Monday, January 19, 2015

The NEA and the Federal Reserve Bank Reports

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

Two important reports of note this past week:

First, the release of the NEA report ("A Decade of Arts Engagement") on arts attendance and participation - widely reported almost everywhere.  Not much new here.  Confirmation that attendance in the core arts (the fields we are primarily concerned with) continues a two decade decline, while distribution of arts via technology is on the increase. Arts participation is up overall if you count 'selfles' and downloading your favorite pop song, or maybe dancing in front of your mirror.  And if you factor in movies, television and all the commercial forms of artistic expression, then the arts continue to be a dynamic engine (subject of course to variances up and down).

The companion NEA study ("Going Gets Tough:  Barriers and Motivations Affecting Arts Attendance") is what is getting the most attention.  It sought to find out the motivations of people who wanted to attend an arts event, but didn't - the "interested non-attendees".  The long and short of it seems to be that the pedestrian concerns of not enough time, inconvenience, price (to some degree) and nobody to go with [as "socializing with friends or family members was the most common motivation for arts attendance"(or non-attendance)] are the most important identified (identifiable?) factors in why people don't attend events. It wasn't that people were looking for 'transformative' experiences and couldn't find any; it wasn't because there was any perceived dearth of 'excellence', it wasn't because there wasn't any opportunity or choice -- it was instead mundane issues.  I came to the same conclusion long ago and have written on it before. The time issue is at least partly due to the shift in the increasing demands of the workplace, and that is due in part to the shift of wealth from the middle class to the top tier of society - diminishing buying power and forcing middle and lower class people to work longer for less.

People go to movies in large numbers because it's easy.  Easy to find something close to home, easy to park, you don't have to dress up, it isn't terribly expensive  (especially if you don't buy their popcorn), you can find someone to go with without lots of upfront planning, and the chances of being mildly entertained are decent.  And it is the animated films that appeal to children that are in the top tier of box office earnings - so parents have the time and inclination to take their kids to events - just not necessarily ours.  Going to an arts event requires more - more of a prioritizing of what time is available; more planning.

As others have pointed out, in this second study, particularly troubling was the finding that while exposure to the arts in one's youth is a decent predictor of future arts attendance on the one hand, on the other hand was the finding that those with young children were particularly not likely to find the time to attend an event.

Of course there are lots of questions that come up in the findings. What was the percentage of single parents vs. two parent households?  Did the respondents include in their calculations of cost, not only the ticket, but parking, babysitters, etc?  Was the response of urban dwellers closer to arts venues different from those that had to make a longer trek to get to a performance or exhibition?  And, as with all studies, how truthful were the respondents?  and to what degree are the 'perceptions' of difficulty in attending an arts event based on conjecture, not fact?

But on the question of convenience and the challenges for those with young children, I wonder if we offered more weekend matinee performances and offered free or low cost child care during the performance on site, if that would make any difference for those with very young children?  Would it make economic sense?

I wonder (as I have previously) if we offered van service from certain points at a low cost if that would make any difference to those who said they wanted to attend an event but didn't?

I wonder if we packaged specific performances as "singles" events, if that would make any difference?

I wonder if mobile device availability - perhaps even formatted specifically for children - would tempt more sampling?

The bottom line is that we need to continue to find ways to bring art to our audiences on the one hand, and ways to address the time, cost, convenience issues for potential audiences on the other.

Finally, the elephant in the room is this:  After two decades of declining audience numbers, is that decline an aberration or a new reality?  Is the demand for the core arts now permanently smaller than it once was, or is it that the demand for the core arts in the way we deliver them is what has permanently changed?  

Compounding a clear understanding of how all this impacts us, is the fact that while many arts organizations closed their doors over the past decade, more new arts organizations began -- creating a net increase in the overall number of arts organizations.  Increased data on who these new organizations are, where they came from, who they see as their audiences, how they fared two, five, ten years after launch, and where their funding comes from would be informative.

Everyone should take a look at the NEA studies.  They are important to each organization and to the field as a whole.

The Second development this week was an event at the San Francisco Federal Reserve announcing and touting the current issue of their  "Community Development Investment Review" -  focused on Creative Placemaking.  An anthology of perspectives on the viability and value of the intersection between the arts and community development heralds a potentially win-win future for both sectors.

Why is this important?

First, as Jamie Bennett quoted Rocco Landesman to me about the importance of this event:  "The arts are finally at the adult table."  I think that is spot on, and for that, if nothing else, Arts Place, Jamie, and in particular Laura Callanan, (the newly appointed Senior Deputy Director of the NEA, who was a visiting scholar at the SF Federal Reserve, and is to be credited with taking a lead role in spearheading and shepherding this event from idea to reality) are to be congratulated for a really important milestone.

For far too long we've been seated at the kids table in the kitchen; the province of the East Wing of the White House; hardly even an afterthought for real, serious business concerns; not important enough to be a factor in policy -- irrelevant and marginal; a luxury, a frill (despite all the evidence we have as to our impact).   The imprimatur of the Federal Reserve as to the value and contribution of the arts in addressing the same concerns and goals of the Community Development movement gives us cachet and credibility that we have for so long been seeking.  It's just a step, but a big step.  We can parlay this 'endorsement' if you will as part of our case making to funders public and private.  It also gives us legitimacy in asking for media coverage as to our value.    Finally, it opens doors for us with other stakeholders - both those long in our camp, but questionably actively supportive;, and those who might be new to our messages.

I might go so far as to argue that an even slight re-positioning of what we do as a complement and collaborator with the purposes of community development might be a way (at least for some who have had limited success otherwise) to successfully argue for more public funding.  Rocco was prescient in his understanding that there was money (lots of money) in other government departments that we might tap into beyond direct funding of the arts through the Endowment.  There is money in the application of the community development goals to what we offer in attaining those goals, and, moreover, the infrastructure that supports the acceptance of the principles of those goals is already long in place and supported by those (like banks and the Fed) who have way more power and influence than we do.  Finally, in many instances the Community Development goals align nicely with many of our own goals.

The report is long at 142 pages (though the last 70 or so are case examples of projects Art Place has funded), and few of us will have time to read it all.  I did read it all-- and there's some very interesting points made - mostly along the lines that the intersection of the arts and community development makes increasing sense, and that there are lots of opportunities for the arts within that intersection.  I would urge you to find the time to take a look at some of the chapters anyway.  It will give you a sense of how your organization might be able to tap into what is potentially a large pot of gold.

Finally, Arts Place used the Fed meeting to tout a new program offering substantial funding ($3 million each) to community planning / development organizations that embed the arts into their approaches.  This is really beginning seed money to support the intersection of the arts and community development.  It's a very smart investment.  The program will make six awards ($18 million total).  Click here for more information.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit