By Barry Johnson
A new analysis of the National Endowment for the Arts participation survey from 2008, which basically revealed that attendance is plummeting at most traditional arts events, has sussed out the prime factor in the decline. It's the decline of both "omnivore" and "high brow" audience members.
An "omnivore" is someone who goes to a wide variety of arts events -- art exhibitions, plays, musicals -- and goes frequently, around one a month. The study defined "high brows" as those who go to a lot of events, but usually confine themselves to the symphony or ballet. And those categories declined dramatically from 1982 to 2008. Omnivores went from 15 percent of the population to 10 percent, a drop of one-third. And they attended around 10 percent fewer events per year. High brows declined from a little more than 7 percent of the population to 5 percent. Their attendance at individual events went down, too, around 10 percent.
How important are omnivores and high brows to arts groups? If we think of it in political terms, they are the base. Together, they account for more than 50 percent of survey respondents who reported any attendance at arts events, and their decline in numbers and attendance at individual events accounted for around 80 percent of the drop in attendance the NEA reported between 2002 and 2008, when the overall decline was the sharpest.
A few more findings:
1. The cohort (WW II, boomer, Gen X, Gen Y) you are in doesn't seem to have much predictive value on arts attendance overall.
2. Omnivores tend to be younger, though Early Boomers (born before 1955) and the WW II generation are more omnivorous than other cohorts.
3. Omnivores, like all arts event attendees, tend to have more education.
If we translate some of this information to the Portland, Oregon, context, we'd expect to find around 200,000 omnivores and 100,000 high brows (you can't imagine how much I hate that term), a total of 300,000 people in a population of 2.2 million or so in the metro area. And that 300,000 would account for a lot of attendance at local events, though I'm assuming that they also go to museums outside of Portland and Oregon, not to mention theater, dance, music, poetry readings, etc.
Not to be a Portland exceptionalist, but it's possible that we have even more omnivores than most cities, because our younger cohorts are better educated and the opportunities to intersect with the arts casually here is greater. They are "over-represented" at First Thursday and Friday, for example. They drive the thriving indie club scene and the comics conventions here. And yes, they'd probably consider both of those "arts." The trick for "legacy" arts organizations is to figure out how to attract them to their concert halls and theaters. Or, as I have argued, figure out a way to meet them on their own turf somehow, when that's possible.
Anyway, 300,000 is a lot of people actively engaged in local culture, one way or another, a great base to build on. One question: Is the "social" effect of going out and seeing things "live" as opposed to watching them on screens of various sorts powerful enough to keep our omnivores happily buying tickets? And a related question: Is that pattern embedded in our culture at this point? Do our omnivores feel that leaving their nests for the excitement of tracking down art experiences with other people is now part of what it means to be a Portlander? I'm inclined to think so. Of course, I'm a bubbling optimist most of the time!
I have a personal stake in this whole omnivore thing, because Arts Dispatch is written by and for omnivores, primarily, though if you're not an omnivore and still a regular visitor, then cheers! I think the possibility of finding satisfaction in our theaters and galleries and concert halls is greater now than it has ever been. And I think the benefits to the society as a whole of a rich cultural environment can't be underestimated. Obviously, I believe that observing, reflecting, reporting and talking about that cultural environment has benefits, too, and now that I know that my potential audience is 200,000, I want to ask: Where are you guys? And more seriously: What I can do to help make your experiences, both here and out in the world, better?
One caveat: I do have some serious doubts about surveys. Not about the mathematics of polls: The science is advanced enough to generate good data, especially if the question is an easy one -- are you likely to vote in the next Presidential election, for example. But when we are asked more complicated questions, or questions that have complicated answers, the ability of the poll to measure us declines. I'm sure someone has done a study that proves this. And if I'm dead wrong, please let me know!
The NEA's participation survey, which involves questions about how many times I've attended particular types of arts events in the previous year, is a difficult one. I have no idea. My brain doesn't work that way. A year? I could probably recreate the past few weeks accurately and swiftly enough to answer a phone survey, but beyond that, I'd just be guessing. And I don't think I'm that unusual, though maybe everyone else keeps better tabs on things than I do.
Several local arts groups are participating in a program that dumps their attendance data into a common "pot" so that it can be analyzed for such things as the prevalence of "omnivores." I don't think they've started punching out any data yet, but when they do, maybe they'll let us know what they find, because it has ramifications for us all. For that matter, I'd like to see a "total attendance" number for all of our arts groups combined. Again, it would miss things such as First Thursday and Doug Fir, but it would be very interesting to track.
Oh, and take the survey! It's just for fun. And you can define "arts event" any way you want.
UPDATE: Yes, an "omnivore" update in the form of an engaging post on NPR about the joys of omniver-ation...