In the beginning…
“This great Nation…is looking to this handful of extremely talented individuals, looking to you as the representatives of all fields of the arts, for ways in which the Government can maintain and can strengthen an atmosphere which will permit the arts to flourish and to become part of everyone’s life.” (President Lyndon Johnson)
The first meeting of the National Council on the Arts was held in Washington, D.C. on April 9 and 10, 1965. It was preceded by a 12:15 P.M. ceremony in the Cabinet Room of the White House, April 9, during which the members of the Council took the oath of office. Included among those sworn in that day to govern the newly enacted National Endowment for the Arts were Ralph Ellison, John Steinbeck, Harper Lee, Isaac Stern, Leonard Bernstein and Gregory Peck.
Now 44 years later we read that…
“Between 2002 and 2008, the percentage of US adults attending arts events declined for every art form except musical plays.”
“Performing arts attendees are increasingly older than the average U.S. adult.”
“Since 1982, young adults (18-24 year old) attendance rates have declined significantly for jazz, classical music, ballet, and non-musical plays.”
“The percentage of college educated adults attending arts events decreased in every category from 1982-2008.”
“From 2002 to 2008, 45-54 year olds—historically a large component of arts audiences—showed the steepest decline in attendance for most arts events.”
These statements are all drawn from Arts Participation 2008, Highlights from a National Survey, published by the NEA.
Further, consider the following decreases in the percentage of the population attending performances of these art forms:
Ballet attendance fell from 4.2% to 2.9% of the population–a 31% rate of decline
(Why are we not looking at modern dance as well?)
Opera attendance fell from 3% to 2.1 % of the population–a 30% rate of decline
Attendance at straight plays fell from 11.9% of the population to 9.4%, a 21% rate of decline
For those who want to blame the recent recession, here is what the Rand Corporation said in its 2008 report Cultivating Demand for the Performing Arts, and based on analysis of data prior to the recent financial downturn: “Despite decades of effort to make high-quality works of art accessible to all Americans, demand for the arts has not kept pace with supply. Those who participate in the arts remain overwhelmingly white, educated, and affluent. Moreover, audiences for the arts are growing older: Each year, fewer young Americans visit art museums, listen to classical music, or attend jazz concerts or ballet performances.”
These declines are more than sobering, they’re staggering. They are especially astounding in light of the incredible investment states and local communities (i.e., taxpayers), and private philanthropists have made in new arts facilities over the same quarter century.
Now what to do…
• First, stop building. Have the “edifice complex” and “irrational exuberance” about capital projects finally caught up with us? As pointed out in a recent Urbanophile post, the $365 million dollars to open the Kauffman Center for the Arts in Kansas City could fund the operating budgets for the three primary tenants (Kansas City Ballet, Kansas City Symphony, and Lyric Opera) for 21 years. Or, if invested and getting a 5% return, that same amount could provide $18 million annually—enough to fund the entire operating budgets of these organizations in perpetuity. Bring artists into the organizational decision making process. They might be as enthusiastic about making more work over longer periods of time, as trustees and executives are exuberant about building new buildings.
• Move from a commodity/customer orientation to an experience/participant orientation for fostering audience development. Last Friday I attended the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company presentation of Fondly do we Hope…Fervently do we Pray at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. The house was packed, with people of all ages. No less than half stayed for the post-production dialogue. Recently YBCA has implemented the “Immersive Visitor Experience” to attract and engage their audiences. Is there a connection between this innovation and Friday’s experience? How can we share such good practices across the field in support of our universal engagement goals?
• Reduce the price of admission. How many families of five can afford $275 for ‘medium priced’ seats to attend A Christmas Carol? No matter what the data say, in good times or in bad, prices like these are a limiting factor for a majority of the population. A full house of heavily subsidized wealthy people is not the proverbial ‘wider audience’ for the arts so many organizations espouse in their mission statements.
• Embrace technology. Investigate Internet2 as a springboard to new, less costly, and more engaging participation opportunities. Early adopters are showing the way! More on this in a week or so.
It remains an open question whether we can assure that the arts “become part of everyone’s life”, as was the aspiration on that April afternoon at the White House in 1965. What we must do at a minimum is place our priority on co-creating with our communities a more fertile future for the arts, and in so doing, even possibly reverse the current trend lines.