Monday, February 28, 2011

Is Art in Decline?

The popularity of Glee and Dancing with the Stars has the folks over at the National Endowment for the Arts scratching their heads. Their five surveys of arts participation, taken over the past 30-some years, show a decline in arts participation. The surveys ask a representative sample of Americans whether they have attended any of the following events in the past year: a jazz or classical music concert, an opera, a musical, a play, a ballet, another dance performance, or an art museum. The latest survey, taken in 2008, found declines in attendance at every type of venue. The percentage who attended a classical music concert, for example, fell from 13 percent in the 1980s to 9 percent in 2008.

Rather than tsk-tsking over the failure of Americans to engage with the arts, the NEA concludes in a new report (Age and Arts Participation: A Case against Demographic Destiny) that times may be "a changing." Bravely, it even suggests that perhaps its own measures of arts participation are too narrow. As evidence, the NEA references the findings of another arts survey (see Philadelphia Cultural Engagement Index), one that defines arts participation much more broadly. The Philadelphia Cultural Engagement Index, fielded in 2009, found much higher participation in a variety of what may be viewed as "nontraditional" art experiences. According to the Philadelphia study, 81 percent of respondents listen to music on the radio at least weekly, 39 percent sing at least weekly, 28 percent watch television shows about dance at least weekly, 11 percent write in a journal or blog at least weekly, 50 percent read books for pleasure at least weekly, 38 percent watch programs about science or history on TV at least weekly, and 19 percent dance socially at night clubs or parties at least monthly.

These differing findings reveal an important truth about survey research: the answers you get are always determined by the questions you ask.

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