The rap on research for the arts, museums, and informal sciences

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). ...

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Categories: Arts participation, Early exposure, Learning, Museums, Performing arts, Research findings, Student research, Survey research
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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. ...

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Categories: Arts participation, Museums, Participatory engagement and co-creation, Performing arts, Research findings, State of the arts, Survey research
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February 14, 2011

OK Cupid and the attraction curve

It’s Valentine’s Day, so it’s fitting that I finally visited the dating website that my favorite podcaster, Rob Long, had talked about in a recent episode. Turns out the clever nerds who run OK Cupid, a booming singles site, have stumbled on a surprising statistical truth about which members get the most attention...a truth that helps explain something I’ve noticed in our own surveys of cultural audiences for years.

Now, bear with me. It’s a big leap from dating-website data to how and why people connect to an orchestra or a natural history museum. But as Rob notes in his characteristically wry take on the data, the ins and outs of attraction are a pretty good metaphor for all kinds of human preference-related behaviors, especially in leisure-time, feel-good categories like music, art, and entertainment. “Everything, when you get down to it, is kinda like dating.”

And this post traffics in the objectification of women, a dubious first for me. The OK Cupid crew have analyzed stats from their site about which female members are considered hot and which get the most messages from other members. They promise to do the same for (to?) men soon. Meanwhile, if you’re particularly sensitive to “lookism,” skip down to the bottom and post a disgruntled comment.

So what’s the big reveal? That the women on the site who get the most attention (in the form of messages from other members) aren’t the ones with the highest average attractiveness ratings. They’re the ones with the most disparate ratings — the ones about whom opinion is divided. Lots of 1s and 5s in your ratings is better than lots of 4s. As OK Cupid co-founder Christian Rudder puts it in his post about the analysis, “Guys tend to ignore girls who are merely cute” (that is, fairly but not outrageously attractive), “and, in fact, having some men think she’s ugly actually works in a woman’s favor.”

The whole post is fascinating, and the statistical analysis looks strong, especially for that counterintuitive last bit about how the lowest attractiveness ratings actually contribute more to the attention the member receives than the second-highest ratings. (And for the record, we’re not talking about negative attention. We’re talking about the correlation between the distribution of attractiveness scores and the number of approaches that men make to female members, presumably with a relationship on their minds.) ...

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Categories: Culture sector, Engagement, General, Museums, Participatory engagement and co-creation, Performing arts, Research findings, Social media
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January 06, 2011

The happiness curve and alumni engagement

In the airport with my family over the holidays, I ran into a newsstand to pick up some things for our flight. There on the rack, the cover of The Economist caught my eye: “The joy of growing old (or why life begins at 46).” Being 46 at the moment, of course I bought it.

I thought the article might feature tips relevant to us mid-lifers, like how to prevent your knees from hurting when you hike, or how to remember what you walked into the kitchen for. What I found was something a little bigger-picture, something surprisingly related to my work with colleges and universities.

The not-particularly-happy news about happiness, according to the studies cited in the article, is that, in cultures around the world, people tend to start out happy and get increasingly less so, until they hit a collective rock bottom at age 46. Ouch.

The good news is that, as people continue to age, they report feeling happier and happier until their mid-80s, when (on average) they’re happier than they’ve ever been.

As I stared at the U-shaped chart, pondering all the ways I might feel happier in the future, I realized that I’ve seen this same graph before in our research with alumni.

Alumni tend to stay involved with their school for the first few years after graduation. But then engagement drops, bottoming out with alums in their 40s. It then begins to rise, with greater engagement and positive feelings as they age into retirement.

Common sense and our own research suggest that alums in their 40s are the most time-starved cohort, with jobs, kids, houses, and 401Ks taking up time and energy. So they have less time to devote to life’s optional commitments, like alumni events and class reunions. The Economist article made me wonder how happiness factors into the equation. If you don’t feel particularly good about your life, are you less likely to want to connect with your school and fellow alums? ...

