Audiences at the Gate published in Grantmakers in the Arts Reader (and why it’s still relevant)

Readers who have been with us for a while will recall that in 2010, Daniel Reid and I wrote an article for Edward P. Clapp’s 20UNDER40 anthology called Audiences at the Gate: Reinventing Arts Philanthropy Through Guided Crowdsourcing. The article contends that traditional models of philanthropy, in which a single program officer or a handful of expert panelists make resource allocation decisions, are increasingly ill-suited for supporting entrepreneurial projects in the arts. The sheer volume of choices overwhelms grantmaking bodies’ evaluative capacity, making it impossible to make truly informed judgments about who is more deserving of funding. The only way to avoid perpetuating the inequities of the commercial marketplace, we argue, is to beef up that capacity – which means getting lots more people involved.

I’m very pleased to share that an updated and revised edition of this article appears in the Summer 2012 edition of the Grantmakers in the Arts Reader, available here. In addition to updating our stats and actually naming our concept (“the Gate,” as a working title), we’ve rewritten essentially the entire middle section to address the major advances in crowdfunding that have taken place since original publication. Below is an excerpt of some of the new material:

Crowdfunding has brought a few clear benefits to arts philanthropy. First, the sites facilitate solicitation for smaller donations, making it easier for individual artists to leverage their social networks and aggregate modest giving into significant funding. Second, it is reasonable to assume that some portion of the money pledged through sites like Kickstarter represents new money for the arts, provided by donors who are motivated by the convenience and/or viral nature of the medium to give more or more often than before. Third, the sites provide a forum for interaction between artists and possible donors and audiences, potentially engaging fans in a project more deeply than is usually possible offline.

But these online donor marketplaces fall short of the full potential of crowdsourcing for arts philanthropy, in part because they use the same tools as the market and traditional philanthropy to cope with the lack of capacity to evaluate art. This can work in two ways. Some sites, like USA Projects, explicitly use traditional gatekeepers to restrict the number of projects available on the site: artists are eligible to post a project only if they have received an award or residency from the site’s “growing list of distinguished arts organizations around the country.” 18  Others, like Kickstarter itself, exercise little editorial discretion over which projects are posted. 19  This effectively creates an open marketplace for artistic support — but it doesn’t solve the problems with such a market discussed previously. A would-be donor confronted by the 27,086 projects on Kickstarter in 2011 may poke around the site a bit and stumble across something entirely new he wants to support, but more likely he will rely on guidance from gatekeepers (such as media sources or Kickstarter’s own staff) to choose projects. There is little incentive for him to browse unfamiliar proposals endlessly without some deeper reward for doing so, especially if he has limited funds to donate. 20

More important, supporting a project on these sites is much like supporting a project in real life: you vote with your own dollars. Accordingly, the most fair-minded, informed, and thoughtful critics — the people best able to assess the long-term value of cultivating a given artist or organization — have no more influence than a casual browser or a relative of the artist with the same amount of disposable income. Crowdfunding sites thus fundamentally resemble the commercial marketplace, doing little to address the systemic inequities that pervade the market for access to consumers.

Daniel and I propose a fairly detailed scheme for exactly how this dilemma could be addressed, delicately balancing the open ethos of crowdsourcing with the need to privilege the opinions and wisdom of the most valuable contributors. This “guided crowsourcing” approach- which ultimately is about distinguishing between experts and non-experts when relying on the crowd to make good decisions – is by no means applicable only to philanthropy, and several recent articles show why. Remember that concerto contest that the Pittsburgh Symphony announced a while back, in which the winner would be chosen by voters on YouTube? In the end, the PSO decided to scrap the contest for lack of a candidate of sufficient quality, as judged by artistic director Manfred Honeck. Eric Felton considers the fallout and notes flaws in the process, which was a straight up popularity contest that did nothing to discourage voters with unhelpful motivations:

When the PSO announced the concerto semifinalists and invited the world to watch their YouTube performance videos, the voting public was soon posting comments on the PSO website explaining its choices. “My choice, was a student of mine in elementary school,” bragged one. Another declared her favorite “deserves everyone’s vote” because “I have watched her as a child starting to play the harp at First Baptist.” At least that was tangentially about her work as a musician, unlike the vote of confidence that one contestant got from a grateful neighbor: “Congratulations to that young man who shovels my walks…” And if the names on the postings are any indication, the young lady born in Puerto Rico managed to corner the support of Latinas. Whether it’s a matter of piling up five-star reviews on Amazon or securing the collective approbation of Yelp users, online ratings are all too often a measure not of product quality but of the promoters’ skill at Internet marketing and social-media manipulation.

I couldn’t agree more, and this is a major theme that Daniel and I address in our article. After drawing the gleeful attention of prognosticators and futurists galore, it seems that crowdsourcing as a concept is starting to see a backlash. David Leonhardt from the New York Times recently noted that prediction markets (a favorite trope of fans of the crowd) completely failed to anticipate John Roberts’s deciding vote on the recent Supreme Court health care reform case. Nevertheless, Leonhardt is quick to point out that relying on individual experts isn’t really any better, offering this set of wisdom-nuggets that collectively make our point:

The answer, I think, is to take the best of what both experts and markets have to offer, realizing that the combination of the two offers a better window onto the future than either alone. Markets are at their best when they can synthesize large amounts of disparate information, as on an election night. Experts are most useful when a system exists to identify the most truly knowledgeable — a system that often resembles a market.

