Sunday, December 13, 2015
The American Middle Class Continues to Shrink - Implications for the Arts?
"And the beat goes on………………."
According to a report by the Pew Research Center, the American middle class continues to shrink in proportion to the wealthy and the poor.
The question I have is what, if any, relationship this fact / trend has to the shrinking audiences for the arts? And if there is any correlation, is there any identifiable causation?
We have research that shows a decline in our audiences; not for everyone, and not to the same degree for every discipline / every organization, but overall, generally. Perhaps there is research about the middle class decline relative to the arts. Or if no research, then theories about the relationship.
There are many possible causes of our audience decline and we have talked about most of them - ranging from time, cost, convenience, competition from other leisure time options, technology, and changing generational preferences. It would be informative to know if those possible explanations are related, directly or indirectly, to the changes in the middle class, and to what extent. And if the middle class decline continues, what does that mean for us?
Decades ago, before the decline in our fortunes, the middle class was the mainstay of American demographics. It's decline isn't necessarily the cause of our problems, but it logically seems to be a possible factor. That we were faring better when the middle class was thriving doesn't necessarily confirm a causal connection to our declining audiences, but one can speculate on the relationship.
Other questions surface as well. Is the increase in the wealthy a positive development for us? Are the wealthy more likely to be our audiences, our donors and supporters? Or are the other factors such as the increased options people have for ways to spend their leisure time and money in competition with us an offset to the gains of the size of wealthy bloc? Or is there no relationship at all?
Was, or is, the middle class critically essential to the health of our organizations? Why or why not?
While there may be little we can do to alter the changes to the middle class, knowing its possible impact might help us to formulate strategies and approaches to deal with the challenge. Of course, figuring that out is likely a complex undertaking. Theorizing about it, while inexact, might still be worth the effort. I leave that to others.
I certainly don't know the answers to these kinds of questions. But I believe those answers are important; if not to definitively uncover, at least to consider. My own belief is that a declining middle class is bad for virtually everyone in society, including the health of arts organizations, but that is just my own bias.
Something to think about perhaps.
Have a great week.