Declining Arts Participation: A Topic for Broad-Based National Dialogue

Earlier this year the National Endowment for the Arts released its 2008 Arts Participation Survey, and the picture it paints is worrisome. The study was done in May, 2008, six months into the recession, and certainly we can draw a conclusion that some of what it tells us was probably affected by the economy. But I think we would be hiding our heads in the sand if we argued that the economy was the sole cause of what looks like a continuing and increasing decline in attendance at all arts events, particularly classical music, in this country.
For example, in the area called "classical music"--and remember, those responding to the survey identify the terms and categories, not the NEA--in 1982, the year of the first such study by the NEA, 13 percent of the U.S. population reported attending at least one classical music event. In 1992, that number was almost the same, 12.5 percent. In 2002 it was down to 11.6 percent. And in 2008, it stood at 9.3 percent. Opera had been holding its own, with numbers ranging from 3.0 percent to 3.3 percent in the earlier years, but was at 2.1 percent in 2008. Jazz, non-musical plays, and ballet all showed similar drops. Musical plays showed the smallest drop.

Delving further into the survey, one finds that the cliché about classical music audiences getting older is true--and may be escalating. According to the NEA study, the median age of classical music attendees was 40 in 1982, and is now 49! And there were significant drops not only in the 18-24 age group (a 37 percent decline), but even in the 45-54 age group (a 33 percent decline).

Adding to this is the economic pressure being faced across the country by orchestras and other performing arts organizations--I know the orchestra world better, so that is the one to which I can refer--and the picture is not encouraging. As attendance declines, so will contributed support, particularly as donors begin to feel that there is a growing estrangement between classical music and the American culture as a whole.

One retired orchestra administrator recently posited that there should be a big national meeting about the future of orchestras, and that anyone who ever managed an orchestra should be barred from attending, because we can't keep doing the same old things. While I agree that we must seriously consider change, that is clearly too drastic a way to do it. People who have managed orchestras do, in fact, know a lot. However, it may well be time to bring people who have managed orchestras together with a wide range of experts from other areas of life in America. That might include those in universities who study the consumption of culture in our country, and in universities that are educating the next generation of citizens. And it might include representatives from other art forms, as well as from areas of popular culture at whom some of us may instinctively (and wrongly) turn up our noses--areas such as broadcasting, electronic media, films, and the sports world. What's needed is an ongoing dialogue among all voices, exploring all ideas with an open mind, with provocative and even weird thinking to prod that dialogue.

If we believe that experiencing art has the possibility of being life-changing, we had better start working to assure the continuation of a healthy, vital, varied artistic life in America. I love the John Updike quote that the NEA puts at the head of its survey:

    Whatever art offered men and women of the previous eras,
    What it offers our own, it seems to me, is space -
    A certain breathing room for the spirit.


A recent article in the Boston Globe might be of interest to readers of this blog. You can read it here:

-Henry Fogel

October 23, 2009 10:12 AM | | Comments (6)



I've attended more concerts in the past two years than ever before - but many that would not be considered "Classical." I've spent most of my career in music - as an administrator with orchestras and now at a music conservatory. These days I find some of the most rewarding concert experiences outside the traditional concert hall: in clubs and smaller venues, or at music festivals, often performed by conservatory trained musicians who have pursued alternative careers. It's been an interesting and rewarding experience and on top of that, it's been fun.

An easy way to revive the American public's interest in the arts is to expose children at a very young age. If children received education in classical music in the same capacity as math, science, or English, they would grow up as adults with an appreciation and understanding of the artistic community. Ignorance is largely to blame for the lack of interest in classical music.

I do agree with the comment above me in that Orchestras and other large ensembles need to get more involved with their audiences and communities. There is a lot of work to do if we want to rebuild our audiences.

In case I posted the wrong url for an Anne Midgette review in my previous post, here it the correct url:


When orchestras recognize that at least part of their regular offerings need to be geared toward the novice and the family with school-age children, then we will finally begin to reverse this problem. Houston Symphony surveys 15 years ago indicated that parents with school-age children did not see the Symphony as something they could do together on the weekends with their families, yet still to this day, musicians are stumped when asked to recommend programs for the friend who wants to bring their 13-year-old, lest we turn them off classical music with the wrong offerings. We exhaust audiences with homogeneous theme programs rather than the variations of the past. You yourself wrote an article in 2004 questioning the disappearance of the lighter side of the classical repertoire from classical subscriptions.

When we stop expecting our audiences to take shortcuts to appreciation rather than going through the same gradual process we did, from Carmen and Strauss waltzes to the complexities of Electra and Schoenberg, then we will begin to rebuild our classical audiences.


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