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Categories: Demographics, Engagement, Fundraising, Higher ed, Research findings
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March 04, 2010

Layoffs in Cincinnati underscore the darker side of the museum financial picture

Yesterday’s announcement of cuts at the Cincinnati Art Museum reminds us not to get cocky about an economic recovery any time soon. It also highlights the need for more rethinking and risk.

AAM’s new survey showing attendance increases at a majority of American museums in 2009, which I blogged about last week, also made no bones about the financial stress that many museums are (still) feeling: 41% reported moderate financial stress and more than a quarter (26%) pegged their stress as severe.

Count the Cincinnati Art Museum among the latter. According to a somber email sent to members yesterday by the museum’s director, Aaron Betsky, the museum has laid off four staff and eliminated another two positions through attrition. It will also reduce its exhibition slate, which presumably means cancelling some already-scheduled shows. Betsky doesn’t say which ones, nor which departments the layoffs took place in. (The staff was informed of all this on Friday.)

Unfortunately, this is a familiar story these days, although of course that won’t blunt the pain for the staff members who were let go. But what caught my eye in Betsky’s email was the titles of two upcoming exhibitions that have not been cancelled:

...[T]here will be fewer exhibitions, but you will still be able to enjoy Wedded Perfection beginning in October, and The Amazing American Circus Poster beginning in February, 2011.

Hold on a minute. I don’t know enough about either show to say this with confidence (nothing is available online about Wedded Perfection, and the circus poster exhibition appears to be from the museum’s own collection, organized in collaboration with the Ringling Museum), but by their titles these don’t appear to be the kind of energetic, risk-taking programs you might expect a museum in dire straits to offer in order to improve its fortunes. They sound like business as usual.

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Categories: Innovation, Museums, Research findings, State of the arts, Visual art
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February 26, 2010

Better news about museum attendance

This morning the American Association of Museums released the findings of its new Survey of Museum Attendance and Finances, which showed fairly widespread gains in visitorship in '09. This further complicates the picture painted by other recent studies.

AAM surveyed its member museums last month to learn, among other things, how attendance had fared in '09 compared to '08. (Full disclosure: I’m on the advisory council for AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums.) More than half (57%) of museums reported an increase, and the good news extended across most museum categories, from art to history. A whopping 81% of science and technology centers reported an increase, which makes sense given the importance of family time and entertainment during economic downturns. (We don’t know how much of the growth in this category came at the IMAX box office. Hollywood itself had a record year, at least in terms of revenue.) Yet the category that includes zoos, aquariums, nature centers, and botanic gardens — many of which also serve that family, infotainment-seeking audience — was the least likely to report gains, with only 50% saying visitation had increased. Go figure.

Some relationships that caught my eye:

  • Museums that offer free admission were more likely to report increased attendance than ones that charge (67% vs. 55%). This puts another arrow in the quiver of advocates for free museums. Interestingly, museums with suggested admission fees performed the same as ones that charge a fixed amount, perhaps because, in practice, suggested policies often look and feel a lot like mandatory ones. (Not incidentally, more museums are charging now than in '08.) 

  • Larger museums were more likely to feel economically stressed than smaller ones. This makes sense because large museums tend to have larger endowments that they’ve traditionally relied on, and investment income was the hardest-hit source of revenue (followed by corporate and government support…all of which affirms the conclusion from our first CultureQ dialogue). 

  • Museums in New England were most likely to feel that economic stress, and museums in the Mountain and Plains states were least likely. This one is murkier: I’m guessing it has to do with economic factors, population shifts, and museum-specific factors such as the geographic distribution of larger-budget museums and museums that have expanded during the building boom of the last two decades.

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Categories: Arts participation, Culture sector, Museums, Research findings, State of the arts
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January 22, 2010

Upcoming webcast: a lecture on demographic change

The Center for the Future of Museums hosts a talk by Los Angeles Times columnist Gregory Rodriguez on cultural transformation. It’s not just for museums.

