Between 2009 and 2011, arts participation “increased” from 35% of the population to nearly 75%. Clearly we should have witnessed a paradigm shift in the arts comparable to the Renaissance in these two years, but sadly that’s not what happened. Instead, the National Endowment for the Arts, faced with a mountain of disappointing news about the rates of participation in its 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA), commissioned 3 separate monographs and wrote several notes of their own to explain the data, which led to a broadened definition of arts participation that covers three-quarters of the population. Because the SPPA data has been discussed in numerous other research documents and blogs, I will keep the summary of the original report to the most highlighted bullet points and spend more time outlining the history of the analysis.


The SPPA has been conducted five times by the by the NEA since 1982 in partnership with the United States Census Bureau (with the exception of the 1997 survey, which was administered by a private research firm and is not comparable to other years). The report presents detailed findings from the 2008 SPPA alongside data from prior years. To allow data to be compared with previous years, the survey questions remain relatively stable.

The survey tracks the following kinds of participation:

  • Attending arts events
  • Experiencing recorded or broadcasted live performances
  • Exploring arts through the Internet
  • Personally performing or creating art
  • Taking arts-related classes

The key indicator for participation for this and all previous versions of the SPPA is attendance at “benchmark“ events:  jazz, classical music, opera, musical plays, non-musical plays, ballet, and visits to art museums or galleries. In addition to the core benchmark activities, four modules within the survey included questions about internet and other media use, arts learning, reading, and leisure activities. To increase the response rate for the 2008 SPPA, respondents were only asked about 2 of the 4 modules. New questions focused on Latin Music, attendance at outdoor festivals, and technology. Sections on trips away from home and desire to attend more events were dropped. The response rate was 82%, for a total of 18,444 adults interviewed over two weeks in May 2008 by phone.

The report itself describes the results as “disappointing.” The percentage of adults attending at least one benchmark arts activity declined from 39% in 2002 to less than 35% in 2008, the largest drop recorded in any survey interval. Just as striking is the long-term trend; participation levels never dipped below 39% since the first survey in 1982 and even rose in 1992 when participation reached 41%. Exceptions to the recent declines are musical plays and art museums, which are both flat from the 2002 SPPA, as well as literary reading, which is also up from 2002.

Attendance at Benchmark Activities

In contrast to the population more generally, most audiences at benchmark activities held at least a college degree and/or pulled in an annual income of $75,000 or greater. Latin music, outdoor performing arts festivals, and art museums drew younger audiences than other genres, while arts and craft festivals, parks and historic sites, and jazz were more successful in reaching lower- and middle-income audiences. These profiles may not be surprising, but what has people concerned is that those aged 45 to 54, historically a large component of arts audiences, showed the steepest declines in attendance, and even the most educated Americans are attending benchmark activities less often than reported in earlier surveys. One possible factor is the economy, which had been in a recession for six months at the time of the survey. This might help explain findings that low-cost, low-travel activities such as researching art over the internet and reading rose compared to the previous survey.

Arts Creation, Performance, and Learning

Since 1982, the number of adults reporting that they had taken arts lessons at any time in their lives has been declining, and substantially fewer young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 have had lessons. For example, in 1982 61% reported having had music lessons of some kind, but only 38% reported the same in 2008.

However, the study shows some forms of participation and creation on the rise, with 10% of respondents reporting participating in at least one of the art forms within the past 12 months. Singing in a choir or vocal group drew the most participants, with 11.6 million adults, or 5.2% of the population, participating. Photography and film‐making increased from 12% in 2002 to nearly 15% of all adults.  Classical music performance or creation increased to 3.1%, after falling to 1.8% in 2002 from 1992 levels  (almost all forms of creating and performing dipped between 1992 and 2002). On the other hand, dancing, weaving/sewing, and pottery/ceramics continued to see long-term declines.

Media Participation

More Americans engage with performances through broadcasts or recordings through radio, internet or other electronic media than attend live arts events. Overall, 41% of adults watched, listened, or explored the arts through some form of electronic media, and the total number of adults watching or listening through broadcast media is double the number that attend performances. Only live theater still attracts more audiences than broadcasts or recordings of its equivalent, not including television or movies. Online, 39% of all Internet‐using adults, or 62 million Americans, viewed, listened to, downloaded, or posted artworks or performance at least once a week. (Keep in mind that this study was conducted four years ago.)

