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.

One of the most important findings, for my money — and one that echoes the latest Survey of Public Participation in the Arts report from the NEA — is that “Personal arts creation by the public is growing steadily (making art, playing music).” People are still finding time and energy to connect to the arts, but they’re doing so expressively and actively rather than receptively. Which may not be unrelated to those declines in attendance at the large, mainstream organizations, whose missions and structures don’t have much to do with participatory engagement.

As for that recession, the authors “estimate an arts rebound to begin in 2011.” (So we have their answer to this month’s CultureQ question. Don’t forget to post yours.)

I’ll have more to say about the Index in the next few weeks. Meanwhile, you can download the summary and full report here. And if you or your institution happen to be a member of Americans for the Arts, you can watch Randy Cohen’s webinar next Thursday, January 27, 2010 at 2:00 PM EST.  (Which unfortunately overlaps with a webcast from the American Association of Museums about the demographic challenges coming down the pike for museums.)

And of course your reactions to, or questions about, the Index are welcome right here.

1 Comment »
Jon Silpayamanant — January 21, 2010

I'd be interested to see that broken down by ethnic group (unless it has in the report--I haven't had a chance to read it). I remember reading some research last year regarding health/nutrition and immigrant populations where one of the studies actually talked about the total economic contribution to restaurants by immigrants as opposed to the non-immigrant population in the US.

Seems that it was almost negligible--meaning that since mainstream dining in the US doesn't necessarily cater to immigrant populations (thus one need for preparing food at home), I wouldn't be too surprise if there would be that kind of disparity with regards to the performing arts as well. I talked about this a bit on you "two cultures of classical music" blog but some other trends I've been seeing locally, and regionally (if not nationally) are grassroots type movements for "non-US" performing arts.

For example, the Indian Classical Music Circle of Indianapolis, sponsors exclusively Indian Arts, Dance, Theatre and Music by bringing in talent from India or fostering support for local artists doing traditional Indian arts.

Also, there was a wonderful paper published in the Asian Music journal titled, "Innovation in the Guise of Tradition: Music among the Chin Population of Indianapolis" which described how inter-congregational support and marketing for live performances and consumption of recordings happens without ever having to open the music to the broader public.

This happens at one of the local Indianapolis Greek Orthodox churches where members of the congregation bring in Arabic artists from Detroit or New York for their quarterly hafli (Arabic parties).

Contrast the previous more private set of circumstances with the growing number of Universities with non-Western music ensembles or even ensembles not affiliated, such as the relatively new New York Arabic Orchestra led by Bassam Saba.

I think not as much gets reported--or rather, if we were to break things down by ethnic populations, we'd see differing trends amongst different groups.

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