Grantmaking for a Broader Definition of Arts Engagement
Sharon DeMark, Foundation Center
In the nearly three decades during which the National Endowment for the Artshas surveyed Americans about their participation in the arts — typically defined as attending events such as jazz or classical concerts, operas, plays, or ballets, or visiting art museums or galleries — participation has shown double-digit rates of decline, with only 35.6 percent of adults having attended an arts event in 2008. And yet the same 2008 NEA data also show that when the definition is broadened to include engagement in the arts via broadcasts or recordings, some 74 percent of American adults — more than double the number who reported attending an arts event — participated in an arts activity.
What's driving this shift in how Americans experience the arts? Clearly, technological innovation is one major driver of change. High-definition films of live Metropolitan Opera performances are selling out at movie theaters across the country, while local opera companies — which must charge far higher ticket prices than the local movie theater — struggle to expand their audiences. The creation and distribution of media arts has become so affordable and accessible that anyone can make a film or record an album that can be seen and heard by millions. Indeed, YouTube reports that every minute, seventy-two hours of video are uploaded to its site.
Lower levels of exposure to the arts at a young age is another factor in the decline in arts attendance. Given funding cuts in recent years, millions of children and young adults have had little to no access to arts education in their schools. An NEAreport shows that adults who took classes in at least one art form in childhood were about 50 percent more likely to attend an arts event, compared with adults who took no arts classes as a child.
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