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June 8, 2007

Engaging Art: The Next Great Transformation of America's Cultural Life

by Douglas McLennan

Engaging Art: The Next Great Transformation of America's Cultural Life
Co-edited by Steven J. Tepper and Bill Ivey

Section 1: Conceptualizing and Studying Cultural Participation

Chapter 1: Engaging Art: What Counts
This chapter argues that the enduring interest in arts participation has shifted from a broad concern with democratic life to a more narrow concern with attendance at non-profit arts institutions. Nonetheless, research reveals strong linkages between arts participation and other forms of social engagement (political and religious), drawing attention to a shared social context and trajectory. Given the similarities, the chapter argues that arts participation should be analyzed within a more coherent framework that considers multiple forms of social involvement. Furthermore, by focusing its attention almost exclusively on attendance, the arts community has largely ignored important forms of engagement, such as artistic practice or citizen art-making. Interestingly, when comparing artistic practice with more traditional measures of attendance, barriers of age, income and education become less significant. This tentative finding implies that citizen engagement in the arts might be healthier than some would think; it also suggests that a broader view of participation can help reconnect the arts with concerns for social equality, individual expression, and participatory democracy.

Chapter 2: Comparing Participation in Arts and Culture
This chapter explores differences in how countries define what it means to participate, how they define the arts, how they construct their questionnaires, and how each study reflects the goals and values of the sponsoring country. In so doing, the chapter raises important questions about how politics, ideology, tradition, and unquestioned assumptions can conspire to shape a country's knowledge about and policies toward the arts. Given that there are so many different approaches to the notion of participation, it is exceedingly difficult to interpret participation rates across countries. Nonetheless, the chapter presents perhaps the most ambitious effort yet to examine a portrait of participation rates across some thirty-five countries, covering more than two dozen different art forms. While the comparisons are imperfect at best, the chapter does provide initial insight as to whether U.S. citizens are as engaged with art and culture as the rest of the world. The chapter concludes with observations based on the juxtaposition of these data and some thoughts about the future of cross-national comparisons in the context of larger cultural policy trends.

Chapter 3: Multiple Motives, Multiple Experiences: The Diversity of Cultural Participation
This chapter argues that existing policy discussions of diversity and the arts are too narrowly focused on either the demographic makeup of audiences or the inclusion of less traditional art forms. The author suggests that a further broadening is needed--one that encompasses the diversity of motivations and experiences associated with cultural participation. The survey research presented in this chapter shows that people attend different types of cultural events for distinct reasons. For instance, most people who attend museums say they are strongly motivated by a desire to gain knowledge or learn something new. In contrast, people who attend music performances or plays are primarily motivated by the chance to socialize with friends and family. Moreover, different groups of people exhibit a variety of reasons for their attendance. For example, African American and Hispanic survey respondents were far more likely than white respondents to express a desire to learn about or celebrate their cultural heritage as a major motivation. Finally, the chapter demonstrates that "frequent attendees" have a unique profile - they have a wider variety of interests and motivations as well as the ability to derive fulfillment from an array of activities--both cultural and otherwise. The chapter concludes with the observation that strategies that fail to take the diversity of motivations and experiences into account will hinder, rather than advance, efforts to understand and to promote cultural participation.

Chapter 4: In and Out of the Dark: A Theory about Audience Behavior from Sophocles to Spoken Word
This chapter argues that, contrary to common wisdom, the perceived decline in arts participation is not the result of waning interest in the fine arts. American audiences are very much as they have always been: looking for similar kinds of satisfaction from their cultural sources. What has changed, however, are the arts themselves, or rather, the culture surrounding arts participation--what the author refers to as the arts experience. The chapter demonstrates that arts audiences prior to the 20th century were much more active, critical, engaged, and vocal. The 20th century witnessed a sacralization of the arts, whereby audiences were effectively silenced and expected to act with restraint and decorum and interpretation was left to experts and critics. The result is an ever-widening interest gap between passive forms of high culture (i.e., orchestral music, theater, and concert dance) and more active types of entertainment (i.e., music concerts, spoken word, slam poetry, and interactive theater) that are either inherently participatory or are connected to opportunities that invite participation before and after the arts event. To support this thesis, this chapter combines a brief history of audience behavior and an analysis of current trends in cultural participation with a theory about the psychology of contemporary adult learning and its relationship to audience engagement.

