Arts Participation 2008 Highlights from a National Survey. Worth a Gander.

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Arts Participation 2008 Highlights from a National Survey

“Whatever art offered the
men and women of previous eras,
what it offers our own, it seems
to me, is space—a certain
breathing room for the spirit.”

—John Updike

Here is the introductory letter from the research director Sunil Iyengar:

(emphasis below is mine)

There are many ways to measure a nation’s cultural vitality. One way is to chart the public’s involvement with arts events and activities over time.

The NEA’s Survey of Public Participation in the Arts remains the largest periodic study of arts participation in the United States, and it is conducted in partnership with the U.S. Census Bureau.

The large number of survey respondents—similar in make-up to the total U.S. adult population—permits a statistical snapshot of America’s engagement with the arts by frequency and activity type.

The survey has taken place five times since 1982, allowing researchers to compare trends not only for the total adult population, but also for demographic subgroups.

In any given year of the survey, however, researchers face a practical challenge. To what extent is arts participation shaped by broader social, cultural, or economic patterns—or, for that matter, by policies and programs affecting the arts? The survey is not designed to ascertain why arts participation levels have shifted over the years—although researchers can test correlations between arts activity and a host of behaviors and characteristics.

The challenge is especially acute when reviewing the 2008 results. The survey’s planners, along with most of the nation, did not anticipate the economic downturn that began in late 2007. When the survey was conducted in May of the following year, the recession (though still undeclared) had been in effect for nearly six months, and gas and airline prices were making travel costs prohibitive for many Americans. The survey cannot prove that weak consumer spending over this period directly affected arts participation rates. Yet this much is certain: adult attendance at arts events declined for virtually all art forms in 2008, compared with the prior survey period, 2002.

For the 12 months ending in May 2008, more than 81 million Americans visited an arts museum or gallery, or attended at least one of the following types of arts events: theater; opera; ballet or other dance; or classical music, jazz, or Latin/salsa concerts. This group composes over 36 percent of the U.S. adult population

It does not include those who visited an arts or crafts fair or festival, took an architectural tour, or read literature. Yet for most of these individual activities—literary reading is the single exception—participation rates have weakened over the past six years.

Taking a long view of arts participation trends, one suspects that other factors besides the economic climate contributed to the generally lower rates of attendance. (After all, the recession spanned only half of the May 2007–May 2008 survey period.)

For one thing, 18–44-year-olds are not attending arts events at the same rate as they did 26 years ago. As a group, arts participants are older than before. They also are increasingly older than the average adult.

Nowhere is this trend more apparent than for jazz concert-going, which formerly drew a larger percentage of young adults than all other art forms.

Arts attendance continued to decline for the youngest Americans in 2008, but it also dropped for 45–54-year-olds—a group that historically has made up a significant share of arts audiences.

More research is needed to understand this latest development—and also to learn why another group with
traditionally higher attendance rates is now participating less than before. Throughout the 26-year history of the survey, college-educated adults have been among the most active arts participants. Although the same is true in 2008, they have markedly reduced their attendance levels since 2002 and 1982, even as declines have persisted for less educated groups.

Quite possibly, an explanation for the changes in attendance levels can be found in other parts of the survey, those dealing with more varied forms of arts participation. Such forms include arts creation and performance, arts learning, and participation through new media technologies.

More detailed questions about Internet use were added only in 2008, and so we lack trend data to show how the relationship between arts and online activity has changed over time. Yet one captivating finding is that most adults who use the Internet to engage with artworks do so at least once a week.

Future analyses will show the extent to which online participants differ from other arts participants, and what are some overlapping characteristics.

Similarly, new questions addressing arts learning—and the use of community venues for arts participation—will shed light on the substantial role that civic and educational institutions play in fostering arts appreciation. Already we know from previous research that arts participation and civic engagement are measurably linked, with arts attendees and literary readers more than twice as likely as others to play sports and attend sports events, do exercise and outdoor activities, and volunteer in their communities. We also know that prior education, including exposure to arts education, are critical factors associated with high levels of adult participation in the arts. Data from the 2008 survey may support more findings in this vein.

For the time being, the survey poses an opportunity to contemplate the costs of reduced arts participation, and to review strategies—in arts programming and arts learning, in public policy and popular media—for cultivating this vital form of personal and social engagement.

In a recession, those costs may be even greater than before, as entire segments of the U.S. population, especially young adults and less educated and lower-income groups, are denied life-changing experiences through art. Such experiences are important not only for producing an inspired and imaginative citizenry, but also for preserving and articulating our cultural heritage as Americans.

Sunil Iyengar
Director, Research & Analysis
National Endowment for the Arts

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