Why Falling Arts Attendance Has Major Implications for the US Economy

Big thinking is needed to turn the trend around.

An infographic from the National Endowment for the Arts about attendance in the arts.

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has released a set of three studies of unprecedented scope into arts engagement and its economic impact in the United States. The studies focus particularly on 2012 but also offer comparative data between previous years in which polls regarding arts attendance were taken. (The older data did not include information about attendees’ motivations or the subsequent economic impact of their engagement.) This latest effort also manages to debunk some of the central myths exploited by arts’s detractors, who reject them as a luxury during a tough economic climate.

First, the basics: the report most heavily flags the 71 percent of the US population that used electronic media to access the arts—this includes music and TV/film streaming services—and the 51 percent of the adults who attended a concert, a performance, or an art exhibit in 2012. At first glance, while not phenomenal, those rates aren’t exactly awful either. But they fail to present the whole picture.

Overall, audiences across the fine arts are falling. Attendance to what the report calls “benchmark arts activities” (jazz events, classical music performances, opera, musical plays, non-musical plays, ballet, and art museums or galleries—singled out due to their having been tracked over time not, the report states, “because of any differential significance or value to the arts”) has been on a steady decline since 1992. In that year, 41 percent of adults attended at least one benchmark art activity. Twenty years later, in 2012, just 33.4 percent of the US adult population attended such an event. And only 21 percent of American adults visited an art museum or gallery in 2012.

Most of us in the art world and in the arts at large likely find that decline troubling. We’ve also most likely come from the portion of the population who attended such events as children and are thus, according to the NEA’s study, three to four times more likely to attend such events as adults. But the decline isn’t exactly surprising either. The last 20-some years have brought a wealth of new entertainments and educational tools to our homes and fingertips thanks to the ever-expanding influence of tech on our lives. That’s brought about a wealth of new ways to access culture too, don’t forget.

An infographic from the National Endowment for the Arts about the economic value of the arts.

An infographic from the National Endowment for the Arts about the economic value of the arts.

A museum director could take the NEA’s report as a call to arm each ticket holder with a bevy of apps, supplementary devices, and “immersive exhibition experiences,” or to create more social spaces for their visitors (see The World’s Best Museums are Coming to Your Smartphone and Museum-goers Are Big Data’s Latest Targets). A whopping 73 percent of arts attendees said their main reason for doing so was to socialize with friends or family, while 22 percent who wanted to participate in an arts activity but didn’t say it was because they didn’t have someone to join them. (For what it’s worth, going to a museum or gallery alone is one of life’s great pleasures; don’t be afraid, America.) But my hunch is that’s not going to move the needle all that much.

That said, there is much to be gleaned from the demographic information presented in the study. But for the sake of brevity, I’ll highlight one particular bullet point that stuck out in highlighting an entrenched perceptual barrier to participation in the arts:

Despite similar household incomes and education, people who call themselves middle-class were more likely to attend the arts than those who identified themselves as working class. Thwarted interest, rather than lack of interest, may be the cause for lower attendance rates among some audiences.

Those two sentences would initially seem to contradict one another. In purely economic terms, the two groups have equal opportunity to participate in arts activities. Yes, there is a likely factor that a working class individual’s schedule may be more irregular or, for example in the case of shift workers, not line up with the post-5 pm, Saturday, and Sunday time slots in which other Americans engage in “leisure” activities such as the arts. I don’t want to downplay the extent to which these class-based labor realities can thwart participation in culture. But the the NEA study also suggests a persistent and entrenched understanding of the arts as for elites by elites, a continuation of the long established history of class-based social realities dictating leisure activities (cheers, Bourdieu). One might have hoped that the arts would have become more inclusive by now.

Instead, to a large extent, it’s gotten worse. Anti-arts rhetoric has become particularly malignant in the years since the economic collapse with many populist-leaning politicians worldwide attacking the arts as unnecessary luxuries that one percent-ers like to enjoy and make the rest of us pay for. However, the NEA’s third report released Monday, The Arts and Cultural Production Satellite Account, manages to swiftly debunk this notion in large part.

An infographic from the National Endowment for the Arts about participation in the arts.

An infographic from the National Endowment for the Arts about participation in the arts.

In 2012, 4.32 percent or $698 billion of US GDP came from the arts. Granted, this includes the film and television industry and, rather oddly, advertising. But, putting that figure next to some other prominent sectors of the US economy shows just how significant the figure is. The construction industry generated over $100 billion less output than the arts in 2012 ($586.7 billion) and the transportation and warehousing industry only made a $464.1 billion contribution to GDP, more than $200 billion less than the arts.

The arts generated a $25 billion trade surplus in 2012, which, in layman’s terms, means that the US exported more cultural goods and services than it imported. That’s a relative rarity on the goods side of the US Economy. In the same year, the US economy as a whole produced a $540.4 billion trade deficit, a figure that had been on a steady rise since the economic collapse and has been cited as a key driver of declining employment opportunities. The arts employs 4.7 million people across the US, and its multiplier effects—that is, the amount of additional benefit to other industries produced by increased demand within the arts sector—are particularly favorable. According to the NEA, “Every $1 increase in the demand for arts and culture generates $1.69 in total output.” And, for every 100 new jobs created in the arts, 62 new jobs are created, on average, in other industries.

The visual arts are particularly strong economic performers, even among the arts at large (see TEFAF Art Market Report Says 2013 Best Year on Record Since 2007). For every dollar of increased spending on artworks, $1.98 of total economic output is created. In the case of museums, every new dollar of demand creates $1.76 of gains. On the jobs side, every new publishing job created (which includes arts management software) produces a whopping 3.5 additional jobs throughout the economy, while each additional professional artist produces an average 2.9 jobs.

Needless to say, decreases in the population-wide demand for attending visual arts exhibitions and events should have more than just aesthetes up in arms. And the solutions to curbing and eventually turning around the trend are going to take a lot bigger thinking than is generally taking place.

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