Report: Opera Attendance Drops, Digital Engagement Rises

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The arrival of autumn means a harvest of reports on the health of the arts in the United States. This Thursday, the National Endowment for the Arts will issue the top findings of its Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, a five-year survey on audience trends in theaters, concert halls and museums. WQXR will host a panel discussion in The Greene Space on Oct. 3, in which several arts leaders will discuss the findings, an event that will be webcast on

But first, the advocacy group Americans for the Arts last week published a 145-page report called the National Arts Index, which aims to give an annual snapshot of the nation's arts health by assembling a mass of data. Although the overall index saw a slight dip in 2011, one sobering finding was a continued decline in audiences for opera.

Opera companies saw a 15 percent drop in attendance from 2010 to 2011, from roughly 2.7 million patrons to 2.3 million nationwide. That continues what has been an annual decline since 2007, a year when 3.6 million people went to the opera (back in 2000, 3.9 million attended a production). Americans for the Arts says the data does not account for opera companies' educational and community events, nor does it include attendance at HD movie theater screenings by the Metropolitan Opera and other companies. (The Met currently simulcasts to 1700 theaters in 54 countries; whether those screenings cannibalize live audiences remains a point of debate.)

The news is better for symphony orchestras. About 26.8 million people attended an orchestra concert in 2011, up from 26.2 million in 2010 and the highest number since 2008, when 28.7 million people went to a symphony concert. Still, there has been a longer-term downward trend; in 2000, 31.7 million attended a symphony concert.

As a whole, the arts industry is lagging as the economy recovers from the recession of 2008, with 44.2 percent of arts groups reporting deficits in 2011 and thousands others having folded. There were also fewer new works premiered in 2011, as the Los Angeles Times noted last week.

The report finds that since 2003, nearly half of the nation’s CD and record stores have disappeared. Digital downloads, however, comprised 50 percent of record industry sales in 2011; the services Pandora and Spotify represent an additional 15 percent. Whether online delivery can provide a sustainable revenue model for performing arts organizations remains to be seen.

"The evolving delivery model is digital," the report noted, so arts groups "have to compete in different ways. The public is certainly not walking away from the arts, but they are walking away from some traditional models of delivery."

Have you found yourself turning more to the Internet get your cultural fix? Leave a comment below.