David Hoppe

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:: Change is us

A new NEA survey

By David Hoppe

As 2009 came to a close - with neither a bang nor a whimper, but something more akin to screeching brakes - the National Endowment For the Arts released the final draft of a report, "Survey of Public Participation in the Arts," dealing with the behavior of arts audiences. The results, to put it mildly, were not encouraging.

The report found that the number of Americans attending arts and cultural events is falling, in some cases, like a bag of bolts.

The NEA has been tracking the percentage of adults attending performing arts events since 1982. The most recent survey was conducted in May 2008 and asked a large, nationally representative sample of adults, 18 and over, about their attendance at arts exhibits and performances over the previous 12 months.

Among the findings:
Smaller percentages of adults attended performing arts than in previous years. Opera and jazz participation fell below where they were in 1982. Classical music attendance dropped 29 percent over the same period. Musicals were the only category with no significant change in attendance since 2002. Good news, I guess, for Tommy Tune.

The pain wasn't confined to the performing arts. Attendance at museums and craft fairs - and even historical buildings and parks - fell significantly during the past ten years.

Not even the movies were immune. Film fell outside the survey's purview, but it is worth noting that, while attendance at the nation's multiplexes was up by 3 percent in 2009 over the previous year, overall attendance at films is still off 12 percent since 2002 - a number in keeping with the declines tallied by the NEA.

The survey noted that rising travel costs and the dreadful economy probably contributed to these disappointing findings. But it also asserted that these recent problems were not enough to account for the larger trends.

"Long-term trends suggest fundamental shifts in the relationship between age and arts attendance," stated the survey. It's become an arts administration cliché to fret over aging audiences and, sure enough, the survey found that performing arts attendees are increasingly older than the average U.S. adult. But something even more worrisome is happening: from 2002 to 2008, 45-54 year-olds, considered the bread and butter of arts audiences, showed the steepest declines in attendance for most arts events.

Does all this mean that the arts are expiring? Hardly. You could actually argue that the arts are thriving - just not in traditional ways. As the survey points out, in 2008, "About 70 percent of U.S. adults went online for any purpose, typically once a day. Of those adults, 39.4 percent used the Internet to view, listen to, download, or post artworks or performances."

If history teaches us anything about the introduction of new technologies, it's that these tools bring along a host of unintended consequences. And so we find audiences migrating away from live performances and in-person encounters with works of art, and toward the representation of these experiences on computer screens. The Internet, it turns out, may not be a way of promoting the arts (as many arts administrators hope) so much as a new form for distribution and consumption.

And speaking of consumption, it turns out that the 'Net is an art consumer's dream come true. Merce Cunningham and Pina Bausch never made it to Indianapolis in their lifetimes but, thanks to YouTube, we can still watch their performances.

Cue howls of protest from impresarios and their ticket-buying fans at the very idea that a live performance and a low-rez video might somehow share the same mental space. They have a point. You are either in the same room, in real time, with a warm-blooded body, or you're not.

But technology has a remarkable way of blurring these distinctions - not until they don't matter, but so that most of us willingly set them aside. In the days before the printing press, poetry was spoken aloud or sung, passed along and remembered. Poets aimed their work at communities, not individualists silently deciphering marks on paper. The transition from one form to another changed a mode of expression; it changed us, too.

It's hard not to draw parallels between the NEA's findings regarding arts audiences and what's been happening to journalism. Like many arts organizations, newspapers have been struggling to figure out who their audience might be and how to keep it interested, as well as paying for what they have to offer.

But there's more at stake here than finding a new business model. At the heart of journalism's dilemma is the presumption that the shared information we call news is a kind of glue that holds a community together, the foundation upon which collective decisions can be made. As what is considered news becomes atomized and contested through an increasing variety of niche-oriented providers, the very idea of community is challenged.

The changes overtaking the arts and journalism aren't just about the relative merits of concert halls or art galleries, the Internet or newspapers. These changes are about us.