David Hoppe

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:: Peoples' art

Finding real value

By David Hoppe

The folks at the National Endowment for the Arts have been crunching numbers. It seems every couple of years or so the NEA feels compelled to release a study that tells us something about our cultural habits.

"Time and Money: Using Federal Data to Measure the Value of Performing Arts Activities" is the infelicitous title of a study that brings together data from the U.S. Economic Census, the Bureau of Economic Analysis and the Bureau of Labor Statistics - a virtual murderers' row of bean counters. For the most part, the report's findings are commonsensical to the point where even a government advocate like me has to ask whether this exercise was really necessary.

The finding, for example, that fewer than seven percent of us go to performances by ourselves - we prefer bringing someone with us, even if it's kicking and screaming - doesn't seem like much of a headline. If this should ever change and an evening at the IRT or the ISO begins to resemble that scene in Fahrenheit 451 where everyone is walking alone around a chilly lake, muttering the words to a book that each one has, in solitude, committed to memory, well, that will be news.

For the time being, deciding to go to a play, a concert or a dance performance is a decidedly social calculation, something we do with one another. This, I suppose, is just another of the many ways of differentiating live performance from what we experience when we stare at one or another of our personal screens.

"The performing arts is the most social activity, with so many people bringing a friend along," declared Sunil Iyengar, director of the NEA's Office of Research and Analysis. Iyengar added that nearly 35 percent of performing arts attendees experienced events at schools, churches and in the great outdoors, making me wonder if either the NEA, all those bean counters, or the people responding to surveys were fudging their answers a little - counting Junior's cracked high notes at the annual Spring Sing, say, or Sis' turn as an angel in the annual holiday pageant as indicative of an enthusiasm for the "performing arts." Memorable as these experiences may be, I'm not sure they cut the mustard as the sorts of events arts professionals stake their livelihoods on.

The report says that Americans spent $14.5 billion on performing arts tickets, or about $6 billion less than we spent on tickets to sports events ($20.7 billion). So more people spend more money on sports. What else is new?

You have to read between the lines to find anything provocative, or even edifying, in this iteration of the old arts versus sports equation. It's worth noting, though, that a previous NEA study, this one from 2009, found that sports attendance was slipping precipitously - four times faster than for the arts when measured over a span of years going back to 1982. The reason for this might be that the average ticket price for the top four pro sports leagues - the National Basketball Association, the National Football League, Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League - is $74. While this compares to seeing a show on Broadway, say, or catching Cirque du Soleil in Vegas, the cost of seeing a play or catching the symphony in most cities, while not cheap, is considerably more affordable.

This pokes a stadium-size hole in the old saw that live sports are the peoples' entertainment, while the arts are elitist fare. The fact is that most of us watch sports - just as we do movies and assorted other forms of arts performance -- on TV, or some other electronic device.

For all its nostalgic trappings of being a form of family fun, passed from one generation to the next, the live pro sports experience is much more akin to going to a ritzy steakhouse. Pro ticket sales are driven by corporate expense accounts and high dollar salaries. Those characters in their face paint and team regalia may look like people without a lot going on in their lives, but they're lawyers, accountants and insurance brokers in real life, proving that it really is scary to find that the people you went to high school with now run things.

It's the arts that are for everyone. The newfound hunger for community-based projects aimed at enlivening neighborhoods, like Big Car's Service Center in Lafayette Square, where an abandoned tire dealership is being turned into a hybrid gallery/performance space/urban farm, exemplifies the truly populist nature of contemporary cutting edge arts practice. Here the fact that so many folks experience the arts in venues other than concert halls and traditional theaters becomes illuminating. These people are sharing the singular immediacy of live performance in human scale settings that underscore the transformative power of what can happen when emotions and imagination take flight. This, the awkward title of the NEA's most recent report notwithstanding, is where the real value of the arts resides. The rest, with apologies to Will Shakespeare - someone who knew something about creating experiences on stage - is numbers.