Sometimes, this approach involves a wisdom-of-crowds approach to experts. My colleague Nate Silver, whose book on prediction comes out later this year, has found that a simple average of well-known economic forecasts is substantially more accurate than individual forecasts. Other times, the approach might involve as much art as science — and, again, the Internet allows for strategies that once would have been impossible.

Think for a moment about what a Twitter feed is: it’s a personalized market of experts (and friends), in which you can build your own focus group and listen to its collective analysis about the past, present and future. An RSS feed, in which you choose blogs to read, works similarly. You make decisions about which experts are worthy of your attention, based both on your own judgments about them and on other experts’ judgments.

Their predictions now face a market discipline that did not always exist before the Internet came along. “Experts exist,” as Mr. Wolfers says, “but they’re not necessarily the same as the guys on TV.”

Indeed, one of the examples that I use in my TEDx talk about citizen curation is that of Brad Bourland, a grocery store clerk from Austin, TX who has ranked the 20th century’s greatest 9200 movies, and watched 7000 of them. Is he really all that much less qualified to judge, say, a film festival than the people who have that job now? Meanwhile, ReadWriteWeb’s Dave Copeland riffs off of Leonhardt’s article and shares the story of GeniusRocket, a company that has moved to a model of “curated crowdsourcing” after growing disenchanted with the more common popularity-contest variety. “The Key to Crowdsourcing? Smarter Crowds,” declares the headline.

The original version of “Audiences at the Gate” has become among the most-read posts on this site despite its prodigious length of nearly 6,000 words, but in the 18 months since Daniel and I offered these ideas up to the world, there has been no serious consideration that I know of to put them into practice. The wider world is starting to catch on to the promise of guided crowdsourcing. Who will be the first to try it in the arts?

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Applications for the Fall 2012 Createquity Writing Fellowship Now Open

Ever wanted an opportunity to get your writing in front of some pretty serious people in the arts and beyond, all while receiving mentorship, research assistance, and guidance on your writing from yours truly? Then the Createquity Writing Fellowship just may be for you.  Think of it as your very own virtual graduate class in arts policy. Details and application instructions are available at the brand new Createquity Writing Fellowship page. Applications are due August 10.

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Cool job of the month

Fall Internship, Next American City

Next American City is seeking Editorial Interns who are available to start working a minimum of 12 hours per week in September 2012. Internships are unpaid, but school credit can be arranged.

Interns will work directly with all members of the staff to assist with producing daily online content. Duties include: Writing, editing, fact-checking, research, blogging, social media, reader engagement and general administrative tasks as required.

No deadline.

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Around the horn: Highly Efffective edition


  • RIP Artnet Magazine; more here. I will always be grateful to Artnet’s Ben Davis for being just about the only arts journalist worth his salt during the whole Yosi Sergant debacle.
  • Congratulations to GiveWell, which has announced a not-quite-merger with Good Ventures, an emerging foundation led by Cari Tuna and Dustin Moskovitz (the latter is one of the founders of Facebook). The blog post is a bit thin on details, but it sounds like this arrangement will ensure GiveWell’s financial security for some time to come while substantially enhancing its real-world impact.
  • Indiana University is set to open the country’s first School of Philanthropy later this year. It’s early, of course, but these snippets from the article suggest to me that buyer beware: “As with any academic setting, funding is an issue….With the nonprofit sector roughly 5 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product and 10 percent of the workforce, such [a] school could be a profit-center for the university, Rooney said.”
  • One of the NEA’s lesser known programs, the Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design, will now be a partnership between the NEA, the Department of Agriculture, Project for Public Spaces, the Orton Family Foundation, and CommunityMatters. CIRD facilitates and hosts workshops on community design in places with fewer than 50,000 people.


  • Michael Kaiser has a penchant for inciting digital controversy, and his recent two-part post calling bullshit on “new business models” was no exception. At the core of the debate is this central question: how much is the nonprofit arts sector going to change in the next 50 years? Kaiser says not so much; Adam Huttler, on the other hand, thinks quite a lot. Huttler’s second post on the subject, in particular, is one of his most thought-provoking and brilliant in quite some time. EmcArts’s Richard Evans and Sarah Lutman also weighed in.
  • Whither the future of open data and philanthropy? The Knight Foundation is currently considering a proposal to digitize 10 years of IRS 990 nonprofit data and make it available to the public for free. GiveWell’s Alexander Berger, writing on his personal blog, argues that this presents a clear opportunity to GuideStar’s next president to reform its business model around open data. (GuideStar’s current president, Bob Ottenhoff responds in the comments.) And the Foundation Center’s Brad Smith makes a passionate case for data standards and greater transparency among foundations.
  • We’ve now entered an era in which college-age students have never known what it’s like to have to pay for music. Casey Rae and J. Holtham have more.
  • What is the future of museums?


  • The Irvine Foundation has announced its first set of grants under its new arts strategy that emphasizes audience engagement.
  • Jon Silpayamanant makes the interesting point that sports teams have a performance income gap (i.e., expenses that outpace ticket revenue) just like symphony orchestras do.
  • Wait, nonprofits are allowed to have shareholders?

    The deal will settle a lawsuit the Koch brothers filed in February over shares that determine control of Cato. It results from the original division of shares between the two Koch brothers, Crane and late Cato Chairman William Niskanen. After Niskanen died of stroke complications in October, the Koch brothers claimed a founding shareholder agreement gave them the option to buy Niskanen’s shares. Crane held they should go to Niskanen’s widow, which would leave him in effective control of the organization.