The free webcast is next Wednesday, January 27 at 2pm Eastern time. You’ll need to register here.

The lecture was actually given by Rodriguez in Washington, DC in December and taped for this webcast. But he’ll be online Wednesday for a live Q&A, and there will also be a panel discussion.

Rodriguez is a big name in the world of demographic change, ethnicity, and policy, especially on Latino issues. He was asked by Elizabeth Merritt, who runs the new Center for the Future of Museums at the American Association of Museums (AAM), to turn his gaze on cultural institutions and speculate about how demographic shifts will affect them.

You can get a glimpse of his thinking in an op-ed column he wrote after giving the talk, “Big Tent Salvation for the Arts.”

In audience research and evaluation, we’re often asked to study Latino populations as a distinct group with its own special needs. But that can be a form of segregation, or at least compartmentalization. It might be smarter — and it will probably become necessary, anyway — to try to integrate our understanding of Latinos and other growing minorities in every “general” study we conduct.

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Categories: Demographics, Higher ed, Museums, Other nonprofits, Performing arts, Research findings, Strategy and strategic planning
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January 21, 2010

The truth doesn't have to hurt

An Onion headline caught my eye because it jokes about something close to home: the self-interest at the heart of many institutions’ audience research efforts.

I do empathize with the joke at the core of the article, from back in September, “University Of Illinois Researchers Find Link Between Attending University Of Illinois, Receiving Solid Education At Great Price.” Isn’t that the dream that everyone has for the audience research projects they fund or lead? How could an organization go into audience research not hoping that it emerges with a report validating its worth and proving its indispensability in stark black and white (or better yet, colorful graphs and charts)? 

(On a related note, check out a post that my colleague Cheryl wrote on advocacy vs. empiricism. She could have used the same Onion headline.)

For the people within institutions who are responsible for research, hesitation and nervous anticipation about what the study will uncover are natural. What if the report highlights the areas in which we’re most vulnerable as an organization? Areas where we fall short? Or initiatives that have cost a lot of money but haven’t yet had a measurable impact on my audience or mission? Am I supposed to feel proud to share findings like those? How will I get funders and board members to trust my decisions and open up their wallets to me after research findings like that?

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Categories: Performing arts, Research findings, Research issues, Strategy and strategic planning
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January 20, 2010

First “National Arts Index” pegs the problems

You don’t have to be a research wonk to be excited about the debut of the National Arts Index today. But the picture it paints is hardly cheerful.

The index, which was introduced at a press conference in DC this morning after four years of development, comes from Americans for the Arts, an advocacy-centric organization not known for spreading bad news about the state of the arts sector. But this looks to me, at a quick read, like an empirical synthesis of a wide range of relevant data — some 76 different metrics in four broad categories, many of them new to me. It’s the closest we’re likely to get in the cultural sector to a holistic portrait, and better yet it’ll be trackable over time.

Hats off to Randy Cohen, AFTA’s VP of Local Arts Advancement and former head of research, and his co-developer of the index, Roland J. Kushner, a business professor at Muhlenberg College.

As you can see from the graph, they applied their indexing method not just to the most recent year for which data is available, 2008, but the previous ten years for context. And the trends don’t look very healthy.

Sure, the recession plays a major role here. But the report doesn’t shy away from more systemic, long-term problems: a shrinking share of charitable giving going to the arts; steadily declining attendance at mainstream cultural institutions; and tremendous growth in the number of nonprofit arts organizations and accompanying growth in supply, with demand not keeping up. And that latter problem will only be exacerbated in the long run by the nominally good news here that more students are earning arts degrees.

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Categories: Metrics, Performing arts, Research findings, State of the arts, Visual art
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Based in Chicago with an office in Boston, we help museums, performing arts organizations, and informal science institutions take a fresh look at their audiences and discover new ways to deepen the connection and broaden participation. More »

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Asking Audiences explores the fast-changing landscape in which arts and cultural organizations meet their public. What does relevance look like today? More »

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