Two National Surveys Show Art Audience Declines

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Two separate national surveys gauging youth and adult participation in the arts reported yesterday that visits to art museums are declining.

A study of nearly 4,000 eighth-grade students, part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, found dwindling field trips over the past decade. "The percentage of eighth-graders who reported that they visited an art museum or gallery with their classes dropped from 22 percent in 1997 to 16 percent in 2008," said Stuart Kerachsky, the acting commissioner for the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the assessment.

The National Endowment for the Arts also released new data yesterday showing that fewer adults were choosing an art museum or a visual arts festival as a leisure-time destination. From 1992 to 2001, 26 percent of adults reported that they visited such attractions, but the number for 2008 dropped to 23 percent. The decrease is small, but it may portend coming declines as the most loyal part of the museum audience ages. The exception, the NEA said, was in the D.C. metropolitan area, where 40 percent of adults said they had visited a museum in 2008 -- reflecting tourism and free admission at most major museums.

In addition, the agency noted sizable declines between 1982 (when it first started documenting arts participation) and 2008 in almost every performing arts field. It reported double-digit rates of decline for classical music, jazz, opera, musical theater, ballet and dramatic plays.

The NEA survey "shows that audiences for the arts are changing," said Patrice Walker Powell, the acting NEA chairman. "While many now participate in arts activities available through electronic media, the number of American adults who are participating in live performing and visual arts events is declining. The findings underscore the need for more arts education to foster the next generation of both artists and arts enthusiasts."

The National Assessment of Educational Progress report is part of a periodic federal look at how America's students fare in various subjects. Arts education was last measured in 1997, but because of budget constraints, the survey was limited this time to music and visual arts. The schools and students were selected at random, said a spokeswoman, and the questions took various forms.

Some results were promising. Students were asked to identify the instrument in the opening solo of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." Fifty percent correctly identified the clarinet.

Other results indicated that students need improvement in basic skills. In NAEP's visual arts component, students were asked to do a self-portrait. Only 4 percent received the highest mark of "sufficient," while 57 percent received a "minimal" rating, the third-best ranking.

General accessibility to arts instruction remained constant, the NAEP report said. Music instruction was offered at least three or four times a week in 57 percent of the schools and visual arts instruction in 47 percent.

Yet there were several gaps in student scores. Whites and Asian/Pacific Islanders scored 22 to 32 points higher than black or Hispanic students. On music questions, public school eighth-graders scored 14 points lower than private school students and nine points lower than their private school counterparts in the visual arts sections.

The recession's impact on school arts programs has not been statistically evaluated, but anecdotal indicators are not encouraging.

"School budget cuts are underway, with more projected next year," said Eileen Weiser, a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, speaking of the economic climate in Michigan. David W. Gordon, the superintendent of the Sacramento County Office of Education, said California is cutting back on school buses, which would further jeopardize school trips.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company