    The settlement involves dissolving the shareholder agreement. In addition, Crane is expected to retire under an agreement that allows him to select his successor, though the Koch brothers could veto the hiring.



  • Umm, please apply for the Createquity Writing Fellowship, Delali Ayivor?
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Richard Florida Redux and the Creative Placemaking Backlash

Richard Florida is all over the news again with the release of an updated, 10th-anniversary edition of his most famous book, The Rise of the Creative Class. I’m convinced that someone, someday is going to write a fantastic biography of Richard Florida. He’s such a fascinating figure: the symbol of a decidedly 21st-century concept of urbanism and economic development, someone who became very famous and (it seems) quite wealthy as an academic and public intellectual, and yet who seems to inspire controversy and backlash at every turn. Florida is no stranger to arguing with his critics: his preface to The Rise of the Creative Class, Revisited reads like a litany of defensiveness (“my ideas…were widely derided”; “many critics dismissed my notion”; “I caught a lot of flak”; “I was accused of confusing chickens and eggs” etc.).

I’m not sure if Florida expected to get away with re-releasing his book without provoking yet another firestorm, but if that was the plan, it hasn’t exactly worked out. The onslaught started with a piece penned by Frank Bures for a new magazine called Thirty Two based in Minneapolis called “The Fall of the Creative Class.” A one-time Florida acolyte, Bures tells of how he became disenchanted with creative class theory via a bad experience living in Madison, Wisconsin, supposedly a creative hub. His direct attack (which is by no means the first of its ilk) scored a response from Florida, which of course just led to another broadside from Bures. In the meantime, despite some positive press, most of the reaction I’ve seen has ranged from catty to apoplectic. Next American City – ironically, the outlet that published Florida’s first defense piece, “Revenge of the Squelchers,” way back in 2004 – has run two different commentaries from Sean Andrew Chen that are mostly skeptical in tone. And then there’s this festival of bile from The Baffler’s Thomas Frank, author of What’s the Matter With Kansas?, which, while mostly sparing Florida by name, attacks the very idea of the arts as an economic engine with ferocity.

In the circles I travel in, it’s become as fashionable to pick on Richard Florida as the oft-derided hipsters with which his “creative class” is sometimes associated. In one sense you can’t blame them: this is a guy who gained an enormous amount of notoriety from scholarship with some obvious flaws. It’s hard to look at the attention his ideas commanded among the mayors and foundations of the country over the past decade, and the cushy lifestyle he now enjoys, and not feel a bit of righteous envy. I get it.

But on the other hand, I sometimes wonder if Florida’s detractors have really read his books – like really read them, front to back. They often accuse him of saying things he didn’t say, or omitting things he talks about at length (like income inequality, which occupied much of a chapter in the original Rise of the Creative Class). Although Bures’s rebuttal to Florida draws more blood, the conceit of his original article seems to be that the author’s own disappointing experience in one “creative class” city and subsequent happiness in another “creative class” city are somehow proof that creative class theory is wrong. Bures also seems to imply, via his invoking of Mel Gray’s study on arts spending in 15 cities, that Florida is explicitly an advocate for public funding of the arts, which he’s never really been (as much as arts advocates have liked to pretend he is).

My view has been that Florida is on to something from a qualitative standpoint, but that his particular way of describing it in research terms – the “3T’s” of Technology, Talent, and Tolerance, as measured at the metropolitan level rather than that of individual neighborhoods – is a limited instrument that prevents him from getting the robust results he’s looking for. As much shadenfreude as we might get from seeing a giant fall back to earth, it’s problematic when the methodological quirks of Florida’s particular approach are used to damn the entire concept of the arts as an economic driver, as we see in Frank’s article. Throughout, Frank seems to spend most of his time arguing against a straw man, the notion that people who are interested in creative class theory or creative placemaking or the economic development potential of the arts believe that these things  are the singular answer to turning around the economy in any community. Frank writes of the “millions” spent on promoting vibrancy in our nation’s cities and suggests that they would be better spent on things like “bridges, railroads, highways,” regulating the financial system, or, my favorite, universal health care. I’m sorry, but I seem to have missed the press release that announced state and local governments were spending more on street festivals and public art than re-routing the interstate or Medicaid. When the “millions” spent on making our cities a little more interesting, attractive, and fun approaches anything like the trillions spent on these other things, we can talk about misallocation of resources, mmkay?

I don’t think many people would argue, not even Richard Florida, that the arts are some kind of silver bullet that can solve all of a community’s problems. But that’s a very different thing than saying that the arts do have the potential to add value economically to communities, that they do form part of the answer to revitalization and shouldn’t be ignored or sidelined like they usually are. I’m still waiting for the conversation to go where it needs to go but hasn’t yet: how can the arts be the irreplaceable catalyst in certain, specific situations in certain kinds of cities? The broad brush with which we insist on painting the picture keeps on covering over its most important details.

(Update: Richard Layman has more.)


Wrapping up the spring 2012 Createquity Writing Fellowship

Last week, we had a flurry of posts from our Createquity Writing Fellows, Kelly Dylla and Jackie Hasa, including Arts Policy Library entries on two important studies of cultural participation and audience engagement. Now that Kelly and Jackie have successfully completed the third round of the CWF, I wanted to take a moment to highlight their accomplishments.

