The National Endowment for the Arts takes the pulse of U.S. appetite for the arts

Theaters, opera halls and concert venues were all hit hard by the pandemic. People didn't want to gather in close quarters. To get a gauge on how and where peop...

Theaters, opera halls and concert venues were all hit hard by the pandemic. People didn’t want to gather in close quarters. To get a gauge on how and where people might be participating in the arts again, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) focused on that topic in its most recent five-year survey. For more on the methodology and how the results guide NEA activities, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin talked with the agency’s director of research and analysis, Sunil Iyengar.

Interview Transcript:  

Tom Temin Well, first of all, this is an every five year survey. Tell us the purpose and the aims of conducting a survey and who you conducted among.   

Sunil Iyengar That’s correct. Well, just to back up here, we are, of course, the National Endowment for the Arts, which is, you know, an independent federal agency that’s charged with promoting access and opportunities to participate in the arts nationwide in all its all the different forms and ways of participating the arts, from creating art to learning about it, to, you know, engaging through art as an audience member and, you know, using technology and engaging with the arts that way. So, you know, that’s really in our remit in the way we support grants and initiatives around the country to do that work. So to be a responsible federal funder, one of the things we do, of course, is collect data and analyze it from time to time. So we have actually had baked into our data collection since really the early 1980s, believe it or not, Tom, partnerships with the U.S. Census Bureau whereby, you know, we collect through audience, through household survey data, you know, very reliable response, very reliable, you know, survey frameworks where they, of course, capture the, you know, the diversity of the U.S. population and reflect it very well in the numbers. We managed to collect data on how Americans participate in arts activities. This is a survey of adults 18 and over. And so the last most recent survey was in 2022. Again, the most the first survey was in 1982. So we’ve come a long way. And yes, we do it roughly every five years. And we use these data to report to the general public, to art, you know, arts practitioners, organizations, administrators, but also, as I say, the general public, including journalists like yourself, to understand how arts has evolved and have evolved in these in this country, and particularly how different people now are engaging with the arts and on different platforms and different venues. And that then in turn informs some of our work as an agency to try to, you know, reach the most number of people in the most effective ways.   

Tom Temin And with respect to attending performances, say, is how most people come in contact with the arts or going to galleries. That is, just consumers of art. Have things mostly returned to the way they were in 2018, or has there been some alteration even with the mostly receded pandemic?   

Sunil Iyengar Well, actually, Tom, it’s interesting. The most common way people kind of get their art sort of speaker engage with the arts is actually through consumption by digital media. That may be no surprise when you think about how many people listen to music, you know, while driving or listen to the ships wherever they are, but also other ways, you know, especially through new virtual opportunities to engage with the arts. So that’s actually been fairly constantly the highest proportion of adults participating the arts. That’s 75% of adults. Then then you’re correct, the next highest level, one of the next highest things is actually attending, say, a gallery or performance or, you know, through attending, visiting or attending events. Sure. And that that could also be true of you know, let me just be clear. Performing arts festivals and, you know, outdoor activities. So, yes, you’re right. As a composite, those activities have actually declined since our last survey prior to this, which was five years earlier in 2017. And that may not have surprised a lot of people. But what I think was kind of startling is how certain art forms saw a particularly precipitous, you know, kind of declines, like in theater, for example, going to theater, where I think the rate of decline was something like 40% or higher. And you saw that also with other art forms like, you know, dance and some of those kinds of, you know, live arts events in the past. And we, you know, again, we weren’t surprised by how stark those declines are, especially when you think about the differences in demographic group participation. But I will say that there were two kind of counter points to that. One was people going to you know, one of things we capture are people visiting places to enjoy the design or architecture of a place or, you know, that can be true of, you know, buildings, monuments or neighborhoods, but also kind of parks, national parks and or any other kinds of parks. Those kinds of activities actually stayed, you know, didn’t take a very severe decline. It dipped a little bit, but was roughly the same in many respects. And I think that has to do, of course, with people’s general comfort level, with outdoor activities, perhaps because a lot of those things are outdoors.   

Tom Temin You also noticed an interesting phenomenon, a decline, and this has been steady for a couple of surveys. Ten years. A decline in fiction reading?   

Sunil Iyengar Yes, that’s correct. So reading in general, we did see the percentage of people reading books in general decline a little bit. But we also saw, as you say, a very steep decline over time. We’ve seen it in fiction reading that it’s reading novels of short stories. So it’s about 38% of adults now who do that, whereas in the past it was maybe over 50%. I say this because not to just sort of be a worrywart about it, but I think it’s important to realize these trends can be reversed. Years and years ago, there was a similar dip, and for example, the NEA galvanized around a program called The Big Read, which is one of our national initiatives, which still is very strong. And it sort of supports the idea of one book, one community, you know, efforts where, sure, book clubs and participation activities around books and reading and that along with a variety of other factors, mobilization by libraries and, you know, literacy organizations and writers, helped to drive up the reading rates a few years ago. So, you know, in fiction reading. So I think hopefully, you know, there’s more going to be some more momentum around this. And people recognize that it’s unacceptable to have such low rates of reading when we want to cultivate imagination, empathy and all those capacities. Reading of words.   

Tom Temin We were speaking with Sunil Iyengar. He is director of research and analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts, and we’ve been talking about the consumption side and most of the consumers are not where grants go, but rather to creators. What are some of the trends revealed in 2022 survey on the art creation side? Probably just as much fiction being written as there was. Nobody’s reading it.   

