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NEA report shows declining attendance in arts events nationwide

December 10, 2009 | 12:05 am


Have you been noticing a growing number of empty seats at classical concerts in recent years? Have you attended a recent gallery opening where there was actually enough Champagne and hors d'oeuvres to go around -- and perhaps even some to take home?

If so, your imagination isn't playing tricks on you.

A new report released by the National Endowment for the Arts said that the number of American adults attending arts and cultural events has sunk to its lowest level since 1982, which was when the NEA began conducting the poll.

The study, which was organized in partnership with the Census Bureau, noted that the downward trend was at least partially due to the deteriorating economic conditions of the last two years, including the rise in the price of gasoline and an overall drop in consumer spending. 

But it also emphasized larger shifts in the American public's relationship to the arts. The report, which uses data collected in 2008, said that the share of adults who attended at least one arts event was 34.6%, down from 39.4% in 2002, which was the last time the survey was conducted.

Moreover, those who did attend arts events did so less frequently. The report found that the average number of attendances per individual was 5.2 in 2008, down from 6.1 in 2002.

Among the types of arts events that the report measures are museum shows, classical music concerts, opera, ballet, theater and jazz concerts.

The NEA released preliminary results of the report in June. The full report, which was made public today, includes data by state and region. California ranked near the top among states for art museum attendance. In 2008, 31% of the state's residents -- more than 8 million people --visited an art museum or gallery. 

Overall, the Pacific and New England regions ranked high in the attendance of performing arts and visual arts events, according to the report.

The regions with some of the lowest arts attendance are the East South Central (Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee,  Mississippi) and the West South Central (Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas).

"The 2008 survey results are, at a glance, disappointing," said Sunil Iyengar, the NEA's director of research and analysis, in a summary of the report.

He said a single survey cannot explain all the reasons for the nationwide decline, but noted that among the possible causes is decreasing arts education.

The report shows that since 1982, the number of 18-to-24-year-olds who said they had any music education in their lives has declined by more than a third. For visual arts education, the number has decreased by a half.

One of the most surprising findings in the report was that people ages 45 to 54 -- who have historically been a significant component of arts audiences -- showed the steepest declines in attendance for arts events. Only 36% of those in this age group attended an arts event in 2008, versus 46% in 2002.

The survey also showed that college-educated adults cut back on their consumption across nearly all art forms.

When analyzed by gender, the data showed that females outpaced males in attendance across most of the arts -- the exceptions being jazz and Latin music events.

The full report is expected to be accessible on the NEA's website today. You can also tune into a webcast of a conference at which arts leaders from around the country will discuss the results.

The webcast is scheduled to begin today at 11 a.m. Eastern time.

-- David Ng

Photo: Visitors attend a recent exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Credit: Stefano Paltera / For The Times

Comments () | Archives (22)

Now we may finally be starting to find something we can agree on.
Perhaps the reason why some jazz musicians can do well in classical milieu while most classical musicians are not so good in jazz is that many of those jazz musicians have a solid classical education that helps them in whatever kind of music they choose to play, while very few classical musicians have any kind of jazz training because it is not really essential. And Hubert Laws is a good example - he had a particularly extensive classical background, graduating from the Julliard and playing for a while with the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera.
The words "just some more music, not better or worse than any other necessarily" are close to the way i feel about all of this as well. So, let's just enjoy the variety and agree that, fortunately, different people prefer different types of music and that basically there is nothing wrong with it.
The main reason that i personally believe in the future of classical music is that it, more than any other kind in my opinion, is able to absorb all kinds of influences from all over the world and integrate them into its extremely flexible language. Until about 1860, classical music was practically all European. Then North Americans started joining in (Louie Moreau Gottschalk and Edward McDowell were among the first). After 1920, a bunch of talented composers from Latin America entered the picture (Brazilian Heitor Villa-Lobos, Argentinian Alberto Ginastera, Mexicans Silvestre Revueltas and Carlos Chavez). More recently, East Asia got stronger (Japanese Toru Takemitsu and Chinese Tan Dun). Additionally, Indonesian type of music known as gamelan has been influencing many classical composers starting with Claude Debussy and including several contemporary Californians including Lou Harrison and a few others. During this century we may see and hear classical music embracing new contributions from India and Africa - there are no rules or limitations in classical music that would prevent this from happening.

We harvest the bitter fruit of defunded arts education since the Reagan years. The economy has it's effect but the sad reality is that we have spent years backing the sports economy in our schools and government and far fewer dollars in the arts.

As the cut backs have taken place cutting edge or community art - read what younger people like - has ben cut back to support the high arts - read what older people like. This pattern leads us back into falling attendance as the remaining arts programs suffer the literal death of their audience. I run a podcast called the Art of Storytelling Show and I can testify that the storytelling community is going through this process just much faster then the rest of the arts community.

The lesson we are learning here is that new media and mew communication can and will retain arts in combination with smaller venues and specialized shows.

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