Monday, June 2, 2014

Arts in the Schools May Not Solve the Declining Arts Audience Challenge

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on………………….."

Note:  I want to clarify a point in the below post.  As Randy Cohen pointed out to me there are credible (if dated) studies that suggest that people who have arts in school are more likely to be audience members later in life than those who do not have the arts in school.  But those studies do not claim that having arts in school makes it likely that you will become an arts audience member in the first place.   I would also like to state unequivocally that I was in no way calling for less arts in the schools.  I have always championed the idea of more arts in the schools.  My point was simply that the belief / claim that if we only had arts in the schools we wouldn't have any decline in our audiences hasn't yet been validated.  Studies may sometime prove it to be true, or that it is not.  It would be of value to know. Please click on the "comments" button below and read the comments and my replies.  Thanks and sorry for any confusion.

Arts Education and Future Audiences:

Without arts education in the schools, future generations will have little to no exposure to, or experience with, the arts and are therefore less likely to be supportive - including as our future audiences.  We need to make sure young people get the arts in schools as a way to insure we will have future audiences and public support.

That belief has been repeated so often in our field, that it has taken on the mantle of an absolute truth.

We desperately want that to be true.  It would be the magic bullet that would change our circumstances and theoretically (eventually) bring back 'happy days'.

Yet, we have little to no proof that the claim is valid.  When I was young, we had arts in the schools - drama, art, handicrafts, music programs - together with grammar school exposure to a variety of cultural events, including field trips to museums, the symphony, ballet, plays and such.  So, one might conclude that my generation is (would be) arts supportive because of that early exposure.  And because of the size of the baby boomer generation, our audiences should now be packed houses for all our offerings, but attendance is declining.   Based on the very limited empirical evidence available, there is very likely more support for the hypothesis that art as part of the school curriculum and experience has little to no impact on whether people will - later in life - be more interested in the arts (or any specific art form or discipline) - as audiences or supporters.  It would be nice were the notion true (and it may be), but there is little current evidence to support it.

There may be (and probably are) numerous reasons for performing arts audience decline, but we have to consider that a lack of exposure to the arts in school isn't necessarily one of those reasons.   The very challenge of tracking those with access and exposure to the arts in school over a generation or even two  to determine whether or not school exposure and experience impacts later behavior hasn't even been attempted, and so there is simply no way (other than anecdotally) to verify such a postulation.  One might argue that the fact that performing arts audiences skew towards an older cohort (and that this older cohort, in fact, got the arts in school when they were young) verifies the proposition that arts in the schools does indeed insure an arts audience later on. But that is conjecture and speculation absent some studies to compare those who got the arts in school to those who did not.

Exposure to, familiarity with, and involvement in the arts - at whatever level - may correlate to attendance and support, and then again it may not.  We simply don't really know.  The research would be helpful, but will take a long time to complete, and it hasn't really started yet.

The reality may be, for example, that young people are simply not attracted to Opera (at least not in numbers large enough to bear significantly on audience attendance) - but, that as people grow older and their tastes change and their cultural attitudes are refined, more people in the older cohort are the mainstay of the opera audience.  I personally didn't begin to appreciate classical music or jazz until well into my 30's and beyond.  My exposure to music in school - even opera (though extremely limited) didn't lead me to become a lifelong devotee.  It was only much later that I began to have more of an interest in the art form.  But can we extrapolate from my experience that as people grow older they will more likely become interested and supportive of opera?  Probably not.  Under the theory that early exposure increases future attendance, and given the size of the boomer generation, arguably, opera houses should be packed.  They are not.

So the boomers who got arts in school, and who are now the mainstay of performing arts audiences, are, by themselves, not enough to fill all the available seats.  Supply exceeds demand. That doesn't bode well for us over the next two decades, as boomers are replaced by Generation X, which is numerically much smaller, and members of which may not have had arts as part of their school experience.

