A new analysis of survey data compiled by the National Endowment for the Arts since 1982 shows that blacks and Latinos have suffered from a collapse in arts education, and that their young-adult rates of arts attendance have declined far more than for whites.
Childhood arts education "has played such a vital role … by developing the potential audience" for the arts, the researchers from the University of Chicago wrote. "If these trends continue, the health of the arts ecosystem will be in jeopardy."
Another study released recently by the NEA contradicts the conventional wisdom that declining arts attendance in recent years reflects a failure to recruit post-baby boom generations to follow their elders into performance halls and museums.
As a whole, the second study suggested, newer generations are not significantly less inclined toward the arts — instead, there just aren't enough of them to go around. A much bigger problem, the analysis contends, is the dwindling, for reasons that are not clear-cut, of a specific kind of arts fan: the "omnivore" who relishes a wide range of attractions and attends far more frequently than others, accounting for nearly 60% of arts admissions.
The findings reflect number-crunching of already-existing data the NEA had collected with help from the U.S. Census Bureau from 1982 to 2008. The most recent survey showed that 34.6% of Americans attended an arts event in 2008, down from 39.4% in 2002.
The authors are Nick Rabkin and E.C. Hedberg of the University of Chicago (arts education) and Mark J. Stern of the University of Pennsylvania.
The education study found that declines began with the generation that began school in 1972, coinciding with reductions in school budgets and the "back to basics" educational movement.
In 2008, 58% of whites ages 18 to 24 reported having taken at least one arts class during their life, a 2% drop from 1982. The drop was much bigger for the nation's two largest minorities — from 51% to 26% for blacks, and from 47% to 28% for Latinos.
The percentage of 18- to 24-year-olds who said they had attended at least one arts event (jazz, classical music, opera, musical or non-musical plays, dance or art museums) during the year before they were surveyed fell slightly for whites during the 26 years — from 44% to 42%. Attendance rates for nonwhites fell from 38% to 25%.
Among children of college graduates, 73% surveyed in 2008 had taken at least one arts class, down from 88% in 1982. For others — presumably less wealthy — arts education became a rarity, plunging from 70% to 34% for children of high school graduates, and from 54% to 13% if their parents lacked a diploma.
The challenge, the authors conclude, is to end policymakers' "fundamental misunderstandings and underestimates" of arts education's value, which will require "a body of solid research" linking specific kinds of arts schooling to gains in overall educational achievement.
The study on age and arts attendance found that the reason audiences are getting older is not that today's young people are significantly less interested in the arts, but that there simply are too few of them to follow in the footsteps of aging baby boomers.
The share of 18- to 29-year-olds in arts audiences fell from 33% in 1982 to 21% in 2008. But using mathematical adjustments that accounted for the difference in size between the generations, Stern found that the decline was just 3% rather than 12% — a difference that's "extremely modest." While the aging of the arts audience is real, he said, it's mainly because fewer young people are available, rather than the available young people being dramatically less interested than their Boomer parents were at the same age.
More damaging, Stern found, is the decline of avid "omnivores," who have accounted for 58% of arts attendance from 1982 to 2008 while averaging just 13% of the population. In 1982, he said, 15% of Americans fit the "omnivore" description; but in 2008 only 10%, accounting for most of the decline in arts attendance. Aging makes people less omnivorous, Stern found, and education is crucial, with 34% of people with graduate degrees but just 7% of high school graduates fitting the description. Also, people born between 1935 and 1954 have been more omnivorous than others. That, Stern says, could mean that the omnivore style was "a transitional stage in our cultural development" that helped loosen strict boundaries between "high," "middlebrow" and "low" culture. Now, "a more personal, flexible and protean approach to cultural engagement," exists, and arts organizations' offerings need to become more flexible and varied in response.