Tuesday, January 25, 2011

In other news: The Arts Index was down 3.6 points

By Barry Johnson

The National Arts Index closed the year 2009 DOWN 3.6 points, according to the annual study commissioned by the non-profit advocacy group, Americans for the Arts.

Built on 81 separate reports of arts activity, the index is always a year behind, so it's not surprising that 2009 wasn't very good. Maybe it's surprising that it wasn't truly dismal -- because some of those individual reports certainly were.
  • Art museum visits were down 19 points from 2003, the baseline year in the Index, and the population share of museum visitors was down more than a quarter.
  • Attendance at symphony, dance, opera and theatre was down 25 points.
  • Philanthropic giving to the arts was down 11 points.
  • State funding of the arts was down substantially. 
  • Non-profits struggled financially, with more than 40 percent running deficits in 2009.
  • Between 2003 and 2009, the percentage of the population attending art museums and performing arts 
    events both decreased (‐19 percent and ‐22 percent, respectively).
I'm interested in "audience engagement" numbers, and those were mixed. Yes, attendance at theaters, museums and concert halls was down, but five percent more of the population made their own art in 2009 than in 2003.   And the number of people employed in the arts stayed steady as the number of non-profit arts organizations increased. The level of activity was high, even though it wasn't supported as well nor seen by as many people.

The overall index includes publishing, popular music and movie attendance data, tracking the decline of CD and book sales, for example, as both the music and publishing businesses struggled to find new business models to support themselves. So, they are taking "arts" broadly. I have no idea how they are accounting for developments in self-publishing, self-recording, small-scale movie making, etc. Data I've seen indicates that the raw number of books published in the U.S. these days is enormous, though in microscopic editions, for example, and that's not taking eBooks into consideration.

Things will be somewhat better in 2010, if the Americans for the Arts analysis is correct, because there's a strong correlation between the health of the arts as measured by the Index and the state of the economy in general. But in the business of measuring "culture," which Simone Weil calls the "formation of attention," not all measurements are equal.

The erosion of attendance at mainline arts organizations, for example, is serious enough for us to question the long-term health of our symphonies, theatres, operas and dance companies, with major consequences for all the artists they support.  Sure, we could be entering a period marked by the flowering of alternative institutions (in fact, in Portland maybe I'd argue that we are), but these generally aren't strong enough to support the same number of artists at the same level as the traditional organizations did (and still do), at least in the beginning.

The Los Angeles Times account by Mike Boehm gets at this, too:
"Perhaps the worst news is that even as the nonprofit and commercial arts have grown in many respects over the last decade, they have continued to lose what the report labels "competitiveness" -- the overall ability to command a "market share" of the public's money and attention. By the study's reckoning, the arts' standing as a competitive force in American life fell nearly 17% from 1999 to 2008. Relying on partial data for 2009, the report estimates that next year's index will show a record 4.6% additional drop in competitiveness."
Clearly, measuring "attention" is difficult. We can only measure behavior that we assume is a result of attention, and it's not quite fair to assume that the absence of this behavior equals the absence of attention in our hundreds of millions of different heads. If I can't afford a theater ticket, perhaps I'm just as engaged and attentive by reading my As You Like It at home. Or staring at my collection of prints. Still, as rough as any number like this is going to be, we shouldn't ignore it.

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