April 09, 2010

“Majority minority” and what it doesn’t tell us about the future of cultural attendance

Much is being made of the fact that, at some point 30 or 40 years from now, “non-Hispanic whites” will become America’s largest minority. But what will that mean for arts participation and museumgoing? In one sense, nothing at all.

A book review in this week’s New Yorker by Kelefa Sanneh, the magazine’s pop music critic, calls our attention to “Stuff White People Like,” that good-natured piece of social self-criticism in blog and book form by Christian Lander. The list of “stuff” reads like my firm’s client roster: film festivals (#3), non-profit organizations (#12), plays (#43), arts degrees (#47), graduate school (#81), public radio (#44), and of course classical music — or rather, “Appearing to Enjoy Classical Music” (#108). Jazz is also here, I think, under the heading, “Black Music that Black People Don’t Listen to Anymore” (#116).


Combine Lander’s jokey-but-perceptive point with the demographic shifts that will soon mark the end of white hegemony in the United States, and it may look like all of us — you arts and education professionals, and we consultants who help you — are in the wrong business. White, urban, liberal culture and the values associated with it have seen their heyday and are on the way out.
But Sanneh’s essay goes on to complicate that picture, if not undermine it altogether, by pointing out that the category of American whiteness is itself a moving target. Over the decades it has come to include “many previous identities that had once been considered marginal: Irish, Italian, Polish, Jewish.”

At one time, those ethnic minorities were visibly, audibly, even behaviorally other. Yet today, if you wanted to know whether someone is of Irish or Italian heritage, or is Jewish, you’d have to ask.

What changed over that period, the minority or the culture at large? Both. What it meant to be “Italian” or “Jewish” changed, and simultaneously what it meant to be “American” changed. And of course the two processes influenced each other.

It’s an obvious but profound point. When we apply it to the current era of rapid growth in the U.S. Latino population, it changes the picture entirely. What if being Latino in 30 or 40 years is as “mainstream,” as invisible (for lack of better words), as being Italian or Jewish is today? More to the point, what if Latino heritage will tell us as little about the extent or nature of someone’s arts participation or museum attendance as an Irish or Italian background does today?

If that’s where we’re heading, then we can’t just extrapolate from what we know about the cultural participation patterns and motivations of today’s Latinos, projecting those patterns onto the new Census pie-chart of 2040. Nor can we extrapolate from what we know about cultural participation by today’s whites. That’s because what’s shifting isn’t just demographics; it’s the relationship between demographics (like ethnicity, or for that matter age, education) and psychographics (in this case, the attitudes, interests, and behaviors relevant to museumgoing or the arts).

In other words, the question isn’t, “How will whites or Latinos or any other ethnic group engage in arts and culture in the coming decades?” It's more like, “How will different segments of American society think — and how will they feel — about their own creativity, about leaving their houses, about technology, about social interaction as a part of arts or learning experiences, about subjectivity and formality, about being challenged, about categories like ‘classical concert’ or ‘science exhibit’, and much else?”

Yes, those psychographics will continue to be linked to ethnicity in some ways. But they’ll also continue to be linked to other demographic characteristics, like age, education, and region of the country, and those links may be stronger than ethnicity. They may already be stronger. How today’s 22-year-olds create and consume music, for example, differs radically from how today’s 62-year-olds do, and that gulf may be wider than the corresponding gap between, say, whites and Latinos.

That point isn’t mine, by the way. It’s one of the implications of a new paper commissioned by the American Association of Museums and written by Betty Farrell of the University of Chicago’s Cultural Policy Center. I read an early draft recently and look forward to writing more about it here when it’s released. (I’m on the project’s advisory committee for AAM and am affiliated with the CPC, but I didn’t work on the paper directly.) Ethnicity is at best a partial lens, and the tectonic change in U.S. demographics may be less seismic than what’s going on in technology, consumer behavior, education, and other areas.

Which is not to say that race, or racism, will be magically left behind. I haven’t said a word about African Americans here, and I’m under no illusions about a coming post-racial society. It’s not that we’re all becoming the same. It’s that, in a majority-minority America, everyone will be an other of some kind. As Sanneh points out, “It’s getting easier to imagine an American whiteness that is less exceptional, less dominant, less imperial, and more conspicuous, an ethnicity more like the others.”

So what’s going to happen to that stuff white people like? It depends on how “white people” change, how non-white people change, and how the “stuff” itself changes. It’s no accident that my firm is doing research for cultural and educational organizations that want to become more relevant to certain populations that are underrepresented in their audiences — studies that will result in different kinds of programming and experiences. But those populations aren’t always defined in terms of ethnicity; age and geography are the other big deals.

Which leaves cultural and educational institutions with the hard work of understanding the various kinds of hearts and minds that exist within their increasingly diverse, complex communities, and figuring out which of those segments to try to engage, and how. And the added challenge of doing so while everything’s evolving (including Lander’s list). So what else is new?