Sunil Iyengar Yeah, we don’t have as much. Not to get too technical here, but we are talking to Federal News Network, so I’ll just say quickly that one of the things to know is that although we have really good long term trend data on the attended side when it comes to reporting on creating, some of those questions have varied over the years because of different explosive new forms of creating art. You know, as we all know, a lot of it through technology. So we haven’t been able to retain the same questions for years and years. We’ve changed them. So it’s harder to make year over year comparisons for creating art. That said, still a very healthy more than half, 52% of adults did some form of sort of creating personal creation or performance of art, which is wonderful to know, and that all, you know, seems to have remained roughly constant, although we can’t make definite comparisons, looks like over the numbers from the previous five years, that’s roughly the same. So it does suggest that, you know, a healthy, substantial portion of the US population still creates art of their own. And that of course, is extremely important to our chair’s mission. And she keeps talking about not only, you know, understanding how art goers and going to arts events is a critical part of the arts ecosystem, but also people independently creating art, living artful lives, as she calls it, which could involve creating art or making doing something with a design in your house or, you know, really informal, if I will, if I can say so, ways of engaging with the arts that may not involve necessarily going right off to, say, an opera performance in a really fine art symphony hall or something like that.   

Tom Temin That leads to the question of how all of this translates into, say, an activity like grantmaking. And let me just make up an example. Ballet, something I actually don’t know anything about. I mean, I’m impressed when I see ballet dancers. I don’t know how the heck they do it, but they are quite talented. And let’s say that the interest on the consumption side is going down for something like that. People don’t watch ballet except at Christmas time. So how would that translate back into grantmaking? I mean, how do you know whether to conclude? Well, there’s no sense in investing grants in this because it’s a dying form, or can we invest in this and revive this form? I mean, how does that all work?   

Sunil Iyengar Yes, Well, I try to be humble and recognize that while we do collect data and try to analyze it, certainly integrate it in decision making for the agency with our senior leadership. We do have a statute and it’s very clear about what we fund. And we in fact, have a criteria by which grants get reviewed by citizen expert panels across the country. You know, so really something like ballet, just take that example and they would the projects would be reviewed on their individual excellence and merit, which are the two overarching criteria. And more recently, our chair has actually helped to modify the way we look at those criteria by understanding that when we say excellence, for example, they may not mean only say excellence of the execution of a work, but the processes by which the work comes into being so engaging with community members, for example, if it’s relevant to the to the work, you know, there’s a lot of increasingly there’s a great deal of art work that now is, let’s say, delving into other domains of human experience, whether it’s arts and health or arts and education and, you know, trying to reach broader audiences. And so understanding the merits of the work and the excellence of the work has to do with recognizing, you know, the sort of so what factor, like not only is the work, you know, excellent on its own terms, but is it in fact contributing to some maybe broader outcomes in the sense that all great works of arts invariably do. It really is up to the reviewers, and it’s not a decision that we make from the top down based on these data. Although I will add that what it tells us about demographic groups participating in different art forms helps us to shape our application guidelines, which then we hope gets us broader and more diverse portfolio of art projects to support.   

Tom Temin And just from a research standpoint, a technology standpoint, because as you say, we are federal news network here. Is there any opportunity to get more fine grained or larger volumes of data given that so much consumption is digital and for that matter, you know, ticket sales and all of this is all digital now? Most people don’t even know what a box office is. Is there a way to tap into social media, tap into things to get an even more fine grained picture of what’s going on?   

Sunil Iyengar So because this is a radio interview, I know I’m grateful that your listeners can’t see me salivate at those prospects because I think that’s really exciting. And we, of course, would want to try to find ways to tap that kind of data. Now, the thing is, you probably know in a federal agency we have to be careful and you know, our Office of General Counsel and others would probably be very judicious, no pun intended, in trying to understand how can we do this in a way that’s, you know, through the rules to make sure we can enter into data agreements or partnerships that will allow us to obtain, say, private sector data or commercial data for those purposes. You know, a lot of them have licenses. Sure. Maybe indemnity clauses and things like that, which we can’t necessarily do. Another way to get around it, in a sense, is really, again, through these household surveys. So we actually had a parallel survey with this one, which we did through an agreement with the National Science Foundation, which allowed us to it’s called the General Social Survey. You may have heard of it. It’s a major household survey. And within that, we added a module, an arts module, that allowed us to understand how digital arts programing is received by people in the general community. So while it didn’t come directly from, say, some of the streaming apps or from the data didn’t come from those apps or from those software companies, it did come from individuals responding how they engage with digital arts. And so that told us a great deal. One thing I can’t resist saying is it’s shared with us is something we didn’t really understand or know before, which is that a much more diverse demographic, let’s say racially, ethnically, even by gender and so forth, participated in digital art forms and said they increased their participation over the pandemic than kind of the standard groups that we see typically going to arts events. That is to say, the demographic profile of people who go to arts events, you know, in person was different from those who seem to be engaging more increasingly in digital art form. So it does tell us that people are getting their art in variety of ways, and we have to be cognizant of the differences, not only demographics, but also socioeconomic, geographic variables that may affect people’s participation in the arts. And that’s where we can do our best job in terms of reaching the communities through our grant making that are underrepresented, which is of course, a priority of the agency through its equity action plan.  

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