In all of her posts this spring, Kelly Dylla drew our attention to new ways of thinking about the relationship between organizations and their audiences in fun and lighthearted style. Kelly wins the award for champion juggler, as she managed to move her family from Los Angeles and Seattle and start a demanding new job as VP of Education and Community Engagement for the Seattle Symphony in the midst of her fellowship. Despite this, she took on what was probably the most challenging Arts Policy Library assignment to date: 500 pages and nearly a dozen separate publications all analyzing the NEA’s 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts. Here are Kelly’s posts:

A modern Renaissance woman, Jackie Hasa continually impresses me with the breadth of her interests and knowledge. When she’s not landing consulting contracts by day, she’s organizing gaming festivals and helping emerging leaders connect by night; her  excellent contributions to the blog ranged the gamut from a two-part post on the promise of games and the limits of gamification to an image-rich meditation on small-scale placemaking. Below are Jackie’s contributions to the conversation:

A hearty thanks and toast to Kelly and Jackie for their hard work these past few months! Applications for the fall 2012 Createquity Writing Fellowship will open later this month.

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Mid-summer public arts funding update

Normally, this would be the time of year when things start to wind down on the arts advocacy front, but the peculiar dynamics of this year’s Congress promise to keep things interesting well into the fall. Consideration of the FY13 budget has only just begun, and once again, a state arts agency faces a veto threat.


Looking forward to Congress’s “lame duck” session after elections this November, Americans for the Arts projects choppy waters ahead for the arts. Indeed, the fun has already started with a proposal from the House of Representatives Interior Subcommittee to cut the NEA’s current appropriation by $14 million to $132 million. At least this means we won’t be fighting over whether the NEA should exist at all this year, but the proposed 9.8% cut comes on top of a 13% cut from the agency’s recent high water mark of $167.5 million. It looks like conservatives are pursuing a strategy to gradually chip away at the Endowment’s appropriations base, figuring that a 10% cut here or there isn’t likely to arouse public outrage but will still further ideological goals.

The Supreme Court had a busy month. You’ve heard, of course about its ruling on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. Adam Huttler (head honcho at Fractured Atlas, where I work) came out and praised the Supremes’ 5-4 decision upholding the act as a victory for artists, who are likely a bellwether for the 21st-century knowledge worker: mobile, untethered, and most importantly, self-employed. But the Supreme Court decided some other cases as well, and the Future of Music Coalition weighs in on one of them, in which the Court ruled that Fox and friends don’t have to pay indecency fines for failing to bleep out swearing on a live broadcast and some nudity on an episode of NYPD Blue.


The National Assembly of State Arts Agencies (NASAA)’s annual appropriations report is out, and after four straight years of declines that saw appropriations to state arts councils drop by more than a quarter, it appears the corner has finally been turned. For Fiscal Year 2013, state arts agencies will receive 8.8% more money than in FY12, with more arts councils seeing increases than decreases. There were still stories of hardship and difficulty this year, most notably in Missouri, which survived for a second straight year mainly by drawing down endowment funds; Louisiana, which saw a 12.6% decrease overall; and Utah, which lost $2 million in line item funding. Meanwhile, the poor New Hampshire State Council on the Arts is locked a war of attrition with conservatives and the state now gives less money to its arts council than the US Virgin Islands. But this year, for the first time in a while, there were some astounding successes. In the past we would celebrate when an arts council got a double-digit increase in funding, but this year a few states broke triple digits: an eye-popping bump of 366.8% in Michigan, 178.4% in the District of Columbia (the largest increase in dollar terms at about $7 million), and 109.7% in Florida. And then of course there was the arts council in Kansas being brought back to life as the Creative Arts Industries Commission. (All four of these places had been hit particularly hard in recent years, so these increases are more about getting things back to where they were rather than achieving new heights.) States and territories achieving less dramatic but still important increases include the Northern Marinaras (63%), Ohio (26.3%), and Iowa (21.7%).

Of course, the legislative appropriations process is not completely finished in all states, and unfortunately for the South Carolina Arts Commission, the Palmetto State is one of the laggards. The SCAC had triumphantly reported to NASAA a 26.4% bump in state appropriations, the increase coming mostly from a one-time special infusion of $500,000 on top of the regularly appropriated budget. But for the third time in as many years, South Carolina’s Republican governor exercised line-item veto power to nix all funds for the SCAC. Arts advocates successfully beat back similar vetoes by Governors Nikki Haley and Mark Sanford with the support of overwhelming majorities from their own party in 2010 and 2011. However, this year is a little different because the legislature did not pass a budget before the July 1 start of the fiscal year, meaning that Haley’s veto has the effect of immediately (for now) dismantling the Arts Commission. Meanwhile, the legislature is being called back into session to vote on overriding the vetoes, and the SCAC bills will be taken up on July 17 and 18. Follow the South Carolina Arts Alliance on Facebook for the latest updates. (Barry has more.)


Arts advocates in Atlanta are having a good month. First, Mayor Kasim Reed is proposing to double the city’s direct investment in arts and culture. That would sound more impressive if not for the fact that the new appropriation to the Atlanta Office of Cultural Affairs is still not enough to break $1 million, a fairly amount for the “capital of the South.”  Meanwhile, the more influential Metropolitan Atlanta Arts and Culture Commission (MAACC) is coming under the umbrella of the Atlanta Regional Commission, a move welcomed by arts advocates because the funding streams for MAACC had become more precarious in recent years. The Commission just, uh, commissioned a creative economy inventory from MAACC whose results are available here.


