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Forecast For Culture Next Year: Optimism

The National Center for Arts Research at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, which I wrote about favorably here in February, is out with its first survey of the health of the “arts industry,” and I must say I am a tad disappointed. For two reasons.

But first, here are the results: After surveying arts leaders in all disciplines, the study found that they in general have a positive outlook for the future of their organizations in areas like attendance, earned revenue, donor support, program quality and so on. For example, although only 30.2 percent of the participants said that “overall conditions for the cultural sector” in their local market were better (including slightly better) today than they were a year ago, 48.3% expect them to be better in the coming year. While 44% percent said attendance was better or slightly this year, versus last, 55.7 % expect it to improve in the coming year. That pattern continues, as you will see if you look at the results.

You can probably guess the first disappointment — this sounds a lot like wishful thinking to me. This questions are about sentiment, and there’s no evidence to back them up. Too, we don’t know if these leaders have a good forecasting sensibility and track record, because this is the first survey. Call me a skeptic on these results.

Secondly, the participants themselves are disappointing, from my point of view. The biggest number came from theater groups (23%), while only 7% came from “visual arts organizations.” That doesn’t sound representative to me. Moreover, 47% of participants came from groups with a budget of less than $250,000. While there are more small groups around the country than large ones, I wish the survey included more large ones. $3 million or more is the largest budget category — that’s just not big enough.

I still hope that this Center lives up to my expectations. This is just a start, and it does say it will continue to probe. But I wonder if coming out with something so flimsy to start was the right move, reputationally.





  1. Judy, were the survey responses anonymous? Or at least confidential?

    If not, then of course the respondents were being overly optimistic. They don’t want to appear defeatist in public; that would do neither them nor their organizations much good.

    As for larger groups participating in the survey – Well, I don’t know who qualifies as a “leader” for the purposes of the survey, but I’d expect that the brass at big institutions would think that they don’t have the time to complete a lengthy survey, and the National Center for Arts Research isn’t yet so solidly established that said brass would feel they had to make time for its surveys.

    • Matthew, I am sure they are confidential if not anonymous. You can check out the titles of respondents on one of those links — but the survey was hardly lengthy. It would have taken 5 minutes to complete.

      • The problem isn’t that the survey actually took five minutes to complete. The problem is convincing the leaders whom you want to take the survey that it will only require five minutes – overcoming the I-don’t-have-time-to-think-about-this-right-now reaction we’re all familiar with.

        And I do think that many respondents would approach – by default, not necessarily consciously – such a survey with a mindset of “how will what I say here affect my organization and/or me personally?” rather than just answering the damn questions candidly.

        That factor would tend to lead to overly optimistic responses: respondents would probably see little potential upside and plenty of potential downside to saying anything negative or pessimistic.

        • You are reinforcing my point: this wasn’t a great start for the Center. It’s not helping the Center gain credibility and make people want to cooperate.

          • Absolutely.

            I didn’t mean to defend the Center or people who didn’t respond or respondents who were overly optimistic.

            I was just floating some ideas as to why the study came out as you describe.

  2. Jim VanKirk says

    Well it confirms my view of the Arts and Art involved foundations doesn’t it? If you eliminate the percentage of bureaucratic well-wishing you’re left with a very bleak present.

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