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A visitor photographing a painting at the Metropolitan Museum (photo by Phil Roeder/Flickr)

New studies released today by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and based on surveys carried out in 2012 claim that arts attendance in the US has continued to drop over the past two decades, but both struggle to incorporate digital activities into their findings. The studies, “A Decade of Arts Engagement: Findings From the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, 2002–2012” and “When Going Gets Tough: Barriers and Motivations Affecting Arts Attendance,” break down arts attendance, participation, and production figures demographically and attempt to account for the reasons certain groups do and don’t attend cultural events.

The attendance numbers are worrisome. The number of visitors to core arts events — opera, jazz, classical music, ballet, musical theater, plays, art museum and gallery visits — continued to decline, with just 33.4% of US adults attending one of those between July 2011 and July 2012. A decade earlier the figure was 39.4%, and in 2008 it was 34.6%.

(courtesy the National Endowment for the Arts) (click to enlarge)

However, “A Decade of Arts Engagement” also turns up more encouraging, if somewhat nebulous, figures with regards to cultural production and arts engagement through the internet. For instance, though only a third of US adults attended a cultural event in person, a whopping 71% reported using the internet to watch, listen to, or download culture in one form or another. That’s an impressive figure, but it does include streaming pop music, so anyone who listened to “Somebody That I Used To Know” on Spotify could be counted toward that statistic.

In terms of makers of culture, 23.2% of US adults said they created or performed art between July 2011 and July 2012. “Artistic photographs” were the type most frequently produced by responders — 12.4% of them, or 29.1 million, snapped at least one artsy picture that year. Overall, 5.7% of adults in the US, or 13.4 million, said they made visual art. Of them, 60.7% were women and 62.6% had either some college education or had graduated from college.

(courtesy the National Endowment for the Arts) (click to enlarge)

“When Going Gets Tough” offers insights to contextualize the numbers in its sister study, helping to explain why certain types of culture are struggling to find an audience. The report’s most instructive finding may be that “life stages” — whether respondents are in college, raising children, or retired — are more consistently predictive of people’s artistic consumption patterns than many other metrics.

The study is also notable for being the first of its kind to approach people who wanted to attend a cultural event but didn’t. These “interested non-attendees” made up 13.3% of US adults in 2012, or 31 million people. The reason most frequently cited for not actually making it to a performance or exhibition, accounting for 47.3% of interested non-attendees, was not having enough time. Another 38.3% said the price of admission was prohibitively high. And 21.6% said they didn’t have anyone to go with, suggesting that there’s a great need for events targeting singles like the Art Institute of Chicago’s “Evening Associates” soirées.

Other noteworthy statistics from the NEA studies released today:

  • “Republicans and Democrats are equally likely to have attended the arts within the past year.”
  • “Full-time students aged 18 to 34 are more likely to attend the arts than young adults not in school.”
  • “Arts attendees placed greater value than non-attendees on listening to others’ opinions and understanding diverse perspectives.”
  • “Nineteen percent of American adults in 2012 used electronic media to share art that they themselves had created, edited, or remixed.”
  • “Childhood experience in the arts is significantly associated with educational level obtained in adulthood. Over 70 percent of college graduates said they visited an art museum or gallery as a child, compared with 42 percent of adults who have only a high school diploma.”
  • “New England had the highest share of adults subscribing or donating to an arts or cultural organization (9 percent). They also played sports and participated in community meetings at higher levels than the national rate.”
  • “Women are more likely than men to dance.”

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Benjamin Sutton

Benjamin Sutton is an art critic, journalist, and curator who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn. His articles on public art, artist documentaries, the tedium of art fairs, James Franco's obsession with Cindy...

5 replies on “US Arts Attendance on a Downward Trend, NEA Studies Find”

  1. It’s interesting that the NEA was unable to present its findings in simple textual form, but felt compelled to make comics or posters out of them — talking down to the proles and their chosen representatives, I guess. The graphics are, of course, in corporate-bureaucratic smooth-plastic mode. I don’t know why this fashion, which depresses even at a distance, is so beloved.

    The study seems confined to the elite or classical arts (jazz is now a classical art). As noted, we don’t know from the report what’s happening in the popular arts or on the Internet. As for the classical realm, I don’t know what’s going on elsewhere, but in New York City admission prices to the bigger museums are now more than twice the admission to a first-run movie, which is surely going to keep out most people who are not comfortably well-off. The museums are upscaling towards an elite customer base, in other words. At the same time, less is delivered, such as giving up the whole space of the Whitney to the vacuous Jeff Koons.

    I think we can expect the decline to continue.

  2. “…what does it say about our society that it seems to generate an
    extremely limited demand for talented poet-musicians, but an apparently
    infinite demand for specialists in corporate law? (Answer: if 1% of the
    population controls most of the disposable wealth, what we call “the
    market” reflects what they think is useful or important, not anybody else.)” David Graeber
    http://strikemag.org/bullshit-jobs/

  3. I travel a lot and visit museums whenever I can, and it seems they are missing a couple of simple things that could be done to help attendance:

    1. Many have free days from a corporate sponsor yet I have seen little to no advertising of this fact. For example Target sponsors free admission at LACMA on Federal holidays but neither Target nor LACMA seem to promote this. With a bit of advertising it might encourage a lot of people to check it out.

    2. They could provide some material in languages other than English. World-class museums like the Louvre have both a website and printed material available in many languages, and yet the Met in New York (last time I checked) has material only in English, for example. If US museums bothered to provide information in other major languages (Spanish would be a good start) it would probably go a long way to attracting more local and international visitors.

  4. I reach somewhere near 400 students per year as a Southern University Visual Arts Professor and I am doing my part in motivating students by sending them to art exhibitions and helping them understand the visual arts through art appreciation classes. Randell Henry

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