Section 2: Getting Off the Beaten Path: Investigating Non-traditional Audiences, Places, and Art Forms

Chapter 5: Faithful Audiences: The Intersection of Art and Religion
This chapter explores the relationship between religion, spirituality and the arts and argues that, for most Americans, there is considerable overlap between these spheres of life. The findings from the chapter demonstrate that houses of worship are a significant location for arts participation in America. Moreover, congregations are increasingly drawing upon the arts to revitalize their members through arts festivals, theatre, film, book clubs, visual arts exhibits, and popular music. And, there are several indications that spirituality and the arts actually reinforce each other. One indication of intersection is that adults who express the most serious interest in spirituality are also the most likely to have been exposed to the arts while they were growing up. The prominence of religion in American society means that it cannot be ignored in discussions of the arts; the fact that there are 340,000 congregations in the United States attended by more than a quarter of the adult public every week means that exposure to music and art at church may be more significant for many people than the occasional visit to a museum, theatre or concert hall. While social scientists have long argued that modernization created an enduring fissure between the arts and religion, research into their relationship reveals that these normative assumptions must be set aside long enough to recognize that religion and the arts for most Americans are not mutually exclusive.

Chapter 6: Immigrant Arts Participation: A Pilot Study of Nashville Artists
This chapter examines arts participation and audience composition for immigrant arts and speculates on the future of both in the United States. Based on in-depth interviews with immigrant artists, the study explores the strategies by which these artists and their communities engage with one another. In considering future scenarios, the chapter outlines three possible paths; first, immigrant arts may remain an important social glue for local immigrant communities, but will remain largely invisible for most Americans; second, corporate and nonprofit mainstream arts organizations may engage in market segmentation, leading to both a national expansion and a "ghettoization" of immigrant arts, artists, and audiences; third, immigrant arts and artists may increasingly intersect with dominant forms of culture, creating hybridization, inter-cultural exchange, and increased exposure to new audiences. The likelihood of these outcomes is influenced by six factors: (1) internal tensions within immigrant communities; (2) economic pressures; (3) artistic networks; (4) organizational capacity; (5) grant support; and (6) artistic medium.

Chapter 7: Artistic Expression in an Age of Participatory Culture: How and Why Young People Create
This chapter offers a glimpse into the art worlds of seven young people, ages thirteen to twenty-eight who are engaged in a variety of creative acts - from composing music to designing video games, comic books, and costumes. Through these case studies, the authors argue that today's youth are finding new ways to express themselves, discovering communities of like-minded creators, developing reputations and finding audiences for their work and defining their identities in terms of what they create. This activity embodies a new form of participatory culture and grassroots creativity, made possible in part by new tools of media production. In such a world, art is integrated into people's everyday lives and is not necessarily a special event like a concert or sanctified space such as a museum or opera house. In this new environment, there are relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement and a strong sense of social connection, where participants are involved in informal mentorship and in giving and sharing opinions about what they and others have created. The chapter argues that young people are not disconnecting from the arts; they are connecting to art in new and unpredictable ways. Arts institutions need to understand the worlds within which these young artists create and consume media. This may require rethinking their traditional roles as curators of the arts and instead embracing a new and potentially unfamiliar role as facilitators of participatory culture.