Canada’s conservative government is seeing the wisdom of supporting the arts, according to an article in the Toronto Globe and Mail. In addition to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the article quotes Harper’s Heritages and Official Languages Minister (who is also a Conservative member of parliament from British Columbia) “gushing” about Canada’s vibrant arts industry, which, in his estimation, includes Justin Bieber and Michael Bublé.

Portuguese blogger Maria Vlachou offers up a guest post on Egyptian cultural policy by Reem Kassem, a young cultural activist whose accomplishments are quite impressive. It’s hard to imagine a context more different from the United States than post-Arab Spring Egypt, but much of Kassem’s assessment sounds strangely familiar: “Inevitably, cultural activities are very much centered in Cairo, followed by Alexandria, while the rest of the country is totally ignored. On top of this, traditional forms of cultural activities held in concert halls or conference centers failed to attract new audiences – it’s always the same old faces.” Kassem reports that Egypt’s “underground” arts scene has become very much a part of the revolution against the old order and the new freedoms being sought, and argues that the activation of public space for participatory art will continue to be a critical issue going forward in Egypt.

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Around the horn: John Roberts edition

Astute readers will note that this edition is mostly comprised of links from the first half of June; I am a little behind in my curation and hope to catch up over the rest of this month. In the meantime, enjoy!


  • Congratulations to Arts Marketing blogger Chad Bauman, who returns to Arena Stage as Associate Executive Director only a few months after leaving for a position at the Smithsonian. Chad had previously been Arena’s Director of Communications.
  • …and to San San Wong, who is relocating to Boston to join the Barr Foundation as that institution’s first full-time Senior Program Officer in the Arts, following a turbulent last year as Director of Grants for the San Francisco Arts Commission.
  • Congratulations to Doug Borwick as he transitions out of the presidency of the Association of Arts Administration Educators and  retires from his post at Salem College in order to begin a new life as an entrepreneur and consultant.


  • Congratulations to ArtPlace’s latest round of grantees, all 47 of them. In its second round, ArtPlace distributed $15.4 million to projects in 22 states. The press release emphasizes some of the more rural and/or unexpected recipients of the grants, and there are certainly some of those. Perhaps the most eye-popping choice is a $250,000 award to a museum in down-on-its-luck Eastport, ME - population 1,331 and a six-and-a-half-hour drive from the nearest city of more than 100,000 people.  Nevertheless, the geographic restrictions of certain foundations participating in the coalition are evident in the list of grants, more than three-fifths of which went to recipients in Alaska, California, Miami, New Orleans, the Detroit metro region, Minnesota, New York City, and Philadelphia.
  • The latest numbers are in from Giving USA, and charitable donations went up 4% in 2011 (slightly under 1% in real dollars), to just shy of $300 billion – still well off the 2007 peak. Arts and culture organizations received $13.12 billion of this amount, or 4% of the total, and the trendlines were consistent with overall giving.
  • We all know about artists using crowdfunding to support their work, but what about fans using it to commission artists? Andy Baio reports from personal experience.
  • The New York Times runs down the various forms of emergency relief available to artists, somehow without once mentioning MusiCARES.


  • The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, despite its innovative audience development efforts, is facing a deficit this year of up to $1 Smillion.
  • Is the “Emerging Leader” moniker a term of empowerment or of exclusion? Barry Hessenius argues for the latter; Stephanie Evans Hanson responds. This is a complicated subject, partly because I suspect that the idea of “emerging leaders” is more helpful to the goals of the movement than is the “emerging leader” designation for individual arts professionals. But more on this later.
  • Etsy is now a certified B corporation.


  • Don’t miss this six-part blog post by Center for Effective Philanthropy President Phil Buchanan giving a full-throated defense of the nonprofit sector against those who idealize “business thinking.” Phil holds a Harvard MBA, so it’s not like he doesn’t know whereof he speaks.
  • The Future of Music Coalition’s Joe Silveri makes the case for a global music registry.
  • Lucy Berhnolz and Patrick Hussey wax eloquent on the massive potential for data to change the way we live and work.


  • Americans for the Arts released its long-awaited follow-up to Arts & Economic Prosperity III, and — wait a sec – the economic impact of the arts went down?! From $166.2 billion to $135.2 billion? Supporting 26% fewer jobs? It’s true. While organization expenditures remained more or less constant in 2010 (when the study was conducted) compared to 2005, audience spending dropped like a stone due to the recession’s influence. Unfortunately, the results underscore the downside of relying on this particular argument to advocate for the arts, as the economic impact narrative to date had been all about more, more, more: the arts are a growth industry, so you should support them! Now it’s, the arts are shrinking, so you should….still support them? My previous review of AEP III is here. Meanwhile, Catherine Brandt has an entertaining account of enforcing the embargo on the AEP IV results.
  • In other research from Americans for the Arts, Randy Cohen details a couple of novel ways of understanding the competitive environment for arts organizations in a region through the Local Arts Index: millennial share and the four-firm concentration ratio.
  • Which neighborhoods in the US are gentrifying the fastest? Here is one estimate by the Fordham Institute, which names such surprising cities as Oklahoma City, Chattanooga, and Roanoke VA among the leaders. But Matt Bevilacqua at Next American City takes issue with the methodology of that analysis, which uses an increase in the share of white, non-Hispanics as a proxy for gentrification.  Bevilacqua makes the case that in certain cities such as Washington DC, people of color can be the agents of gentrification as well. While I don’t disagree with Bevilacqua’s point, it underscores the need for a clearer sense of what we actually mean when we invoke the g-word. Because honestly, my sense from hearing lots of people talk about this issue over the past few years is that most have a pretty clear picture–some might say stereotype–in their minds of what gentrification looks like, and to them it looks like  “white people moving in.” Rightly or wrongly, it seems like Fordham’s proxy measure is pretty faithful to this idea.
  • Fascinating: some university researchers are turning to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to find psychology test subjects and survey respondents, in order to avoid the “WIERD” (from Western, Industrialized, Educated, Rich, Democratic societies) bias inherent in using college students for that purpose. There’s even a whole blog about using experimental methods on crowdsourced populations.