State and Regional Patterns

There are regional differences in how communities choose to participate in the arts. For example, the New England and Pacific regions reported high levels of attendance at most benchmark activities. The East South Central region, which includes Kentucky down to Alabama, reported the lowest participation rates in benchmark activities, but also showed the highest participation rates in choral singing.

History of Analysis

Soon after reviewing the SPPA results, the NEA commissioned independent researchers to mine the SPPA data for details on the following topics: arts education; the personal performance and creation of artworks; and the relationship between age and arts participation.

Case against Demographic Destiny

In Age and Arts Participation: A Case Against Demographic Destiny, Mark J. Stern of the University of Pennsylvania reports that it’s not the audiences that are greying, it’s our country. It’s true that Generation X and Millenials are participating in benchmark events at lower rates in their young adulthood than previous generations. But overall, age and generational cohort accounts for less than 1% of the variance of the total number of arts events that Americans attended between 1982- 2008. Other influences, particularly educational attainment, have a much stronger role in explaining arts participation. Although WWII and Baby Boomer generations do attend a broader array of benchmark events and attend more often, Stern argues that younger generations also have an appetite for diverse arts experiences and that “the ability of established or emerging arts groups to attract participants will have less to do with the age distribution of the population than with their ability to connect to the creative aspirations of their potential audiences.”

Beyond Attendance

WolfBrown’s Beyond Attendance: A Multi-Modal Understanding of Arts Participation suggests that the current participation numbers do not accurately reflect how Americans are choosing to participate in the arts. Using a broader definition of arts participation, Jennifer Novak-Leonard and Alan Brown conclude that three out of four Americans participate in arts activities. The new definition includes a fuller variety of artistic genres, including participation via electronic media, and personal arts creation. Interestingly, approximately 23% of U.S. adults participate in the arts, but do not attend arts events or institutions in person, suggesting there is an opportunity for arts organizations to engage communities through arts creation and performance without expecting that they will ever attend a performance or exhibition at a traditional venue. Finally, although arts attendance at benchmark activities has declined, rates of arts creation have remained stable at 41% between 2002 and 2008. This stable rate is sustained by the increase of online participation.

Arts Education in America

Nick Rabkin and E.C. Hedberg from the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) conclude in Arts Education in America: What the Declines Mean for Arts Participation that the most significant predictive factor for arts attendance at benchmark activities is arts education, rather than educational attainment or income. While it is not surprising that adults enrolled in art classes or lessons are most likely to have also participated in benchmark arts activities, it is important to note that most Americans who had arts education as an adult also had had arts education as a child. It’s clear from the data that childhood arts education has been declining over time, and Rabkin and Hedberg argue that reversing this decline will be necessary if arts education is to play a significant role in stemming the erosion of adult arts participation. Perhaps most notably, the report suggests that we need to know more about what kinds of arts education experiences inspire people to continue participating in the arts as adults.

NEA Research Notes and Audience 2.0

Three research notes and an additional research report from the NEA further analyze the geographic, community, and technological contexts of arts participation.

The first research note, “Art-Goers In Their Communities,” reports that Americans who attend arts performances, visit art museums or galleries, or read literature are particularly active members of their communities. For example, while more than half of adults who attended art museums or live arts events volunteered in the past year, only a third of the general population did so.  While it’s not possible to draw a causal inference based on this observation, it suggests that arts, literary, sports, and civic organizations may benefit from the creation of innovative partnerships to reach a larger shared audience.

The second note, “State and Regional Differences in Arts Participation: A Geographic Analysis of the 2008 SPPA,” takes an in-depth look at the regional differences already explored in the original report, including a detailed analysis for 32 states. For example, Oregon consistently ranks among the highest in attendance of the performing arts, including opera, jazz and classical music concerts.  Nebraska ranks high in the number of adults pursuing creative writing.

