The Nationals Arts Index, a new survey by Americans for the Arts, paints a troubling picture for arts organizations

DOWNSLIDE: Art museums, such as Roanoke's Taubman Museum, saw a 13 percent decline in attendance from 2003 to 2008.
DOWNSLIDE: Art museums, such as Roanoke's Taubman Museum, saw a 13 percent decline in attendance from 2003 to 2008. (Nancy Trejos/the Washington Post)
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By Jacqueline Trescott
Thursday, January 21, 2010

While the number of arts organizations increased rapidly over a recent 10-year span, the percentage of people attending arts events declined, a new national survey by the nonprofit group Americans for the Arts reported Wednesday.

This issue of supply and demand in the arts world is a troubling one, said the authors of the National Arts Index, because many groups have financial troubles and people of all ages are discovering new ways to experience the arts, including the Internet.

"Audience demand has failed to keep pace" with this boom in opportunities for arts participation, said Randy Cohen, the vice president for local arts advancement at the Americans for the Arts. "There is a new arts organization created every three hours."

Straitened financial circumstances and audience drift are issues that have been festering for years, and the recent recession didn't help. The analysts behind the index hope their data -- taken between 1998 and 2008 -- will clarify the predicament the arts find themselves in and provide a roadmap for new artistic and business models. "This first-ever annual measure confirms observations we have had for years," said Robert L. Lynch, the group's president and chief executive.

Attendance at art museums was down 13 percent from 2003 to 2008, the index found, while audiences at popular music events were down 6 percent. More people are taking classes in knitting and ceramics, as an arts participation survey by the National Endowment for the Arts reported last year.

Increasingly, people turn to the Internet for their arts consumption, whether they're seeking snippets of concerts or replays of stand-up comedy routines. The remote arts experience, Cohen pointed out, is also made easier by the explosion of offerings on cable television and simulcasts of performances by such groups as the Metropolitan Opera.

The study was prepared over the past 4 1/2 years and drew on 76 annual reports, such as the report from the National Association of Music Merchants on musical instrument sales and attendance numbers for Broadway and touring shows prepared by the Broadway League. Other information was taken from government, business, foundation and academic sources. The index expanded the reach of many studies to include data on both nonprofit and for-profit institutions, as well as individual and amateur work.

Despite the mixed prognosis on the arts, artists and arts supporters alike have been intensely dedicated to keeping the arts on the front burner of policymakers. The U.S. Conference of Mayors has made the arts, and the resultant revenue and downtown revitalization, a centerpiece of its members' goals. In addition to urging a Cabinet-level position on the arts, Mufi Hannemann, the mayor of Honolulu -- in Washington for the winter meeting of mayors -- called for a White House summit on the arts. "At the end of the day, the arts define the essence of the soul of a city," Hannemann said.

Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D-N.Y.) joined the news conference at the National Press Club and said the economic benefits to the federal Treasury and individual cities need to be emphasized. "The arts need not apologize to anyone. Art pays its way," Slaughter said.

In the index, the health of the arts was measured by finances, capacity, participation and competitiveness. "Arts participation is falling because the alternative uses of time are winning out," said Arthur C. Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute.

Index supporters said arts groups face many challenges, but most are likely to begin an economic rebound in 2011. Cohen said about one-third of arts groups are not making their budgets. Bill Ivey, the former NEA chairman, said it was troubling that the number of trained artists graduating from college had grown while the overall employment of artists was only slightly increasing.

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