The NEA's Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, conducted in May 2008 (before the current economic downturn), reported that 34.6% of adults had gone at least once in the previous 12 months to an art museum or seen a play, jazz performance, classical concert, opera or dance -- the lowest percentage in a quarter century. Those who did attend went less frequently, averaging about five times a year instead of six. Only two arts categories -- musical theater and non-ballet dance performances -- enjoyed attendance growth.
The arts' share of the potential audience of all Americans 18 and older shrank 4.4% overall since 1982, having actually risen a fraction of a percent before a decline over the last six years. The movies' share of adults plummeted more than twice as fast from 1982 to 2008. As for sporting events, the percentage of adults who attended has fallen four times faster since 1982 than for the arts.
"A lot of times sports is better on television -- instant replay, the comfort of your chair, the close-ups," said Steven Wolff, principal of AMS Planning & Research, a consulting company that mainly advises large performing arts centers. "An arts experience is essentially a live experience, and it's an intimate experience. I think that's helping to keep people going."
The arts, moviegoing and sporting events are all in the same precarious boat now because "people have more options than they ever did before," said Andrew Taylor, director of the Bolz Center for Arts Administration at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Sharing a problem with commercial entertainment juggernauts probably won't make arts folk feel less anxious about the NEA survey results, Taylor said. "The general sense is that the way Americans are engaging in arts and culture is drastically changing for the long haul, and we're not sure what to do with it."
In raw numbers, the NEA survey concluded that 77.8 million adults attended at least one arts exhibition or performance during 2007-2008. Major League Baseball counted 78.6 million attendees during its 2008 season -- including children and repeat customers. The movies recently have claimed an upswing at the box office despite the recession, but unlike the arts and sports, Hollywood generally publishes attendance results in dollars spent, not people seated.
Even if the arts have done better than movies and sports in holding on to their in-person audience, they don't reap the staggering sums that film studios and sports leagues enjoy from selling broadcast and video rights. The arts live in an economic straitjacket, rising or falling by their box office, and by the generosity of donors.
Reasoning that attendance declines have been hastened partly by the Internet and other electronic media nabbing increasing chunks of people's time, the NEA for the first time tried to get detailed information about where the arts stand when it comes to Americans' online and electronic viewing and listening. It found that 41.5% of adults had read about the arts online, 21.1% connected to performances via computer -- most of them at least once a week -- and 14.1% looked at visual art.
The U.S. Census Bureau handled the questioning, reaching 12,518 respondents for a representative demographic and geographic sampling of Americans 18 and older.
Echoing the NEA's findings is the separate American Time Use Survey by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, released in June and based on responses gathered in 2008. It depicts in detail what Americans ages 15 and older say they do all day -- including about 5 hours and 12 minutes a day spent on leisure and sports, up 1.4% from 2003. Within that broader category, the tiny, six minutes a day segment called "Arts and entertainment (other than sports)," fell by a 10th. Women, who, according to the NEA survey, make up a disproportionate majority of the arts audience, said they had 20% less time for arts and non-sports entertainment than they had five years earlier. Americans' daily television time rose 7.4%, to 2 hours and 46 minutes.
Besides declining audiences, the NEA survey also points to a devastating retreat in arts education, justifying arts organizations' oft-expressed fears about losing the next generation of customers. Only 2 out of 10 people ages 18 to 24 had taken a visual arts class in 2008, compared with 4 out of 10 in 1982. Fewer than four out of 10 in that age group had studied music, compared with more than 6 out of 10 in 1982. This is especially bad news, NEA Research Director Sunil Iyengar said, given other studies that draw a close correlation between arts education as a youngster and arts patronage as an adult.
Richard Wolfe, a business professor at the University of Victoria in British Columbia and editor of the Journal of Sport Management, said there's a comparable concern as more young potential fans disconnect from the four major North American spectator sports and turn to skateboarding or other action sports -- not to mention video games and social media.
"A real challenge to folks in the sports industry is new digital media and the way technology has affected attendance," Wolfe said. "People can experience sports at their leisure."
In the arts, at least the accelerating pace of technology for watching, listening, browsing, e-mailing and downloading provides a chance to let more people know what's playing. But the actual experience still depends on the real-time human factor of muscle, bone, breath, brain, senses and spirit. Those remain as finite and as infinite as they've ever been.
Iyengar says, "It's kind of crucial for the NEA and arts organizations and artists to start a conversation, which is probably overdue: Qualitatively, what are the differences between live attendance and [experiencing the arts] through media? What are the fundamentals of having audiences connect with the artist, being in their presence? We're capturing some trends and saying, 'For a sustainable ecosystem for the arts, these are some pressure points.' "