The formal arts are in freefall. But that’s not the end of the story.

September 26, 2013

The National Endowment for the Arts came out Thursday with its quadrennial survey of public participation in the arts, and the topline numbers are pretty dismal. The percent of U.S. adults who attended at least one kind of arts performance or visited an art museum or gallery is the lowest it's ever been measured, having declined nearly 8 percent since 1992.

The shrinkage was particularly pronounced for non-musical plays, which dove 12 percent over the last four years, though the percentage of those attending jazz and classical performances, outdoor music festivals and opera dropped as well.

What's going on here? Could it be falling public investment in the arts? Maybe, although that's not dramatically lower than it was in 1992, according to Americans for the Arts:

That doesn't seem like it could be totally responsible. Perhaps, instead, it's because peoples' discretionary incomes took such a beating over the past five years. Movie-going was actually up substantially, suggesting that Americans might have opted for lower-cost entertainment. And it looks like Americans for the Arts' "Arts Index," which incorporates arts exports, tourism, the health of non-profits and education, closely tracks the broader economy:

Still, as far as willingness to shell out for concert tickets, it seems that there's something more fundamental going on. People just aren't as interested in sitting down and having art rendered unto them in a completely passive way, says Americans for the Arts' vice president for research and policy Randy Cohen. The Washington National Opera may have needed to be bailed out by the Kennedy Center, he points out, but its simulcasts before Washington Nationals games became popular.

"You could ask the question, are Washingtonians no longer interested in opera?" says Cohen. "The problem may not be opera so much, but rather how people want to experience it. Sometimes, wouldn't you rather have a chili dog and a beer while you watch the opera?"

Or even be in the opera -- or symphony, like the Baltimore Symphony allows fans to do with its "rusty musicians" program. There's evidence that Americans are more interested in making art part of their daily lives: Arts volunteerism is up, musical instrument sales are rising from their 2009 low point, the number of arts degrees conferred by colleges has grown from 75,000 per year a decade ago to 129,000 today, and more than a third of Americans in the NEA survey reported consuming art in some form through their mobile devices. Some of it looks a little different: There's the more technology-oriented Maker movement, for example, and a boom in the discipline of industrial design.

All of which may not be good news for the professional arts organizations that have served as our suppliers of high culture for centuries. But we do know, at least, that America has not collapsed into Philistinism yet.

Lydia DePillis is a reporter focusing on labor, business, and housing. She previously worked at The New Republic and the Washington City Paper. She's from Seattle.
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