Section 3: New Technology and Cultural Change

Chapter 8: Music, Mavens and Technology
With the increasing spread of information technologies, a growing number of options are available for users to try new cultural products. The rise of new digital media has changed not only how artists create and distribute content, but also how listeners find and access new material. The new options exist in the context of older traditions such as using one's social networks or traditional media to find content. This chapter looks at the largely unexplored terrain of how young consumers of cultural products find music that is new to them in an environment with an unprecedented number of possibilities. Based on a survey of college students across three universities, the chapter explores the role of new technology in fostering "variety seeking" in musical consumption. The authors find that while students certainly do use digital media to find music new to them, social networks and traditional media such as the radio continue to play a very important role in the course of exploration. Discovering new music, books, films, and other forms of entertainment is a social process. It is social both because our friends and acquaintances provide us with valuable information as we navigate a crowded marketplace in search of "the stuff we like best" and because our connection to others is forged, in part, by discovering culture together. Policy makers who want to elicit more "variety seeking" and "discovery" should invest in or work with those technologies that facilitate social exchange. They should also pay special attention to those networks that connect people across different social worlds, thereby increasing the chance that cultural discovery will cut across boundaries rather than servicing existing preferences and tastes.

Chapter 9: Audiences for the Arts in the Age of Electronics
This chapter argues that citizens are experiencing an epochal, technology-induced change in artistic expression and production as well as in audience participation and expectations. This change emerges from growing intimacy with and dependency on electronics, including, but not limited to, televisions, satellites, computers, and various types of telephones. This chapter argues that electronics, or new technology more generally, has the potential to transform cultural engagement in at least four ways: (1) creating environments where multitasking is common and connectivity is continuous; (2) influencing the depth, concentration, and focus of engagement; (3) allowing for more interactive experiences with art and entertainment; and (4) facilitating the personalization and customization of media and art. Ultimately, the chapter suggests that the arts are not "driven" by technology in any simple, unidirectional way. Rather, electronics are just one tool, among many, that creative people can use to enrich, expand and enliven the experience of audiences.

Chapter 10: Can There Ever be Too Many Flowers Blooming?
This chapter explores recent trends in the explosion of cultural choice. The author examines existing literature and research related to the negative psychological consequences of "choice overload" and applies these lessons to the domain of art and culture. The author maintains that when people are overloaded they will (1) opt for the known entity as a way to avoid facing unlimited options; (2) rely on filters; and (3) become more passive in their participation in cultural life. In addition, if the characteristics of choice in the material domain hold true for culture as well, people will also get less satisfaction out of the cultural choices they make, and they will increasingly opt out altogether. This he argues is the ultimate paradox: cultural pluralism leading to individual isolation, and cultural energy leading to individual passivity. In light of these findings, the author examines how to limit the range of cultural possibilities, in the service both of individual empowerment and collective democratic participation. Cultural creativity crucially relies on the process of selection and depends on diverse, discerning, and engaged filters.

Chapter 11: By the Numbers: Lessons from Radio
This chapter focuses on the process of rationalization that many arts organizations experience as they grow and become more professionalized. In particular, the author focuses on the use of data and information as strategies to more effectively and efficiently reach audiences and by which to measure success. The author uses radio as a case study because it is the most rationalized of the culture industries and because it systematically produces and analyzes market research data in order to guide decisions about artistic production. This chapter attempts to answer three broad questions. The first is simply what sorts of data exist? There is a wide variety of data available, but in general it can be divided into data about listeners and data about songs. The second question is who uses these data and how? Finally, the chapter draws explicit parallels between contemporary uses of radio and the ways systematic research may be used by, and in turn may change, other cultural fields. The case of public radio stations shows how rationalization is not limited to commercial, lowbrow fields but extends to nonprofit, highbrow fields as well. To the extent that other cultural organizations are adopting this path, this chapter addresses the challenge of how an organization can ensure that rationalization supports rather than challenges or distorts its artistic and/or public mission.

Section 4: Revisiting Cultural Participation and Cultural Capital

Chapter 12: Arts Participation as Cultural Capital in the United States, 1982-2002: Signs of Decline?
This chapter investigates whether the arts have become less prominent in the United States as markers of distinction and status, or what sociologists call "cultural capital." Analyzing 20 years of data from the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, the authors consider whether trends in arts attendance are consistent with the notion of a decline. They find that trend data are not consistent with the "decline" scenario, but do suggest change in the position of different arts genres within cultural capital and ongoing attrition in the audience for many of the arts. Attendance rates for the youngest cohorts at high-culture performing arts activities (classical music, ballet, theatre) have noticeably declined. But, these declines are not isolated to high-culture, and are even more pronounced for such activities as visiting arts fairs or historic sites. Moreover, rates have declined more slowly for college graduates than those with less education - suggesting that arts attendance remains a form of cultural capital for the more privileged members of society. Two changes are evident: first, greater elite and general interest in the visual arts and jazz and less in classical music, ballet, and theatre (trends consistent with the notion of omnivorousness and eclecticism in cultural consumption); and second, gradual decline among almost all age/gender/education groups in rates of attendance at live cultural events broadly defined, probably reflecting greater competition from at-home entertainment options and changes in population composition and family structure.