  • This beautiful Father’s Day tribute from Rocco Landesman brightened my day when I read it, as did the photos of Fred Landesman’s gorgeous paintings. Well worth a read.
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Arts Policy Library: Cultural Engagement in California’s Inland Regions


WolfBrown’s 2008 Cultural Engagement in California’s Inland Regions, commissioned by The James Irvine Foundation and written by Alan Brown and Jennifer Novak (now known as Jennifer Novak-Leonard) with Amy Kitchener, aims to provide a broad view of how residents in California’s Inland Empire and Central Valley regions engage with the arts. These regions are similar to many parts of the U.S. that boomed during the aughts and were subsequently hit hardest by the 2008 recession. The Inland Empire (San Bernardino and Riverside counties) blends slowly east from metropolitan Los Angeles and Orange counties to the mountains and desert, and is a rare region of cheap housing in Southern California. Meanwhile, the Central Valley makes up a huge geographic area that includes the cities of Bakersfield, Fresno, and Modesto, the majority of California’s farmland, and a growing cadre of commuters to job hubs like Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area. Despite the recession, they continue to be rated the fastest-growing regions in California, and are home to approximately 10.5 million residents out of the state’s 38 million.

This study diverges from previous research on arts engagement in that it explores a much wider array of formal and informal settings for the arts, and more forms of participation. The home, churches, parks, and other community spaces are measured against museums, theaters, and concert halls, and the authors also start to look at activities like stitchery, social dancing, and digital photography. Differences among racial/ethnic cohorts, ages, and education levels are also parsed.

WolfBrown divided the study into two phases. In Phase 1, researchers under the supervision of the Alliance for California Traditional Arts conducted an initial door-to-door survey of 150-200 randomly-selected households in each of three Fresno area neighborhoods and three San Bernardino/Riverside neighborhoods, for a total of 1,066 households surveyed. The results from this phase were used primarily to develop hypotheses and to cross-check data from Phase 2, a non-random sample of approximately 5,000 respondents who were surveyed for the “California Cultural Census” via online and on-the-ground intercept surveys at cultural events. Phase 2, the primary focus of the Cultural Engagement study, isolated data from four racial/ethnic cohorts (White, Non-Hispanic; African-American, Non-Hispanic; Hispanic; and Native American, Non-Hispanic) and five focus samples (Hmong; Culturally-Active Latinos; African-American Faith-Based; Latino Faith-Based; and Mexican Farm Workers). Finally, the data was also viewed through the lens of Alan Brown’s five modes of arts participation below, a framework developed for a previous study on behalf of the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism.

Cultural Engagement’s major finding is that the home is a hugely important setting for arts and cultural activities across genres, and yet funders and nonprofit service providers have completely overlooked it as an arts space. Other “alternative” spaces loom large: places of worship, parks, and community centers figure prominently across genres as locations for artmaking and creativity. The wide variety of venues parallels the study’s documentation of the immense range of artistic activities. In several instances, racial/ethnic identity resulted in significant variances in venue and type of participation; I’ll highlight some of this specific data.

The responses to questions regarding arts venues revealed the significance of alternative venues for several of the genres investigated: music, theater and drama, dance, and visual arts and crafts. Two genres, reading/writing and what the authors term the “living arts” (which involve a range of informal/amateur activities like preparing traditional foods, gardening, or taking photographs) were not surveyed for venue variation, presumably because the study’s authors assumed those activities take place outside formal venues by nature. Some of the more interesting findings here include:

  • The home ranks as the most common location for three of the four arts genres measured: music (70%), dance (34%), and visual arts activities (51%). Eleven percent of respondents said theater activities took place at home, and a range of alternative venues were ranked similarly.
  • The Internet is a significant venue for music activities. Thirty percent of the total adult population experience music online, and 46% of 18-24 year-olds download music, a sign that the figures for online engagement will continue to grow (and have undoubtedly already done so since the publishing of Cultural Engagement in 2008). Visual arts show the next highest online activity level at a relatively low 8%.
  • Traditional venues still hold power. The theater ranks as the best-used venue type for drama activities (31%), museums and galleries second-highest for visual arts (26%), and theater and concert facilities third-highest for music (32%, about the same as the Internet).

Within the broader venue results, a number of variations by race/ethnicity also surfaced:

  • Different racial/ethnic cohorts show a preference for certain types of venues. African Americans tend to prefer places of worship as venues across genre, with the exception of visual art. Hispanics and Native Americans are twice as likely as whites and African Americans to use nontraditional spaces for theater, likely in part because they also practice informal dramatic activities (like acting out stories) more frequently. The home dominates as a setting for dance activities for non-white populations (38-47%), compared to only 18% of white populations taking part in dance activities at home.
  • Racial/ethnic differences in participation exist for reading and writing activities. For example, three quarters of whites reported reading books or poetry for pleasure, compared to 45-55% for the other three racial/ethnic groups.

