The Wallace Foundation explores some of the challenges in the U.S. that are making audience-building a complicated enterprise.
The Wallace Foundation has supported audience-building efforts by arts organisations and research into that work for 15 years. This Wallce Arts Update offers key findings from that work and related studies, and describes questions Wallace hopes to answer in an initiative to be announced in fall 2014.
The United States today is home to some 48,200 nonprofit arts and cultural organisations, from opera companies and museums to film societies and performing arts centres. Many of these institutions provide people with extraordinary ways to experience the power of the arts. And yet, many Americans are missing out.
An important indication comes from the Census Bureau, which on behalf of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), has periodically polled Americans about their arts activity, including whether they have recently visited an art museum or attended a theatrical, opera, ballet, non-ballet dance, classical music or jazz performance. The responses indicate that the overall rate of participation in these "benchmark" arts has dropped, from a high in 1992, when 41 percent of Americans said they had taken part, to 33 percent in 2012. The chart shows how this has played out for each art form – an overall decline, with a small uptick recently in jazz and non-ballet dance attendance.
Fortunately, the story does not end with the statistics. Many arts leaders and arts professional associations have long recognised the problem and are seeking to tackle it. Moreover, a number of arts organisations are finding ways to bring people in and successfully build their audiences.
Four trends and the challenge for funding
No one knows for sure why the decline is happening. What can be said is that four trends in particular are making audience building in the 21st Century a complicated enterprise.
1. Waning arts education
Several studies have shown a solid correlation between adult arts engagement and childhood exposure to the arts. So it's notable that a 2011 analysis of the 2008 NEA arts participation survey found a steady erosion in youth arts education. In 1982, 65 percent of 18-year-olds reported having received childhood arts education; by 2008 that figure had fallen to 50 percent. If more people are reaching adulthood minus an arts education, arts organisations might need to figure out how to compensate through introductions to their art forms.
2. Changing demographics
In large part because of the aging of the population, audiences for the benchmark arts are graying. Today, the proportion of 20-somethings in these audiences is 21 percent, down 12 points from 1982, while the 60-plus crowd has jumped from 15 to 19 percent of the audience. In addition, the United States is becoming a "plurality nation" according to the U.S. Census Bureau, which projects that although non-Hispanic whites will continue to constitute the largest block of the population, by 2043 no one ethnic or racial group will be in the majority. Other research has found that motivations for attending arts programming can differ by race or ethnicity. In one survey, for example, African American respondents (50 percent) and Hispanic respondents (43 percent) were far more likely than white respondents (15 percent) to say a major reason they had attended a cultural event was to celebrate their cultural heritage. Arts organisations might need to consider the implications of demographic shifts for their audience efforts.
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