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Arts attendance declines — again and even more

It’s another of those news items supporters of arts and literature dread. “American audiences for the arts are getting older, and their numbers are declining,” according to a new report from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Although one in three adults reported visiting an art museum or gallery or attending at least one performing arts even in the 12-month period ending in May 2008, only musicals showed no statistically significant change in attendance since 2002. Previous studies have shown a high correlation between education and arts attendance. From 1982 to 2008, however, attendance by college educated adults has declined in each of the performing arts considered, ranging from a 10 percent drop at art museums to a 39 percent drop in classical music and a 43 percent decline for ballet,

Reading was somewhat of a bright spot in the results. The survey showed the percentage of those reading literature increased from 46.7 percent to 50.2 percent between 2002 and 2008. Yet the gain far from offsets prior declines in reading. From 1982 to 2008, the figures dropped 11.8 percent.

The survey also examined the types of books those who read like to read. For fiction readers mysteries are at the top at 32.5 percent. Thrillers appeal to 21.2 percent, romance to 18.3 percent and science fiction to 16.7 percent. That inimitable category, “Other fiction,” came in at 23.8 percent. Things are a bit more evenly spread out in nonfiction, with readers preferring fitness/self-improvement (26.6%), religious text/religion (25.8%), history/politics (23.2%), biographies/memoirs (22.8%) and “other nonfiction” (19.9%).

The report recognizes that the recession and travel costs certainly contributed to the figures. Still, the long-term trends show important demographic changes. For example, those attending performing arts events are increasingly older than the average U.S. adult. In addition, while attendance rates of 18- to 24-year-olds at jazz, classical music, ballet and play performances declined significantly from 2002 to 2008, during the same period the steepest decline for most arts events was among 45- to 54-year-olds, historically a significant proportion of the audiences.

These figures give cause for concern not just because of what they say about American culture. As South Dakota saw earlier this year, tight budgets may lead government to consider cutting funding for the arts. Declining audiences not only provide talking points for such moves, they may also reflect fewer voices speaking out to maintain arts funding.


What would life be without art? Science prolongs life. …. What is the good of living longer if it is only a matter of satisfying the requirements that sustain life? All this is nothing without the charm of art.

Sarah Bernhardt, The Art of the Theatre

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