events in 2008 than in previous years. The percentage of adults attending at least one benchmark arts activity declined from 39 percent in 2002 to less than 35 percent in 2008…

–The percentage of adults going to classical music, non-musical theater, ballet and other dance performances continued to decline from levels in previous years.

–Opera and jazz participation decreased for the first time in the survey’s history, with attendance rates falling below what they were in 1982.

–Only musical plays saw no statistically significant change in participation from 2002 to 2008. Attendance at the most popular types of arts events – such as museums and craft fairs – also saw declines.

Attendance at the most popular types of arts events – such as museums and craft fairs – also saw declines.

–After topping 26 percent in 1992 and 2002, art museum attendance slipped to 23 percent in 2008 – comparable to the 1982 level. For the first time in the SPPA, women reduced their rate of attendance.

–The proportion of U.S. adults touring parks or historical buildings (25 percent) has diminished by one-third since 1982.

Here is a further sampling:

–Performing arts attenders are increasingly older than the average U.S. adult.

–From 2002 to 2008, 45-54-year-olds – historically a large component of arts audiences – showed the steepest declines in attendance for arts events including classical music concerts, ballet and theater performances, and art museum visits.

–Jazz concert-goers are no longer the youngest group of arts participants. Since 1982, young adult (18-24 years old) attendance rates for jazz and classical music have declined the most, relative to other art forms.

And more:

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–College-educated adults (including those with graduate or professional degrees) curbed their attendance in nearly all art forms.

–Ballet attendance for adults with a college degree.

And, at last, a bright note:

–As in prior years, more Americans listened to or watched recordings or broadcasts of performing arts events than attended them live.

For my taste, the NEA report is long on information and circumstantial on causation: it takes educated guesses at how and why American cultural tastes have evolved since 2002, to the degree we can say they have evolved at all.

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So let’s ask some additional questions and let the debate get underway.

Really, the fundamental question behind the whole NEA study is why. Not just why, but how alarmed should we be? What must be done — what can be done — to reverse these trends? What are arts advocates not doing — or doing less than well, or inefficiently, myopically — in their service to the arts?

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Here are four questions that should help guide any discussion:

–Are American arts leaders and arts advocates sufficiently addressing barriers to entry, such as ticket or admission price? What solutions to economic barriers do not depend on governmental largesse?

–What marketing techniques are most arts-favorable and are cultural organizations embracing them in sufficient numbers to overcome the demographic trends highlighted in the NEA report?

–Assuming growth in the NEA budget is neither economically nor politically sustainable — and given how state arts appropriations are either shrinking at present or keeping up with inflation — are arts leaders and advocates reorienting the nonprofit business model toward reinvention or are they guilty of servicing the status quo?

–Why, in the end, should the public participate in the arts? Have the reasons been articulated well enough to taste-makers, to educators, to elected officials? Will the rhetoric, in light of the NEA report, become stale?

I would argue that those last questions are most important. They are, I feel, why alarm bells should be sounding.