Other explanations for decline in arts audiences

This is something I’ve thought about for some time last year.  It took a response by Greg Sandow to one of Lisa Hirsch‘s many and detailed concerns about his overestimating the doom and gloom message by San Francisco Opera’s general manager, David Gockley, for me to revisit some of this line of thought.  Here’s the comment:

When Robert Flanagan’s book is published, you’ll see (if you read it) that he looks at various measures of city life, to see which ones correlate with financial trouble for the local orchestra. The factor with the strongest correlation is loss of population. He mentions Detroit and Philadelphia as two cities where the population loss was particularly great.

Setting aside the issue that correlation doesn’t equal causation, this does look like something that’s very plausible.  Not having read Flanagan’s book yet, I’ll have to see how he actually states the correlation.  But it’s not much of a stretch to see that with a declining population of possible patrons, there is definitely a strong probability there will be a declining population of actual patrons which will then translate into declining amount of funds (either via tickets or donations).

An aside–I have read a number of Flanagan’s other papers and he does make a distinction between “weather” and “climate” with regards to the conditions surrounding Funding and Orchestras.  I suspect the issue of declining population would be considered “climate” and something outside of the control of Orchestras though the possibility of population decline accompanying decline of business (for which I’m sure there is probably a correlation) could make it a “weather” condition (“weather” being explained as the ebbs and flow of local or national economic prosperity).

Either way, loss of population means loss of possible funds for any kind of enterprise for a region.

Now, back to what I’ve been thinking–since any regular reader of my blog knows I spend a huge amount of time discussing and analyzing the arts and ethnic and immigrant populations–declining population can be absolute and or relative with regards to the possible audience or patron for any particular arts organization.

What difference does this make?  Well, if I’m on the right track then there may well be other ways to define declining audiences and patrons other than an exodus out of a particular region or metro area.  And for those of you who follow this blog, you’ll know that this has to do with the changing racial demographic I’ve blogged about on numerous occasions.  And related to this issue is the problem of defining “The Arts” especially in data used surveys such as the one that the NEA is using.

Also, this can give us a different way to look at the data in the NEA survey since there are many inherent ambiguities tied to how we define “The Arts.”  I’ve already blogged about some of these issues of whose arts we’re talking about.

Let’s just assume that it is the case (which it may or may not be) that audiences and patrons will be constant in their support of the arts either through attendance at concerts or through the general amount of money being donated through philanthropy.  Economic support for the arts will go up or down with the population level, right?

“For the arts” is the clincher here.  Not necessarily for the Met Opera, or the Chicago Symphony, or any one particular organization but for the arts as a whole.  This means, how much money any one institution will get will depend not just on the population willing to give, but also the competition the organization has within its particular region.

We recognize this is the case when we talk about Popular culture, sports, and home entertainment as being something that possibly draws discretionary and leisure funds and time from potential audience members.  But again, let’s assume all the time and economic commitments are constant.  And notice that what constitutes the arts is a far larger and bigger animal than we are used to dealing with.

Since I’ve talked about the increasing number of non-Western arts organizations which can be positively correlated with (though again, not necessarily causative of) the rising non-Euro-American population, then we have arts organizations which are competing for those funds from the population as a whole.

Also, there has been (during the recession years of 2007-9) 3,000 new nonprofit arts organizations created according to one recent National Arts Index annual study.  This is consistent with the trend for smaller and more regional part time arts organizations that have been cropping up all around the US for some time now (see also the Rand Corporation research brief for more data about proliferating non-profs).  That more an more state and local funds are going to these organizations (to match the declining Federal funding going to them) is probably another indication that the funding dynamics are changing to a more local (and personal) level.

So we have a proliferation of smaller and more regional arts organizations; and a proliferation of non-Western arts organizations that tend to match local changing demographics; and all of these are in competition for funding from the population as a whole which may or may not be constant (depending on the region).  I don’t think it is surprising that the larger, more mainstream and more traditional organizations might be showing some decline or a longitudinal downward trend (as Greg Sandow has stated in some places with reference to Flanagan’s book).

Add in the contribution of Baumol’s predictions for arts organizations and much of this makes sense.

Of course, technology is changing, and some of the large organizations are starting to take advantage (or starting to see returns from early adoption of the technologies) of the means to create more productivity.  Remember that Baumol states that it still takes the same amount of musicians to perform a Beethoven Symphony now as it did in Beethoven’s time so the labor cost will never go down (and in fact will increase).  But with livecasting, arts organizations have started to find a way to sell the performance/product to increasingly larger audiences without actually increasing labor costs.

The Met Opera is claiming this is one of the reasons it currently operates in the black.  It remains to be seen if the new technology will be able to help other larger organizations or even smaller ones and individual artists (though even the superstar, Yo-Yo Ma, is taking advantage of this now with the upcoming Goat Rodeo Session livecast).

I guess what I’m emphasizing here is that having a declining audience for a particular arts organization (or group of arts organizations) isn’t synonymous with a declining audience for the arts (note also that the NEA data states that “Arts participation–especially online–is actually up).

But Douglas Dempster said as much in his analysis of the field over ten years ago (as I’ve mentioned at Greg’s blog here), and dealing with a complicated set of statistics without looking at other possible ways to parse the subgroups may tell us nothing about the subtle nuances which may be more tied to actual causal explanations of the data:

I haven’t offered anything approximating an exhaustive survey of the known data on the classical music audience. But the studies reviewed here make it perfectly clear that critics have, perhaps in a spate of millennial fever, greatly exaggerated the demise of classical music at the end of the 20th century. Even worse, however, they have witnessed very complex trends in the culture of classical music and reduced them to the morally simplistic calculus of “rise” and “decline.” Musical and cultural critics misinterpret economic, demographic, and technological changes affecting the world of classical music as signaling some spiritual decay in the culture of classical music itself. The audience for classical music is not withering, but technological, sociological, and economic forces are reshaping that audience in important ways.

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