NEA Report: Arts Audiences Grow More Diverse Amid Declines

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As the U.S. population diversifies, and the fine arts compete for audiences with video games, movies and other entertainment, arts organizations are increasingly tasked with seeking out new communities.

The National Endowment for the Arts on Thursday gave arts groups a blueprint of sorts, publishing a Survey of Public Participation in the Arts for 2012. It aims to provide a statistical snapshot of audiences across the performing and visual arts.

Surveying 38,000 adults, the NEA shows that attendance declined for traditional, main-line cultural forms – theater, museums and classical concerts – between 2008, the last survey period, and 2012. At the same time, audiences became more racially and ethnically diverse, and forms including Latin music, jazz and non-ballet dance performances saw modest upticks in attendance.

(WQXR will host a panel discussion and webcast in The Greene Space on Oct. 3, in which several arts leaders will discuss the report and the future of audiences in the U.S.)

Across the board, arts attendance was down somewhat in 2012, with 33 percent of adults reporting that they participated in a "benchmark" arts event. In 2008 — just before the global recession hit into Americans' spending habits — the same measurement was 34.6 percent. In 2002, 39.4 percent of adults participated in the arts.

Theater saw the steepest drops. In 2012, 8.3 percent of adults attended a play, down from 9.4 percent in 2008. Musical theater attendance also dropped, with 15.2 percent of adults attending in 2012, down from 16.7 percent in 2008.

Classical music audiences declined from 9.3 percent of adults in 2008 to 8.8 percent in 2012. They also grew older: Adults ages 35 to 54 reduced their attendance while those 65 and up participated at the highest levels (in 2008, the 55-plus crowd accounted for 33.5 percent of audiences; in 2012 they were 36 percent).

Despite areas of decline, greater audience diversity was also evident. Museum and gallery attendance dipped – from 22.7 percent of adults in 2008 to 21 percent in 2012 – but the drop-off was most pronounced among white audiences. Museum-going rates for African-American and Hispanic audiences remained steady.

Jazz saw significantly higher numbers of Hispanic, African-American and Asian audiences in 2012, pushing up overall attendance figures to 8.1 percent of American adults, from 7.8 percent in 2008. Jazz audiences had previously been on the decline.

Non-ballet dance audiences increased slightly, from 5.2 percent of adults in 2008 to 5.6 percent in 2012. Interest in this catch-all category was particularly strong among Hispanics and African-Americans, with modest gains in each demographic.

Americans who attended a Latin, Spanish or salsa music performance also climbed, from 4.9 percent in 2008 to 5.1 percent in 2012. Of that audience, African-Americans nearly doubled their attendance.

The NEA report comes after the 2010 U.S. Census revealed that America is rapidly diversifying, with a Hispanic population larger than ever and more children coming from multiple racial backgrounds. Racial and ethnic minorities accounted for 90 percent of the growth in the U.S. population over the past decade, and Hispanics were by far the largest part of that increase.

The NEA survey found that TV and radio are the most popular forms of electronic media to access the arts (together used by 54 percent of adults), followed by mobile devices (38 percent), the Internet (32 percent) and CDs/DVDs (27 percent).

The NEA has published its Survey of Public Participation every five years since 1982. The report released on Thursday covers top-line data and the agency says a more detailed version is due out in early 2014 that will focus more on the reasons behind the numbers. Other categories beyond the visual and performing arts were measured such as reading habits and making and sharing art, be it creative writing or social dancing.

WEIGH IN: What do you think of the NEA data? Depressed? Encouraged? What should arts institutions do to build audiences for the future? Please share your thoughts and questions in the box below. Or you can Tweet us at @WQXR using the hashtag #NEASPPA. We may refer to your question during our live Greene Space event on Oct. 3.

(Chart courtesy of the NEA)