If you’ve been following the cultural headlines this past week, you’ve no doubt seen some of the anxiety that has accompanied the release of the NEA’s 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts. In brief, the report says that attendance is down, audiences are aging, and the previously counted-upon new participants (the “if they are highly educated” or “once they hit 45 years of age they will suddenly begin attending” types) are not refreshing the core audience like they used to.
Though we got a sneak peek at this survey in June, the full analysis was only released to the public last Thursday. It was accompanied by a three-hour roundtable discussion that featured a long list of arts organization leaders (including the American Music Center’s own Joanne Hubbard Cossa) and NEA discipline directors. The presentation was simultaneously webcast for general consumption and an archived copy will be made available here sometime this week. It’s a recommended, if lengthy, viewing experience for anyone invested in the future of American culture.
Participation in the room was somber though thought-provoking and, post-event, a number of responses turned up online that not only accepted the NEA’s basic assessment but noted that the report’s analysis was further supported by the research activities of individual service organizations, including the League of American Orchestras and Chorus America.
Now, I’m not going to suggest that fewer people going to see and hear our nation’s rich and diverse catalog of arts offerings is something to celebrate, but as anyone who has been to a performing arts industry conference in the past decade already knows, this was no shocking revelation. The fact that this trend will not turn around and that our efforts to date have not made a significant enough impact on the problem was cleanly driven home. There can be no ducking the issue, no spin will make this sound better than it is. We must think harder, be more creative, and get serious about correcting out trajectory. Business as usual is officially over.
Beyond that, however, what this study seems to call for more profoundly is the opportunity to reassess what we, as well as the NEA, really mean when we are surveying adults about their arts experiences.
Surveys are necessarily limited by the type and quantity of questions the organization has the opportunity to ask. For the 2008 report (research performed by the U.S. Bureau of the Census), the NEA added “Latin music” as a cultural experience of interest along side the more traditional music categories of classical, jazz, and opera. But though it’s now a cliché that true genre distinctions have dissolved away, the NEA looked very clearly at particular, and arguably narrow, types of arts experiences. For continuity’s sake from survey to survey (this exercise has been done in 1982, 1992, and 2002 as well) radical revamping of questions must be done with care, but as a result, a major point of discussion among the arts leaders surrounded what was not captured with these statistics and what definitions no longer make sense or are no longer clear in the 21st century. Artistic engagement exists in many places outside of season subscriptions and gilded concert halls. Does it matter that fewer people are listening to Mahler if more are listening to XYZ and are just as transformed by what they hear?
With some trepidation, perhaps an even more significant question was raised as to whether we are organizationally overbuilt in this country, skewed to serve a kind of 1960s urban renewal vision of culture in society. Are the kinds of art Americans are seeking and the places they want to go to experience that art accurately being measured by a survey like this one? Are the nation’s cultural organizations evolving fast enough to meet those needs and effectively support the livelihoods of living artists?
Though the NEA survey does note the significant increase in arts engagement online (“four in ten U.S. adults who used the Internet did so to view, listen to, download, or post artworks or performances in 2008″), surprisingly “adults were generally creating or performing at lower rates in 2008—despite opportunities for sharing their work online.” This gave me some pause, considering how often attention is drawn to the overwhelming amount of content people are creating for online consumption—everything from albums recorded and sold online out of a suburban basement to novels now out of the drawer and made available for on-demand printing. If we are truly witnessing the rise of Richard Florida’s “creative class” or something similar, is it possible that a trend of cultural participation will transition from one of passive consumption to one of active and engaged creation? Or is that kind of hope just another example of naïve, “head in the sand” thinking on my part, the same kind of falsely optimistic cup game con that arts leaders are now being commended for resisting?
As we approach 2010, a glance back at the amazing changes in communication brought forth by new technologies is hard to resist, and paired with the results of this survey, it seems to drive home the essential need to both hold tight to our core ideals—fight harder for the cultural education of our children, address the economic challenges that continue to exclude many Americans from experiencing our nation’s rich and diverse performing arts activity—even as we reframe how we define what we view as an enriching artistic experience and who we call an artist. In an age when the barriers to entry are crumbling before our eyes and ears, now is the time to carefully reconsider what culture means if we are to have any hope of accurately measuring and effectively serving it.