March 07, 2011

Shining brighter light on the arts participation data

The NEA has just released three new reports it commissioned to look more closely at the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts from different perspectives. I’ll blog about all three of them this week and next, starting today with a quick look at the terrific paper by our friends Jennifer Novak-Leonard and Alan Brown about why we need to look “beyond attendance.”

Those two were the obvious choice to tackle this topic for the NEA. In 2004 Brown published a much-needed (and since then, much-cited) framework of five modes of art engagement [pdf], in which observational participation — sitting in the seat, wandering through the exhibition — is seen as only one slice of the pie, and not necessarily the tastiest slice. Novak-Leonard, the lead author of the new paper, worked on the influential RAND study “Gifts of the Muse” (also 2004) and soon thereafter joined Brown at WolfBrown.

Their paper, “Beyond Attendance: A Multi-Modal Understanding of Arts Participation,” [pdf] will speed the shift in the national arts conversation away from butts-in-the-seats thinking and toward a more holistic, contemporary definition of arts engagement. Their analysis shows that Americans are involved in the arts to roughly the same extent in three different modes: attending them live, enjoying them through technology, and participating in creative activities themselves. Their Venn diagram…

…is worth laminating and pinning to your cork board, even though it’s based on SPPA data that are far from perfect or comprehensive. (The next wave of the survey may look very different; the NEA’s research director, Sunil Iyengar, is rethinking the approach, with the help of papers like these three.)

If you add up the numbers in any one circle, you find about half of U.S. adults reporting that they engaged at least once in that mode in the past year. (Obviously, it’s not the same 50% in all three modes.) Note that the percentage of Americans who report engaging in all three ways is the same as the percentage engaging in none of these ways — the artless, we might call them, at least within the set of questions the SPPA asks. It’s roughly a quarter of the population in each case. And you won’t be surprised that the technology-participating crowd is slightly larger than the live-attending crowd; these are 2008 numbers, and I expect to see that disparity grow in coming years. ...

The framework is powerful because it’s non-hierarchical. Watching a dance video on YouTube is a legitimate form of participation, not merely a step toward buying a ticket for a live performance. Ditto for contra-dancing at the local VFW hall. Novak-Leonard and Brown believe that all three modes of arts participation are “essential to the health of the overall arts ecology,” and their rich analysis helps naturalize that view.

The question is whether arts organizations, which need audiences — which depend on that attendance circle for their survival — will share the view. It’s easy to see foundations, policymakers, arts advocates, and of course arts researchers embracing the tri-fold model. If your goal is to foster creativity and artistic practice at all levels of society, this diagram isn’t a threat, it’s a roadmap. But if you work for a symphony, ballet company, theater, or art museum, you might feel differently.

Which is to say, this report raises the big question that arts presenters and producers will have to answer, and soon: How do we make ourselves relevant to those other two modes of engagement? How do we reinvent our business model — heck, our institutional and professional identity — so we can continue to occupy a valued place in our art form?

It’s easy to see how this can work on that media-based circle. The Metropolitan Opera’s live, high-def feeds to movie theaters may not be contributing much to the organization’s balance sheet, but they’re still a game-changer. (I’m going next weekend to the LA Phil’s live concert-cast at my local multiplex.) 

But what about all that personal, amateur arts creation? As Novak-Leonard and Brown note, 

While a substantial infrastructure of book clubs, choruses, community music schools, art centers, and craft workshops satisfy a portion of public demand for arts creation, the much larger and better-funded infrastructure of professional arts producers and presenters has not, historically, been concerned with arts creation, except in acquiring or commissioning new work by professional artists.

Yet many arts organizations around the world are finding ways to welcome in, incorporate, and support the creativity of their audiences. This is something Nina Simon has written extensively about in the museum field, from a practitioner’s perspective. And Novak-Leonard and Brown have written a broad-minded, useful section on “Implications for Practice” in the final chapter of their report.

Not long ago, you wouldn’t have expected the NEA to commission a paper this critical of status quo thinking or this provocative in its implications. It’s a new day all around.

Next stop, Nick Rabkin’s report on arts education and its relationship to attendance. Stay tuned.


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