Janis — April 13, 2010

Italians and Jews have never really been white, and we generally know it. Bluntly, we're usually dark enough for the whitest white people to look down on as uneducated, sexist, oppressive, and all the other fun stuff, and white enough that they don't lose their liberal street cred for doing it. We're in the limbo-land where other people who aren't us get to put us in whatever category they want depending on their own political goals.

Interesting to see it brought up in the context of classical music, too. :-) For me, it's never been a white thing. The whitest white people in our neighborhood when I was growing up (I was called wop, dago, and greaser before I knew what the words meant) spat on it. Opera was stupid, classical music was stupid. It was only ever darker types who appreciated it like us and the Sicilian family across the street. The more wonder-bread people were, the more likely they were to think Beethoven was stupid.

Growing up in a very blue-collar, working-class and often despised ethnicity -- that nonetheless claimed some of the most elite cultural practices in the world -- confuses things like "what white people like" and "getting minorities to like classical music."

Anne Arenstein — April 13, 2010

Brava, Janis.
There are some very very broad assumption being made here, especially about music. There are plenty of Jews and Germans and Italians and Chinese who could care less about western classical music, who don't go near a museum, haven't seen a ballet and don't listen to NPR or whatever the equivalent may be.
For my parents' generation, symphony concerts and what Leonard Bernstein did with his Young People's Concerts represented social aspirations, a way of improving oneself. There were also fewer options when it came to how one spent one's leisure time. Today there are a bewildering array of choices, even if one decides to stay home. Turn on cable? Wii? You can watch great performances on youtube (including Maestro Bernstein, Maria Callas, and Marian Anderson).
If people of color don't make up large segments of concert audiences, consider how many of them were denied admission to arts programs a couple of generations ago. That sends a powerful message that will take time to work through.
The entire arts landscape is changing, and along with that, its audiences are constantly shifting. Artists create for their audiences and I look forward to seeing where they take us.

Peter Linett — April 14, 2010

What a valuable perspective to have here, Janis. Clearly the "othering" of anyone who's not a WASP is alive and well. The cliche-busting points you and Anne are both making here reinforce my point that ethnic background has no clear connection to whether somebody loves the arts.

But, as Anne notes, loving it no longer means attending it in a concert hall: there are many other options available. Personally, I don't claim to be able to tell whether the people next to me at a classical concert are Italian or any other ethnicity, but I certainly don't see many who appear to be blue-collar or working-class, to borrow your phrases, Janis. And the issue isn't simply ticket price: a Bruce Springsteen concert I went to last year was full of (white) people from all educational and professional walks, and tickets were just as expensive as the symphony. Springsteen, of course, is known as the bard of the working man, and I love your point about opera being sort of the equivalent for some Italian families.

Anne, your observation about people of color being denied admission to conservatories not long ago is crucial. Very few orchestras have ethnically diverse rosters, and in our research African American arts consumers regularly observe that fact and cite it as a barrier for them. I join you in looking forward to seeing where the creators take us as things continue to shift. (I wish your point about artists creating for their audiences had been truer in classical music than it has been: to my mind, they took a few decades off from doing just that, with terrible effects on the status and relevance of classical music in contemporary culture.)

Janis — April 20, 2010

We tend to hide well. :-) You wouldn't think you were sitting next to one if you sat next to me, either. Also, the whole time I was growing up, my family rarely went to hear classical music live. We couldn't afford it in terms of either time or money. But because we grew up with that music in the house and knew it backwards and forwards (and because it was so often sung and performed by people with vowels at the end of their names), we felt no sense of exclusion. Going to hear someone do the quartet from Rigoletto was a once-in-a-lifetime fantasy. In the meantime, your extended family knew it by heart and sang it around the dinner table themselves.

That's one of the biggest problems with the whole concept of the problem -- the belief that the only way to "take part in" classical music is to go hear other people do it in a concert hall, and anything else you do doesn't count. My dad knew everything in the world about every opera ever written, but for both of my overworked parents to manage three kids going to school at the same time with tickets to the opera with more than two time-and-energy-sucking jobs would just not have been a possibility.

But because we grew up with it, I feel ownership and almost patriotism toward it. It's mine, but that ownership isn't calibrated according to the way that leisured people consume the stuff. If you aren't AT THE HALL, you don't count. Even all of the attempts to solve the problem of the death of classical music are just attempts to sell more tickets TO THE HALL, period. That's the end goal, and it's all people are thinking of. Not about the cultural import of the music, who loves it, who's playing around with it, what it means to people. All that is conversational window dressing for butts in seats. And if your butt isn't in the seat, you don't count. Forget if your extended family can sing "La Traviata" start to finish. Your butt's not in a seat.

There's something wrong with that -- pop and rock bands have zillions of devoted fans who adore them, many of whom have never once seen their favorite bands live. Cities are filled to the brim with fans of sports teams, but not ALL of them go to see the game live. There are tons of people with Eagles satin jackets, Eagles baseball caps, and Eagles bumperstickers all over their car who haven't seen the team live, or did so only a few times. But their devotion is part of the fabric of the culture.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.