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Arthur L. Dirks,   January 8, 1999
Cite as:
Dirks, Arthur L. (1999). Arts participation in America. Published on-line by author ( Bridgewater, MA. Accessed [date]. Origin:
This paper originally prepared as a section of a larger literature review,
(1999) Community Relationships and Arts Programs in Higher Education, submitted as a qualifying paper to the Graduate College of Education, Univ. of Mass. Boston.


Arts participation

The question of who participates in the arts is important for understanding their value to the community. The National Endowment for the Arts conducted national Surveys of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA) in 1982, 1987, 1992, and 1997. The studies cover classical music, jazz, opera, musical play or operetta, non-musical dramatic play, ballet, other forms of dance, poetry, novels or short stories, visual art, and video programs about the arts or artists. They examined dimensions of attendance, production, and in the more recent surveys, accessing the arts via the media. Each telephone survey involved about 12,500 participants. The following remarks are drawn from several of those reports (National Endowment for the Arts, 1993a; 1993b; 1993c; 1998).

The 1997 survey determined that half the adult U.S. population, or 97 million people attended at least one of the seven arts activities during the year. Rates of participation via broadcast and recorded media for jazz, classical music, and opera were more than twice the rates for live events. For all the survey years, the strongest predictors for arts participation are arts education, level of education, income level, and in some cases, age. General education is a strong predictor of arts attendance, less so for creation and production. Income levels become a critical factor, not only in terms of affordability and access, but also in terms of education. Those with higher incomes tend to have more education, more education in the arts and humanities, and community-based (non-school) arts education, such as music or dance lessons.

As frequency of participation increases, respondents tend to fall into higher age, income, and education brackets. Education levels rise consistently with more frequent attendance and with the number of disciplines attended. Those respondents with high incomes are also more likely to attend four or more different disciplines. Cross discipline participation rates are very high for musicals and plays, highest for museums and galleries. Just over a third of those who participate in the arts attended a given discipline only one time, and another third two or three times. Two-thirds of those who participated in no arts discipline said it was because they didn't have time. Second was cost, and third was access. Younger respondents were less concerned with price factors, while locational issues appear to be more of a perceived problem for respondents with lower education levels. One study noted that distance and availability overshadow all other reasons for not attending for over half of all respondents in a major rural area (Nevada).

While age is a significant predictor only for opera and classical music, it is becoming a concern. Among all adult Americans, it is those born between 1936 and 1945 who attend the core art forms at the highest rate and in multiple disciplines. The age analysis of the 1992 survey notes the issue might be less a matter of age than education and income:

Nonetheless, there is an overall decline in adult arts participation after the cohort born during World War II. The baby boomers are a surprise. . . . Was the education the younger generation received the same as that of their elders? Findings confirm that not only was it different, it did not produce the same income. Proportionately fewer baby boomers have advanced into top professional and high-salaried positions, despite their advanced degrees (National Endowment for the Arts, 1993a, p. 6).

The studies note that pressures for multiple-income households also may reduce available time for arts participation, and that younger audiences may be participating in the arts, particularly music, in ways not captured by the surveys.

In terms of arts creation and performance, men spend less time creating than women, and African Americans less than other ethnic groups. Arts education was the strongest predictor of arts creation, reducing the effect of income level substantially. The highest rates of personal participation in performing or creating were, in order: photography, painting or drawing or sculpting, dance other than ballet, creative writing, and classical music.

One study examined twelve regions _ eleven cities of varying sizes and rural Nevada. It provided some insights of particular interest to this study. "A combination of factors including geography, demographics, programming levels, facilities, and local traditions create a unique context for arts participation at the local level" (National Endowment for the Arts, 1993c, 7). In some cases participation rates seem to be linked with a particular arts institution or a particular production, as happens with a major regional fine arts center or annual arts festival. The study also noted that arts programs can sometimes stimulate demand: "If participation breeds additional interest, then, to a degree, supply can stimulate additional demand and a spiraling effect can occur" (16).

The significance of facilities is notable. "In examining a list of factors that contribute substantially to the quality of life, the President's Commission for a National Agenda for the Eighties (1980) states . . . that more than nine out of ten people agreed with the statement 'things like museums, theatres, and music performances make a community a better place to live'" (Walter, 1987, 7). Attempts in the SPPA to determine the venues in which people experience the arts were less successful than other analyses, because respondents confused college facilities with theatres and other venue types. College facilities were noted for about one-tenth of the performances of most art forms, except opera and musicals, where college facilities were reported for only three percent of the events.

College facilities can be very important to the arts scene, however. One study of Massachusetts performance facilities in 1980 found them to be overwhelmingly inadequate. They did find that the twenty-four college and university drama centers were better than most, though not without their own problems and often not available for community use (Amory, 1980). A frequent problem is lack of support for ongoing staffing and operation of community facilities, which college and universities provide for their own auditoriums. In many rural areas the college facility is the only facility. Some rural community colleges have invested in arts centers to serve their communities, and find that they are often the only institutions or organizations of size with resources to offer arts programs (Fetchen & Heimer, 1989).

For more than three decades, colleges and universities have represented the most pervasive venue for arts experiences in America. In 1964 W. McNeil Lowry, who headed the arts funding efforts of the Ford Foundation, told an international audience, "I think the university may finally become the patron of three-quarters of all that goes on in the arts in the United States" (Morrison, 1973, 3). His note of achievement preceded thirty years of further growth in college and university arts programs.

Colleges and universities are may exceed Lowry's estimate, and have assumed the role once held by the Medieval church. "According to the 1991-92 Higher Education Arts Data Service (HEADS) summary of art, dance, music, and theatre programs, almost $1.6 billion was spent in that year by higher education on supporting the arts and arts education" (Sidorowicz, 1994, 13). By comparison, foundations gave $680 million and the NEA budget was $175 million. Contributions from state and city funds must be added to the aggregate.

Half of the adult population attends at least one art event each year, which can't be considered an overwhelming mandate. Participation correlates highly with arts education, level of education, and level of income. Age appears to be a matter of increasing concern. When people don't participate, they cite lack of time most often. Local factors can affect arts participation in significant ways. Facilities are important, and colleges and universities offer some of the best venues. Institutions of high education have become, de facto, the greatest patron of the arts in America.

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(from larger paper)

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All original content protected by copyright © Arthur L. Dirks, Taunton, MA., 2005.