Responses to a series of open-ended questions on active arts participation (inventive and interpretive on the Five Modes of Arts Participation scale) demonstrated an incredibly wide variety of activities within each genre. For instance, musical instruments played include the autoharp, beatbox, computer, and gamelan; theater/drama activities include improv theater, skits, and Renaissance Faires; and arts and crafts activities include scrap-booking, woodworking, and creating floral arrangements.

Brown and Novak note that this variety might point to the increasing fragmentation of artistic tastes, and also describe some findings that indicate unfulfilled interest in arts participation in a number of genres:

  • Approximately a fifth of adults have some music background, but are no longer active, about as many as are currently active. The authors argue that this finding may show a reservoir of unfulfilled interest in musical participation.
  • In the visual arts, 19% indicated an interest in visiting museums and galleries more frequently, and a massive 49% would like to take part in more participatory activities like painting, making quilts, or taking a class.
  • While one third of respondents dance socially, the same number wanted to take dance lessons, more than in other genres. (Only 16% indicated an interest in music lessons, for example.)
  • Eleven percent of respondents reported an interest in taking part in a book club, in contrast to 6% who currently do it.

As with the venue measures, the data for participation and unfulfilled interest in participation reveal some significant disparities by race/ethnicity and education levels:

  • Respondents without college degrees showed higher levels of interest in inventive and interpretive modes of participation. The authors note that most public and private investment tends to focus on observational modes of engagement, and support the idea of expanding funding for the more active forms.
  • Hispanics and Native Americans showed high levels of unfulfilled interest in informal/participatory theater and dance activities compared to whites and African Americans, who indicated a much greater interest in observational engagement.
  • Spanish-speakers have a higher level of unfulfilled interest in reading, versus 20% for whites (who, according to the study, presumably don’t speak Spanish as their primary language).
  • Within visual arts and crafts, the Hispanic cohort reported the highest level of interest in making quilts and other types of needlework at 21%, with even higher levels seen in the Hmong (34%) and Mexican farmworker (48%) focus samples.

Finally, to ensure as broad a coverage of participatory arts activities as possible, Cultural Engagement included questions addressing what Brown and Novak term the “living arts.” Living arts, in the authors’ estimation, are activities that are potentially undertaken without artistic intent, do not necessitate formal education or expensive materials, fall outside activities typically labeled as “art,” and may involve easily-accessible digital tools. The list of activities they wanted to include, but could not due to limits in the study scope, is instructive: body decoration like tattooing and hair weaving, a longer list of culinary and food preparation activities like cake decorating, engagement in genealogy, more writing activities, a more detailed breakdown of digital imaging activities, and various forms of household decoration. What they were able to include, however, indicates strong engagement in several “living arts” forms:

  • Sixty-four percent watch movies, a level of engagement only exceeded by figures for listening to music on the radio and reading newspapers and magazines, and 52% of those surveyed take photographs. In both cases, whites were somewhat more likely to do so than other racial/ethnic cohorts. Forty-two percent prepare traditional foods, with relatively even participation across racial and ethnic groups.
  • Twenty-nine percent reported gardening or landscaping activities, an activity most popular among whites (42%) and Native Americans (41%).
  • Fifteen percent reported making videos, an activity least popular among whites (11%), with the other three racial/ethnic cohorts showing about 20% participation.


Overall, Cultural Engagement both challenges the traditional arts infrastructure and provides encouragement for the expansion of arts services to traditionally underserved places. The data shows that a great deal of arts engagement falls well outside the traditional boundaries of arts nonprofits; at the same time, it also indicates relatively high levels of unfulfilled interest in the activities currently provided by these organizations. However, the fact that the study relies heavily on a non-random sample of people already interested in the arts makes it difficult to extrapolate conclusions to the wider population, undermining one of the study’s five major goals. In addition, surprising results for some of the racial/ethnic cohorts indicate some interesting opportunities for further analysis.

Brown and Novak reason that the use of two data collection phases–the smaller, randomized sample from Phase 1, and the larger, non-randomized sample from Phase 2–allows them to eliminate a great deal of pro-arts bias from the report. Indeed, most of the questions from the two phases are nearly the same, and one might assume that the Phase 2 dataset is strengthened by similar results in Phase 1. They also weighted the Phase 2 data according to known characteristics of the surveyed counties in an attempt to eliminate potential bias. However, a close look at the report raises questions as to how effective these strategies ultimately were in eliminating pro-arts bias from the study.

First, the randomized Phase 1 component may include some pro-arts bias of its own, weakening its usefulness as a control. Brown and Novak mention in quite a few places that the door-to-door Phase 1 survey asked the respondent to reply in reference to any adult in the household, not simply him/herself. It’s unclear whether this instruction led people to respond for multiple arts participants as a single person with a high level of arts interest (as in the case of a someone who plays an instrument, but lives with a brother who attends plays), and if WolfBrown researchers accounted for this issue by filling out multiple forms for each represented person. In addition, even though data collection was attempted from a randomized sample pool, the respondent set might have suffered from some selection bias—the report refers to some difficulty in attaining cooperation from neighborhood residents, and in one neighborhood researchers had to abandon efforts to conduct door-to-door surveys and send mail-reply questionnaires instead. Those who did respond may have had more of an interest in the arts than those who did not.