Chapter 13: Changing Arts Audiences: Capitalizing on Omnivorousness
This chapter explores the notion of omnivorousness - the taste for a diverse and eclectic range of cultural styles and experiences. Using data from the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, the authors demonstrate that increasingly high-status individuals are shifting away from snobbishness and exclusivity and, instead, are displaying interest in a range of popular as well as traditionally highbrow art forms. One important implication is that knowing whether someone likes the fine arts (e.g., classical music or opera) as compared to popular music is less relevant today for predicting arts participation than knowing whether they like a wide range of types of music. These findings suggest that those who promote the fine arts are not in a zero-sum competition with popular culture and much could be gained by attracting people to participate in arts events through cross promotion with other forms of leisure and entertainment. The chapter also demonstrates that there is a large segment of the population who may not indicate a strong preference for the fine arts but who are otherwise omnivorousness in their tastes and would be potential targets or recruits for fine art offerings. The chapter concludes with recommendations to help facilitate arts policy makers and programmers in tailoring their practices to recruit people, old and young alike, who see the fine arts not as a symbol of exclusion, but as part of their eclectic cultural consumption.

Chapter 14: The Crisis in Culture and Inequality
This chapter explores the relationship between cultural capital, work and inequality. The author argues that high-status culture has changed from the fine arts to eclectic and variable mixes of different forms of art, media, and entertainment. This eclectic or cosmopolitan blend of culture is not only newly valued by high-status people (people with good jobs and education), but it actually helps them in their careers. The world of work is far more complex and volatile than it used to be, so successful professionals in the new economy must connect with others in many different occupations, each with its own artistic and cultural profile. This leads to a crisis in culture and inequality: It is becoming ever-more difficult for disadvantaged people to master high-status culture, which makes it ever-more difficult for them to rise in education, work, or social networks. Whereas higher-status people are diversifying their cultural portfolios and are reaping large gains in social network diversity and work success, poorer citizens find themselves locked in cultural ghettos with a narrowing range of choices and experiences. The author concludes by recognizing the seriousness of the problem, but also suggesting potentially helpful policy options that situate culture as a key tool for addressing social and economic inequality.

Conclusion: The Next Great Transformation: Leveraging Policy and Research to Advance Cultural Vitality
This chapter argues that recent concerns about the "decline" in cultural participation in the U.S. may be overstated. While there are small declines in some art forms - like classical music and theatre attendance - other art forms are experiencing slight increases over the past 20 years - like museum visits and jazz attendance. More importantly, if we broaden our definition of cultural participation, there are signs that America may be witnessing a new renaissance. This renaissance is the result of demographic changes - including the arrival of new immigrants with distinctive and robust cultural lives; new attitudes and approaches to art; and new technologies. Some markers of the new renaissance include expanding choice; the rise of serious amateur art making; the emergence of the "curatorial me;" highly expressive and interactive audiences; and a general move toward a more participatory and democratic culture. But, the benefits of this transformation might not be shared by all Americans equally. Consolidation of media, intellectual property restrictions, inequalities in the labor market and access to technology might create a new cultural divide. The chapter argues that cultural policy must address these potential changes more deliberately and strategically. In particular, we must have clear conception of what constitutes cultural vitality and then set in motion policies to help achieve vitality for all citizens. The chapter suggests that vitality includes three inter-related characteristics - 1) capacity (the ability to make and produce art); 2) choice (access to a wide variety of cultural options); and 3) cultural criticism and connoisseurship (literacy, general knowledge and engaged conversation with others).

Posted by mclennan at June 8, 2007 10:06 AM

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