Come as You Are: Informal Arts Participation in Urban and Rural Communities” focuses on the differences in participation patterns between rural and urban areas. The analysis reinforces the finding that arts participation in benchmark activities is greater in urban areas, but when “informal arts” (arts activities that are self-initiated, community-based, and often occur in homes, schools, and churches) are added to the mix, urban and rural areas participate at the same rates.  In addition, the study found that arts participation does not increase with metropolitan size beyond 250,000 people.

Audience 2.0: How Technology Influences Arts Participation reported that people who engage with art through media technologies are two to three times more likely to attend a benchmark activity.  Older adults, rural, and  minority groups are more likely to use media technologies to access certain art forms  than attend a live event. For example, more than half of Latinos used electronic media to engage with Latin music, and 20% of African Americans, more than any other ethnic group, used media to explore jazz.

Other Perspectives and Reactions

In 2009, the League of American Orchestras conducted its own study with McKinsey and reversed a long-held assumption that audiences will replenish themselves. The League’s “Audience Demographic Research Review” confirmed that participation is declining within and between generations and “we cannot assume that people will attend more as they enter the 45+ age group.”

Also in 2009, the NEA publicized a press release that used the survey results to declare the success of its Big Read literacy program.  For the first time in the survey’s history, literary reading increased from 46.7% in 2002 to 50.2% in the 2008.  Then Endowment Chairman Diana Gioia remarked in the press release that “this dramatic turnaround shows that the many programs now focused on reading, including our own Big Read, are working. Cultural decline is not inevitable.”


The SPPA’s high response rate (82%) and large sample size makes it the most reliable and representative longitudinal audience survey available to us. Because longitudinal analysis has been so essential to the implications of the data, though, it is worth taking a second look at the methodology from a historical perspective.  The first three surveys were conducted as a supplement to the Census Bureau’s National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), and the 1997 edition was conducted by a private consulting firm as a standalone survey. It was only starting in 2002 that the Bureau conducted the SPPA a supplement to the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS), and although both the NCVS and CPS are based on a random sample of households, the two sampling designs do differ.  However, the impact of these differences have already been measured by the Census Bureau.

Other differences should be noted when comparing the surveys. Earlier surveys were conducted in person, rather than over the phone. This could increase the rate of affirmative answers as people may be more inclined to try to please the interviewer than over the phone. Furthermore, some earlier versions were conducted over a period of a year, rather than just a few weeks, which could impact either seasonality of attendance. Lastly, the fact that spouses or partners were used to collect data in 2008 could contribute to slightly more erratic attendance reporting (if spouses inaccurately report frequency). Taken individually, these are only minor differences, but collectively, could all of these changes lead to lower  reported rates of attendance? Possibly, yet it seems likely that all of these minor differences can be taken into account in a detailed statistical analysis and that there is very little, if any, impact on the participation numbers.

Given the strong correlation between arts education and participation, it would be helpful if the questions surrounding early arts experiences could be further developed. In Arts Education in America, Rabkin and Hedberg highlight that “participants were not asked about the depth, intensity, or longevity of their study in the arts, nor were they asked about their subjective experiences — how much they enjoyed or cared about learning in and about the arts. Private weekly piano lessons for 10 years and recorder lessons in a class of 30 second-graders for a few months are equivalent in SPPA data and recorded as childhood music education, provided that those experiences are remembered and reported.” Future versions of the survey might address this deficiency by asking about respondents’ early arts experiences in more depth.

It’s surprising that actually the reverse has occurred – arts education questions have been eliminated as others were added to keep the survey at a manageable length. Eliminated questions asked about arts lessons during specific age brackets and about in-school vs. out-of-school learning. Although Sunil Iyengar points to the Fast Response Survey System (FRSS) for K-12 arts education as a tool for learning more about arts learning in the country, it doesn’t help us to cross-tabulate early education experiences with adult participation.


Given the “disappointing” results of the 2008 SPPA, should we be as concerned as we are about the future of the arts?  With the exception of museums and musical plays, attendance is declining, subscriptions are down, and ultimately sustainability is in question for arts organizations large and small.  This year’s Americans for the Arts Convention was titled “The New Normal,” suggesting the financial difficulties artists and art institutions currently face won’t disappear with an uptick in the economy.  As the 2008 SPPA research notes and monographs point out, current trends in arts attendance are beyond the scapegoats of demography or the economy.  It seems these downward trends in attendance stem from deep changes in how we choose to engage not only with the arts, but  nearly all kinds of information, entertainment, and culture.