There are a myriad of factors that we need to study and analyze to understand the audience decline - everything from price, convenience, and marketplace competition, to consideration of how people's tastes (individual and collective) change over time, to consideration of the possibility that some art forms have a limited (if not finite) appeal (whether we like it or not).  There are, of course, multiple strong arguments in favor of arts education apart from whether or not it may help to build audiences or supporters in the future.

Similarly, the theory that exposure to an art form at any point in life, may help to convert people only marginally interested in that art form, to become more involved, may also be suspect.  Consider this report from Britain on a survey that showed people who sampled live Opera at their local movie theaters:

"Around 85% of audiences that attend live screenings of opera do not feel more compelled to see the art form live afterwards, according to a new survey. 
The investigation found that, after seeing an opera at the cinema, around 75% of participants reported feeling no different about attending a live production, with around 10% feeling less motivated. 
This has shown that screening opera productions to create a new generation of audience for the live art form is “wishful thinking”, according to English Touring Opera’s general director James Conway. ….around 80% of cinema opera attendees were more than 60 years old, which was slightly older than the average age of live opera-goers. Fewer than 10% of those at the cinema screenings were younger than 50 years old.

One might argue that if that 15% of those that went to see a live opera at a cinema (and didn't reply that they had little to no interest in seeing the real thing) could be converted to becoming regular audience members, that slice of the pie might be enough to fill all the empty seats.  But it is a long road to make those conversions, and the graying of the audience, and the problem that those in the audience are scaling older, remains.

Of course, the MET's live opera performances at movie houses around the world has been phenomenally successful - financially and otherwise (brand building and awareness included).  But it hasn't resulted in the MET selling out any (or very many) of their live performances.  And while the MET commands global interest in its offerings via movie houses, very few other companies can compete with them in that medium.  The MET basically owns it and smaller companies do not have the option to reap benefits by copying the offering or trying to compete with the MET.  It may work better for more companies in Europe than it does here.

Back to my point, which is that both early arts exposure in school, and later exposure to operas, don't seem to have resulted in full houses for any opera company.  Perhaps the problem is too many opera houses, too many seats given the demand, and that the demand is not necessarily increased by exposure to the art form - at whatever point in life.  But that may be too simplistic.  We don't know that one generation will behave in the same way as a previous (or future) generation did (or will) behave.  Beyond the role of school exposure and involvement in the arts as a positive (or neutral) influence on audience participation, we don't know which causes of audience decline are primary and which are secondary, and thus wherein the pantheon of positives, school exposure falls.

What we need is long term generational studies to find out with more precision what exposure to, and involvement in and with, the arts in school (or later) has on audience (and support) behavior and trends later in life.  Those kinds of studies will take time.  In the meantime, we must consider that the challenge of butts in the seats as well as increased support for any given art form may or may not be affected by increasing the access of the experience to a wider slice of the public.  It may work, it may well not.

And we must also consider that chasing the younger audience may or may not yield the desired outcome - at least at this point in their lives.  It may be more an investment long term - though those are the studies we need to answer that question.  It may be that certain forms of technological access may increase the interest of differing generations, or again, that may turn out not to be true. And even if it moves interest upward, that may not translate into increased live performance attendance.  It may also be true that certain of the fine art forms do not necessarily have broad appeal across generations, but are most attractive to more narrow age cohorts.  Then too we must also examine the proposition that certain art forms have a finite potential audience - period - and that the audiences for them are not likely to significantly increase in size no matter what we do to attract them, or even when we do it.  And if that is the case, then the issue is how to protect that art form for the present and for posterity given that it may not be sustainable on its own.  And that may involve some very hard choices.

I just don't think we should put too much stock in the proposition that once the arts are back in the schools, or once we can get people to sample the arts, the audience problem will eventually be solved.  There is no credible evidence yet to support such a thesis. Successful marketing may require a great deal more than simply providing access or promoting sampling of experiences.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit.