Study finds outdoor arts festivals drawing vibrant, young, diverse crowd

SWEET SOUNDS: Most festivals offered musical acts, such Niamh Ní Charra, here at the 2009 Lowell (Mass.) Folk Festival.
SWEET SOUNDS: Most festivals offered musical acts, such Niamh Ní Charra, here at the 2009 Lowell (Mass.) Folk Festival. (Higgins & Ross/nea)
By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 29, 2010

Even as attendance at museums and concert hall performances has leveled off, people continue to patronize outdoor arts festivals. The festivals are also drawing young and diverse audiences.

These are some of the findings of the first-ever National Endowment for the Arts survey of more than 1,000 outdoor festivals held from April to October 2009 in "Live From Your Neighborhood: A National Study of Outdoor Arts Festivals," released today.

"We realized it was high time that the NEA needed to pay attention to this part of the arts sector," said Sunil Iyengar, the agency's director of research and analysis.

Participation in many arts events had been leveling off, Iyengar said. But not for the annual festivals. A previous NEA study showed that 102 million people went to at least one arts and crafts fair or festival in 2008, and the researchers wanted to find out more.

"People these days like choice of programming, freedom of movement around a venue and a level of interactivity," said Iyengar.

The agency notified 8,000 festival organizers of its online survey, whittled the respondents down to a core of 1,413 who had five years of experience and hard data, and followed the survey with visits to seven festivals.

The majority of the festivals are free (59 percent), and 56 percent of the ones that charge keep their admissions below $15. Most participants consider the festivals family-friendly, the NEA found. When researchers looked at the Santa Fe Indian Market, for example, they discovered that almost 100 percent of the respondents with children brought them to the event. However, the same group at the Chicago Jazz Festival left their children at home.

Most offered some element of music (81 percent) but displayed other arts forms. Visual arts and crafts constituted the next largest category at 67 percent.

These are not slapdash efforts; 70 percent employ an arts curator or programmer, and 56 percent of the visual arts festivals are juried. In cities with populations under 250,000, outdoor festivals have become a mainstay of arts activities, accounting for 77 percent of the overall attractions.

The festivals appeal to a diverse audience. African Americans made up 16 percent of the festival audiences, compared with 7 percent who said they participated in an arts activity in the agency's 2008 participation survey. Hispanics were 15 percent of the festival audiences, compared with 8 percent in the earlier report. "It is much more in line with what America really looks like," Iyengar said.

While festival organizers are concerned about the lingering recession, only 16 percent said they expected 2010 revenue to be less than 2009's.

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