Second, some of the Phase 2 results don’t stack up with arts participation figures from the NEA’s 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA), which does use a random sample. While most of WolfBrown’s measures cannot be compared with those in the SPPA, many that do show significantly higher levels of activity. For instance, 30% of Cultural Engagement respondents said they “regularly” attend stage plays; only 12.5% of SPPA respondents in the Pacific region claim to have done so even once in the past year. Six percent of Cultural Engagement respondents perform dances, but just 2.1% of Pacific region SPPA respondents do. Meanwhile, 14% of Phase 2 respondents indicated they earn some income from their art, a data point that was not collected in Phase 1 or in the SPPA. This figure strongly suggests pro-arts bias, since the NEA’s estimate of 2.3 million full- and part-time arts workers in the United States represents only about 1.5% of the total labor force.

The survey bias may significantly undermine one of the five goals of the study, to “measure levels of cultural engagement, broadly defined” in the Inland Empire and Central Valley. Given that both Phase 1 and Phase 2 display signs of pro-arts bias, it’s difficult to take the reported levels of overall cultural engagement at face value. The four other goals don’t require as broad a view of the data, and Cultural Engagement serves them much better. They include exploring and defining what arts engagement means for the target regions; understanding differences in engagement across demographic cohorts; investigating the settings in which people engage with the arts; and developing recommendations for how Irvine can more effectively support arts and culture. Even if the report’s numbers for the general public represent an already arts-interested population, results showing an expansive definition of arts and culture, differences in engagement among racial/ethnic cohorts, and a wide variety of arts settings are likely relatively unaffected. WolfBrown’s recommendations to adjust Irvine’s funding to reflect these findings seem to rest on a fairly strong foundation.

The results for two subgroups merit further exploration in future studies: the Asian/Pacific Islander ethnic group and the Mexican farmworker focus sample. Surprisingly, the researchers were not able to survey enough Asian/Pacific Islander respondents to include them as an independent racial/ethnic cohort, other than the Hmong focus sample, despite the fact that Asian/Pacific Islander residents make up a significant population group in many surveyed counties. Because the Hmong are a minority ethnic group in several Southeast Asian countries, and maintain a unique set of traditions and cultural activities, it is potentially misleading to rely on the focus sample results to describe the tendencies of larger, mainline Asian populations in California.

The Mexican farmworker focus sample results were reported along with all other subgroups, parsed by arts activity and mode of engagement. Looked at as a single group, however, a number of surprisingly high engagement results indicate that this cohort may be ripe territory for further, more detailed study. They report higher arts engagement than the general Hispanic population in several areas:

  • A much higher frequency of reading books or poetry for pleasure, at 68%, compared to the general Hispanic population, at 49%.
  • A higher level of participation in many dance activities, including performing dances as part of a group (28% vs. Hispanic population at 6%), going to community ethnic or folk dances (28% vs. 13%), and social dancing at night clubs or parties (65% vs. 42%).
  • In the visual art sphere, 48% responded that they make quilts or engage in other needlework, vs. 21% of the wider Hispanic population.
  • In the living arts, they also reported by far the strongest participation among all focus samples or racial/ethnic cohorts for almost every category: 32% reported making videos, 42% design clothes, 77% prepare traditional foods, and 49% garden or landscape.


Cultural Engagement takes a big step toward recognizing the multitude of ways in which people engage with the arts. By including activities like preparing traditional foods, making videos, home decorating, and social dancing, the study expands the definition of an arts activity to include almost anything that involves some level of creativity on the part of the participant. The living arts section, in particular, hints at the massive range of activities that could conceivably be considered art. In light of the pro-am revolution, amateur and hybrid forms will likely continue to come to the fore.

Cultural Engagement records high levels of unfulfilled interest across a wide range of activities and racial/ethnic cohorts, but because no questions were included asking why people don’t participate as much as they want, we are left to speculate. Some sections of the report seem to imply that if only arts organizations can provide the right kinds of services, the one third of adults who desire dance lessons will come around. But why haven’t they already? Arts organizations might be tempted to dramatically re-imagine the types of activities they support on a broad scale, but perhaps it’s of more utility to think about how to expand their work to include amateurs without losing focus. For instance, an organization might move to support amateur drama activities by providing a venue free of charge, or send budding visual arts curators to tour decorators’ homes and provide advice to help them realize their visions. At the same time, if a gardening-specific arts organization appears, perhaps funders should consider supporting it, rather than rejecting it for falling outside traditional guidelines.

The James Irvine Foundation has responded to the results of Cultural Engagement with a few funding initiatives. Most recently, it created the statewide Exploring Engagement Fund, designed as risk capital to help nonprofit arts organizations produce programs outside traditional venues, for underserved audiences, and better utilize participatory forms. The foundation also cites the Inland Empire and Central Valley as priority regions, thereby aiding the growth of arts organizations within these communities. Irvine recently announced its first round of grantees, which includes support for the Center for the Study of Political Graphics’s effort to launch a new format for traveling exhibitions, Memoir Journal’s memoir-writing workshops hosted in nontraditional venues, and many other projects focused on experimenting with new forms of engagement.

But there’s plenty of room to discuss how to expand on Irvine’s work. Given that so many arts activities take place outside of the nonprofit arts, it’s worth considering how other foundations might support these activities more directly. For instance, a funder could create a micro-grant program directed towards things like book clubs, online video production, in-home crafting and decorating groups, or community-based folk dancers. This type of program would certainly seem risky from a foundation perspective, but what grantees lack in institutional knowledge regarding funder requirements, they might make up for in direct community connection and authenticity. Programs that expand funding eligibility beyond traditional 501(c)(3) organizations would allow foundations to respond more nimbly to an arts landscape that continues to grow more diffuse with every passing year.

Further Reading

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Arts Policy Library: 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts

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: