Fear of Aging Audiences and Aging Artists

Marge Champion and Donald Saddler (both in their 90s and still performing) in the documentary film, “Keep Dancing”

A number of organizations have emerged which foster developing arts and arts programs for aging populations. One that I’ve mentioned here in the past is the Arts and Aging Toolkit. In section 1.6: Big-Picture Challenges to Arts and Aging Programs of the website (which I linked to in the previous post without commentary) are a number of challenges to what may be called our obsession with youthful audiences.

As the Fear of Aging section states:

A fear of growing old pervades our society. Advertising proclaims the wonders of plastic surgery, herbal extracts, anti-aging lotions, and drugs to enhance or suppress bodily functions. Middle-aged actors have difficulty finding meaningful roles. Older adults don’t want to see themselves portrayed as “old”—living in nursing homes or sitting on park benches.

And putting aside the fact that the over 50 demographic has far more buying power (and often more leisure time) to contribute to the arts in ways that younger audiences can’t and don’t, we’re only slowly seeing how the for profit industries are starting to address this issue as the traditional broadcast media declines.

One thing that seems to pop up whenever I get into these discussions (either here at the blog, on facebook, or in real life) is how much of this push by the classical doom and gloom folks is fueled by aging arts administrators, board members, and pundits. As Janis pointed out when I recently reposted the Arts and Aging Toolkit site to my facebook wall, the page addresses this as one of the Ageism problems. The first bullet point under how “Ageism can affect the arts and aging field” is:

Board members of arts and aging organizations may be reluctant to see programs in action because they are afraid of their own aging process.

And I think the misguided obsession with youth in general, much less a youthful audience, is taking away focus on developing meaningful programs and participatory interaction geared towards older audiences. To me, this seems like an inane thing to do for organizations so worried about their financial futures since, as I’ve emphasized here that the buying power of the aging population is beginning to quickly outpace a youthful audience which is increasingly less willing to pay for arts and entertainment because of the rising Free Culture movement.

Here’s just a brief annotated list of some of those newer organizations:

  • Creative Aging Toolkit for Public Libraries <<creativeagingtoolkit.org>>
    • The Creative Aging Toolkit for Public Libraries is a free, online resource for librarians. It offers access to information about aging and libraries, creative aging research, and best practices in the field. The toolkit contains insights, tips, tools and templates to be used when planning, implementing and sustaining successful programs.
  • National Center for Creative Aging (NCCA) <<www.creativeaging.org>>
    • The National Center for Creative Aging (NCCA) was founded in 2001 and is dedicated to fostering an understanding of the vital relationship between creative expression and healthy aging and to developing programs that build on this understanding.
  • Arts for the Aging, Inc. <<www.aftaarts.org>>
    • AFTA engages older adults in health improvement and life enhancement through the arts.
  • Lifetime Arts <<www.lifetimearts.org>>
    • A national online directory of teaching artists and organizations — peer reviewed, and qualified to design and deliver instructional arts programs for older adults.
  • Arts and Aging Toolkit <<artsandaging.org>>
    • This resource is designed for leaders and program staff in public, nonprofit, and for-profit arts and humanities organizations and institutions and in healthcare and aging services organizations, corporations, and institutions.

A documentary I am looking forward to seeing soon, Keep Dancing, is a film about about legendary dancers Marge Champion and Donald Saddler who are both 90 years old and still dancing. A synopsis at Documentary.org says:

After celebrated careers, legendary dancers Marge Champion and Donald Saddler became friends while performing together in the Broadway Show Follies in 2001. When the show closed, they decided to rent a private studio together, and they have been choreographing and rehearsing original dances ever since. At age 90, they continue to pursue their passion for life through their love and mastery of dance. Keep Dancing seamlessly blends nine decades of archival film and photographs with present-day footage to tell a story through dance of the passing of time and the process of aging.

I’ve also been reminiscing about the late Merce Cunningham and his extraordinarily long career in modern and experimental dance and I’ve also recently watched the latest episode of NBC’s Dracula, in which there’s a scene where Mina Murray arranges for a therapeutic “dance night” for the patients at her fathers’ sanitorium, I’m reminded of some of the research done on some the benefits of dance for the aging.

And this gets to the issue of a general phobia we seem to have for aging artists.  Over the past few years as I’ve been blogging about various orchestra labor disputes, I’ve read I don’t know how many comments directed at older musicians in the orchestras and calls to replace them.

It might be time for us as a culture to step back and rethink modeling our arts organizations after what has traditionally been industries (traditional broadcast media, pop music) that emerged as the result of a post WWII youth consumer culture which no longer has the same economic (and some would argue, cultural) clout it once had.  I imagine that many of these organizations I mention above is part of that kickback, and the for-profit industries have already started to follow suit as I’ve been discussing here.  Again, the Classical Music doom-and-gloom folks want us to follow the youthful audience, which just puts Classical Music one step behind the rest as usual.

Aging of the Orchestra Audience and the Fallacy of “Demographic Destiny”

Like Disney's Chicken Little, the Chicken Little Think Tank would have us believe the "Sky is Falling" in Classical Music Culture!
Like Disney’s Chicken Little, the Chicken Little Think Tank would have us believe the “Sky is Falling” on Classical Music Culture!

In a February 2011 NEA Research Report, “Age and Arts Participation: A Case against Demographic Destiny” by Mark J. Stern, we find a refutation of the so-called dire data that is what the author is calling the “Demographic Destiny” of the graying of arts audience.  The description from the link to the reports above:

Mark Stern, University of Pennsylvania, analyzes the relationship between age and arts participation in the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts data for 1982, 1992, 2002, and 2008. The report concludes that age and year of birth are poor predictors of arts participation and that the age distribution of art-goers now generally mirrors that of the U.S. adult population.

Which is pretty much both Matthew Guerrieri and I surmised given a more nuanced look at the data.  Basically, the aging audiences is simply a function of Demographic Evolution rather than Demographic Destiny.

Continue reading “Aging of the Orchestra Audience and the Fallacy of “Demographic Destiny””

Aging of the Orchestra Audience is a Red Herring

Audience sitting in a movie theater
Audience sitting in a movie theater

I’ve blogged quite a bit about the issue of declining audiences for classical music here (see especially my post, What if there’s really no “decline” in Classical Music audiences?) but have only touched tangentially upon the purported “Aging Audience” issue.  Most of what I’ve blogged about dealt with how much we as a culture tend to idolize youth and how that creates interesting economic consequences when we believe (erroneously, as I think) that this youthful demographic (the “Savior Demographic” as I have been facetiously been calling it) will, well, “Save the Day” for industries prone to the Cost Disease.

Matthew Guerrieri has taken some of the data as has been mentioned on numerous occasions at Greg Sandow’s blog and shown how the aging audience fits in perfectly well with the the rising age of first marriages (for both men and women) and average life expectancy rates.  In other words, the trendlines match almost exactly.  He also mentions the average first birth rate fits in pretty well with the average rise of the age of the audience.  Note that these are all median ages, not arithmetic means.  As Guerrieri states:

This intuitively jibes with the NEA’s “Audience Participation in the Arts” surveys, which show the median audience age going up for all surveyed forms of performance. In other words, the problem—if it even is a problem—would seem to be more a function of demographic evolution than a lack of cultural wherewithal on the part of classical music specifically.

In my comment on his blog, which I’d originally posted on a discussion I was having with Lisa Hirsch on her facebook page about how the rate at which the audience is aging almost perfectly matches the rate at which the US population is aging (again, median age)–here’s the relevant comment for reader’s convenience:

Oh, as an aside, the median age of classical music audience is proportionally the same relative to the median age of the US since the Baumol and Bowen Study (1963-1964)–going back to the earlier studies (LA Orchestra 1937; Grand Rapids 1937; Minneapolis Oymphony 1955) isn’t particularly helpful since those weren’t 1) random samples; 2) were self-reported; 3) were particularly small samples (n= approx 900; 1000; 1900 respectively) relative to the sample size of the later studies Baumol/Bowen, NEA SPPAs, MkKinsey studeis (n= 28,000; 18,000; 25,000 respectively)–and Greg should know better than to take the arithmetic mean of the median age of the two 1937 referenced studies (33 and 27) and refer to that as ‘median age’ (30) of that study as a whole–just doesn’t work that way. Of course the median age of audiences has risen faster than the population–otherwise the latter wouldn’t be consistently within a range of 74-76% of the former for all five time points (1963-64, 1982, 1992, 2002, 2008)–the average life-expectancy has maintained a consistent proportion to the median age since 1900 too (range between 46-49%) and that had to rise far faster relative to the median age of the population to remain so. I think the doom and gloom folks make far too much of the median age issue–the actual decline of audience issue is a bit trickier, but I think given how mass media has developed–and how entertainment industries have capitalized on them (or not as the case may be) has far more to do with the decline of population cohorts than anything else.

Since that conversation, I’ve managed to get copies of all the primary source materials (except the Minnesota piece) that Sandow has been using, as well as compiling a bibliography of a number of other sources that do discuss median age of audiences–most of which take place between the original 1940 book mentioned and 1976 (well before the first NEA SPPA in 1982) and will be taking a very critical look at each and every one of the sources and how they are being used to “prove” that the median age of the audience for classical music has been rising faster than the median age of the US population.  In other words, as Guerrieri states:

Which circles back around to Botstein’s point—classical music has historically played to an adult audience, it’s just that the passage into adulthood—as indicated by first-marriage age—has been getting later and later, and the length of adulthood—as indicated by life expectancy—has been getting longer and longer.

There are so many inaccuracies as well as fallacious reasoning behind the usage and interpretation of this data that I think it might be useful for those of us interested to really understand what these numbers mean, and the limits of what the numbers can mean within a broader context of demographic data.  Also, I’ll relate this to that other issue of the declining audience which, I believe, is a much more serious issue but one that may also be overstated though in ways (if you’ve read my first linked blogged post above) that are counter-intuitive since we don’t tend to think of populations as being heterogeneous with correspondingly heterogeneous preferences.


For more post in this series, visit the Aging of Orchestra Audiences page.

Classical Music, Aging Audiences, and the Emerging Demographic Racial Gap

The San José based Firebird Youth Chinese Orchestra is one of several Chinese Youth Symphonies in the US

I had come across an old (May 17, 2007) New York Times piece by Sam Roberts yesterday while doing some searches for the Aging Audience of Classical Music issue. The piece, titled “New Demographic Racial Gap” is outlining the age gap between the dominant majority in the US and the [still growing] ethnic minorities. To put it in a nutshell the white population in the US is aging faster than the ethnic minority populations which has some implications that the article opens with

That development may portend a nation split between an older, whiter electorate and a younger overall population that is more Hispanic, black and Asian and that presses sometimes competing agendas and priorities.

“The new demographic divide has broader implications for social programs and education spending for youth,” said Mark Mather, deputy director of domestic programs for the Population Reference Bureau, a nonpartisan research group.

“There’s a fairly large homogenous population 60 and older that may not be sympathetic to the needs of a diverse youthful population,” Dr. Mather said.

but has other implications with regards to the Aging Audience in Classical Music debate. See all the current data, especially that compiled by the recent NEA survey as well as other sources is pointing to an audience for Classical Music (as well as other arts institutions) that is aging faster than the population of the US as a whole. And the above piece is claiming that the white population of the US is aging faster than the population of the US as a whole. Think about those last two statements for a bit.

If the implications aren’t entirely apparent for you folks let me state it a bit more bluntly: If the white population in the US is aging at a faster rate than the population of the US as a whole and the Classical Music audience is aging at a faster rate than the population of the US as a whole I’m wondering if the rate of the aging white population is at all correlated to the rate of Classical music audiences.

One of the other things the data states is that ethnic minorities are far less likely than the [white] ethnic majority to attend arts events which lends some more weight to the idea of Classical Music audiences (in the US) being more of a Caucasian Euro-American cultural artifact. Part of the issue is the relative lack of ethnic minorities in Orchestras (roughly 13%) across the country, well below national average (roughly 33%) of ethnic minorities in the US. It’s difficult to show you’re a part of the local community if your musicians don’t reflect the folks in the community. Some organizations and Orchestras are actively trying to bring more blacks and Latinos into the field as I discussed a bit in a previous post, but by far the more interesting thing is the rising number of non-Western Orchestras in the US.

What I’ve been doing lately is looking at how the high density ethnic minority regions in the US also correspond with a relatively high number of non-Western Orchestras and ensembles. For example, I’ve found that the Bay Area, with a Chinese-American population close to half a million, sports nearly 2 dozen active traditional Chinese Orchestras. Same can be found in regions that have a high density of ethnic groups throughout the states. There’s still a demand for “High Art Music” –it’s just that ethnic populations are demanding their High Art Music rather than European High Art Music. Question is, can Western Classical music institutions in this country adapt enough to account for that change in taste or will they continue to appeal to a primarily more rapidly aging white audience? And what happens when that ethnic majority demographic becomes a minority as folks are projecting will happen by 2050?

In the end, there’s far more demand for Orchestras than data focusing on Western styled-orchestras would indicate. It’s just that this demand is going to be filled by Orchestras that play music the growing ethnic minorities in this country want to hear.


Related link:

Portions of this post were adapted from a conversation I’ve been having with Greg Sandow on my facebook page. The full discussion may be found here: http://www.facebook.com/silpayamanant/posts/226938043986077