March 14, 2011

NEA report #2: Declining arts education, declining audiences

Last week I wrote about one of the three new reports that the National Endowment for the Arts released, each of which looks at the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts through a different lens. Today we’ll turn to Nick Rabkin’s eye-opening analysis of trends in arts education. We all knew the picture wouldn’t be pretty, but…

Rabkin has been studying and working in arts education for many years and knows the territory cold; he’s currently wrapping up a five-year, multi-funder study of the role of teaching artists in schools and other settings. (Full disclosure: Nick’s a friend, and he and I are developing a research project together.) Rabkin and his co-author, E.C. Hedberg, are both at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, where Rabkin is also affiliated with the Cultural Policy Center.

Their paper, Arts Education in America: What the Declines Mean for Arts Participation [pdf], dives into two big questions. That there’s less arts education going on in our schools these days is no surprise, but how much less, and for which students? And we’ve known for some time that arts education in childhood is linked to later participation in the arts, but how does the evidence for that link hold up, and what does it imply for arts policy and arts management?

The answers here are pretty grim (my sentiment, not necessarily Rabkin and Hedberg’s). The authors’ ingenious parsing of the SPPA data reveals that arts education rose steadily from the 1930s to the 1970s, which helped create a large national audience for the arts and thereby fueled the terrific growth of the nonprofit arts sector in America: the rise of “a dazzling and diverse collection” of “producing institutions and venues in cities and towns coast to coast.”

But, as you can see, something happened in the late-’70s and ’80s, a reversal that’s unusually abrupt for macro-level social change. Who threw the switch? Probably the back-to-basics school reformers, who gathered steam around that time (and who eventually won passage of No Child Left Behind in 1992). They viewed the arts as a luxury, “soft” goods with no direct impact on broader educational outcomes.

The worst part — and for me the real bombshell of the study — is that the declines in childhood arts education since 1982 have been absorbed almost entirely by African American and Hispanic children. If you look only at white respondents to the survey, there’s been some variation but no decline from 1982 to 2008. It’s the non-white communities where the drop has been precipitous. Although the data is inherently sketchy, the authors believe these declines occurred mostly in in-school arts education, not the voluntary, after-school kind (like private music or dance lessons). ...

So, as much as arts professionals talk about the coming majority-minority population and the need to diversify our audiences, we’ve been only half aware of a tectonic shift that’s working against that goal.

The other big point in the report has to do with the relationship between arts education and attendance and participation patterns. The short answer is, the association is strong no matter how you look at it, and Rabkin and Hedberg see it as broadly predictive: arts education for young people leads to later arts attendance.

Their argument is more nuanced than that, of course. They note that we can’t tell from the SPPA data what kinds of arts education experiences work best at inspiring later participation, nor how big a “dose” of them is needed to have that effect.

Which made my ears perk up, of course, because that’s the same question we’re all trying to answer about arts experiences generally — not just arts ed, but classical concerts and art exhibitions and dance or theater performances? What kinds of arts experiences turn newcomers into fans? Or passive observers into active do-ers? Which ones are most likely to broaden people’s identities a little, to include concepts like “I’m into this. This is part of my life.”

And that’s the real virtue of this report: Rabkin and Hedberg come through the thicket of graphs and statistics with the idea that arts education is not just a pipeline to the cultural sector, but an “essential part” of it:

Arts education…is itself an important mode of participation in the arts for children and for many adults, and evidence from the SPPAs shows that it is also an engine that drives development and change in that landscape.

The flip side of this, of course, is that all arts experiences are “arts education.” It’s all one ecosystem, and like all ecosystems it depends on a delicate web of relationships. In their call for us to take that broader view, Rabkin and Hedberg have done a real service.

Next week, the third NEA monograph: Mark Stern on how age fits into the arts puzzle [pdf]…or doesn’t. Meanwhile, weigh in below.


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