New National Arts Index measures arts, entertainment

Billed as “the largest data set ever assembled describing arts and culture in America,” the National Arts Index released Monday by the advocacy group Americans for the Arts aims to capture in a single number how the arts and entertainment sector has been doing -- much as the Dow Jones and S&P; indices do for stocks. The news is not good.

The index for 2009 is 97.7, the lowest in the 12 years of data on which the index is calculated. Based on 81 separate measures of how Americans spend and donate their money and time, and how artists (broadly defined) fare as workers, the index seeks to reflect the health not just of the so-called “high” arts dominated by nonprofit organizations but also the commercial arts -- movies, pop music and concerts, books and the market for visual art.

The highest index score, 103.9, was achieved in the economic boom years of 1999 and 2007. The index uses 2003 as its baseline year, with a score of 100.

In the most all-encompassing single measure that feeds into the index, the report says that inflation-adjusted spending on audio and video recordings, movie theaters, educational books, photography, live entertainment (excluding sports) and museum admissions was $157.7 billion in 2009, down 8.6% from its 2006 peak.

The latest attendance and fiscal results paint “a much more dire” picture of the arts than has been seen in the 12 years, said Randy Cohen, head researcher for Americans for the Arts, which consolidated data generated by government agencies, trade associations and nonprofit groups. The latest data available is from 2009.


For the nonprofit arts, chief among a raft of woes are declines in attendance, lower viewership for public television, a drop in donations relative to overall charitable giving and a smaller share of both government spending and the public’s discretionary dollars.

“Predictably, the economic landscape is in large part responsible. It wouldn’t be a surprise if it drops again next year,” said Robert Lynch, president of Americans for the Arts, which is gearing up to try to save federal funding of the arts from being eliminated or drastically slashed in a bid for deep spending cuts that congressional Republicans announced last week.

But the report also shows problems dating back long before the recent recession. In the nonprofit arts, inflation-adjusted revenues rose 21% from 1999 to 2007, but the number of organizations scrounging for a share skyrocketed 60% to 109,000 in 2008. After peaking at $35.8 billion, revenues fell $816 million in 2008.

Perhaps the worst news is that even as the nonprofit and commercial arts have grown in many respects over the last decade, they have continued to lose what the report labels “competitiveness” -- the overall ability to command a “market share” of the public’s money and attention. By the study’s reckoning, the arts’ standing as a competitive force in American life fell nearly 17% from 1999 to 2008. Relying on partial data for 2009, the report estimates that next year’s index will show a record 4.6% additional drop in competitiveness.

“This decline threatens the vitality of the arts,” Cohen and co-author Roland Kushner of Pennsylvania’s Muhlenberg College write. The report does not address the effects of the Internet, either as a competitor or a conduit for arts and entertainment. The researchers write that they are “seeking measures of the effects of technology” for future editions of the National Arts Index.

In the commercial arts, the decline includes the collapse of the recording industry and smaller audiences for pop concerts and touring Broadway productions. Pop concert attendance, 40.4 million in 2009, was down 22% from a 2005 peak of 51.8 million. Moviegoing was up 73 million admissions from 2008 to 2009, but the 1.4 billion ticket sales remained 143 million shy of the 2005 peak. Musical instrument sales have fallen in seven of the last 10 years. Booksellers’ revenues stayed flat in 2009 but are off 13% from their 2004 peak of $19 billion, measured in constant dollars

The number of degrees awarded in the visual and performing arts -- from community colleges to doctoral programs -- declined in 2009 for the fifth consecutive year, to 4% of all higher-education degrees. Also falling is college-bound high school seniors’ intention to major in arts -- from a peak of 7.2% in 2007 to 6.7% in 2009.

The report notes that 57.8 million Americans painted, drew, took pictures or played instruments in 2009, down 4.6% from the 2007 peak.

But Cohen and Lynch see a possible silver lining in such measures as growing numbers of volunteers at nonprofit arts organizations -- up about 200,000 since 2005 and totaling nearly 2 million, reflecting a committed core of support. The decline of arts education, often cited as a key reason attendance is falling, could be reversed, the report says, if school leaders respond to data showing that students who take art or music during all four years of high school consistently score about 9% higher on the SATs than the national average.

“The index shows a trend down that we don’t want to see, but it does not show that people are less interested in the arts,” Lynch said. The challenge, he and Cohen said, is for arts organizations to continue mastering new ways to reach the public, such as the growing move to beam live performances into cinemas.