The flip side of The New Normal is that other kinds of arts participation, including active participation and engagement through technology, are at least remaining stable, and photography and filmmaking are showing significant increases. Furthermore, it’s important to note that more Americans engage with performances through broadcasts or recordings than attend live arts events.

So if The New Normal has an upside, why do we continue to give so much weight to attendance numbers? Is it productive for us to focus on “benchmark” percentages? I would argue that it’s only productive if we are convinced other modalities are not equally valuable within the spectrum of arts participation. It’s not enough to value live attendance over other kinds of participation because of institutional models that yield significant earned revenue from ticket sales. If Americans are showing an interest in participating through choirs or viewing art online, then arts organizations have an opportunity to connect with their audiences through active participation and through online media. Perhaps if we could find a way to monetize participatory arts experiences, arts organizations wouldn’t be as concerned about the effect of dwindling ticket sales on the bottom line.

Regardless of how we value the various participation modalities, we still need to have audiences for America’s best theater, dance, and opera. Nick Rabkin’s and E.C. Hedberg’s monograph Arts Education in America asserts that the most significant predictive factor for arts attendance at benchmark activities is arts education, rather than educational attainment or income.  Furthermore, Jennifer Novak-Leonard and Alan Brown in Beyond Attendance find that “having had any arts lessons increases the likelihood of arts creation by 32%.” Meanwhile, Novak-Leonard and Brown report that 23% of adults participate but do not attend, indicating that there may be certain kinds of participation that do not necessarily lead to attendance. All of this suggests that the SPPA should ask more in-depth questions about the kinds, duration, and intensity of individuals’ arts education, including formal and non-formal types of learning. We could then learn more about which types of educational experiences might lead to attendance and which will not.

Overall, it seems like the real story here is not about the decline in arts participation, but the shift in how we choose to participate. If Americans are still seeking a deep a personal relationship with art, perhaps our increased demand for personal involvement and social connectivity are creating new demands for participatory arts experiences. New research from the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance shows that increased active or online participation can “be a gateway” to attendance, and this shift to participatory arts may point toward a broadening of consumption of the arts rather than a decline. Online, 39% of all Internet‐using adults, or 62 million Americans, viewed, listened to, downloaded, or posted artworks or performance at least once a week, and 45% participated in some form of creation or performance activity. It’s time for the SPPA survey to reflect this shift in participation through development of a new survey protocol, rather than continue to rely heavily on questions that are now over 30 years old.

Fortunately, the NEA agrees. Recently, the agency announced that it was revising the 2012 SPPA, noting that “it seemed time to revisit the way we ask about the arts in America.“ The primary purpose of the survey will be “to create baseline rates of arts participation inclusive of both traditional and non-traditional modes of participation.” The new survey questions will improve the ability to measure participation in emerging art forms and modes, including electronic media and non-formal learning opportunities. It will also ask more specific questions in regards to arts learning, asking specifically about informal modes of learning and whether early learning took place in our out of school. In perhaps the biggest shift in language, questions relating to attendance will not be tied to venue; the SPPA will ask if respondents attended an art exhibit, and if so, where. To maintain some ability to compare this study with previous ones, the 2012 SPPA will have two sets of core questions – the old core will be the benchmark attendance questions, and the new core will include the emerging art forms and modalities. By 2017 the old core will be completely replaced by the new core questions.

The 2012 SPPA will capture arts participation patterns in the aftermath of the biggest recession in 80 years, the heyday of social media, and the mainstreaming of the mobile web. Kickstarter, which arguably has helped democratize access to arts creation, didn’t exist in 2008, nor did the curatorial social media network Pinterest. Etsy, part of the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) movement where artists and artisans sell their wares online, has been profitable since 2009 and has raised $51 million in capital. Meanwhile, we know that arts attendance is down, but the 2008 survey does not prove that other types of participation are increasing. We shall see more clearly when the 2012 edition comes out (sometime in early 2013) if those who are participating online and in active art-making are at the vanguard of a long-term shift in participation away from attendance.

Further Reading: