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Arts Organizations Search for the Missing Audience

A National Endowment for the Arts report finds people who decline to attend arts events cite some unexpected reasons for staying home.
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The Art Institute of Chicago. (Photo: Susan Montgomery/Shutterstock)

The Art Institute of Chicago. (Photo: Susan Montgomery/Shutterstock)

Over the past couple of decades, the National Endowment for the Arts has been dutifully tracking the gradual decline in attendance at cultural events. As part of a series of reports released on Monday, the federal agency decided to augment its latest update (spoiler alert: The situation is getting worse) by focusing on two key questions: How many people seriously have considered attending a play, concert, or art exhibit, only to finally pass? And why did they end up staying home?

If your knee-jerk answer to that second question was “the high price of tickets, of course,” think again. While cost certainly made the list, it was less of a factor than a lack of time.

What’s more, inaccessibility—the perception that the venue where an event is held would be too difficult to get to—was cited nearly as often as money. In addition, one in five decided to stay home because “they could not find anyone to accompany them.”

Taking art to the people, finding ways to fit it into their busy schedules, making concerts and exhibits friendlier to single people—there is no shortage of ideas regarding how to stop the slide in attendance, but there is also no time to waste regarding their implementation.

Altogether, these “interested non-attendees”—members of what Sunil Iyengar, NEA director of research and analysis, calls “the missing audience”—make up about 13 percent of the population, or 31 million Americans. Convincing them to buy tickets will require “creativity among arts providers,” Iyengar says. “There’s a real demand for this stuff, but organizations need to find ways to be more flexible and adaptable.”

Taking art to the people, finding ways to fit it into their busy schedules, making concerts and exhibits friendlier to single people—there is no shortage of ideas regarding how to stop the slide in attendance, but there is also no time to waste regarding their implementation.

The NEA reports that, as of 2012, only 33 percent of American adults attended one of the “benchmark” arts—classical music, jazz, opera, theater, ballet, or visits to an art museum or gallery. That’s down from 39 percent a decade earlier.

A separate study using data from the General Social Survey, which included the aforementioned questions about non-attendance at arts events, produced slightly different numbers. It found 45.6 percent of respondents reported attending a live music, theater, or dance performance in the past year. That more broadly worded question included attendance at pop, rock, or hip-hop concerts.

Nevertheless, the long-term trend is decidedly down for both the visual and performing arts—and the recession, which began in 2008, can’t be blamed.

“Following a sharp decline in overall arts attendance that occurred from 2002 to 2008,” one NEA report states, “participation rates held steady from 2008 to 2012” for classical music, jazz, and dance performances. However, ticket sales for non-musical plays continued to slip further during those final four years, and attendance at stage musicals—one of the few art forms that had been holding steady earlier in the decade—declined from 2008 to 2012.

“There’s no tidy answer as to why this is happening,” Iyengar says. “There’s a lot of competition for leisure activities.”

Iyengar points to two trends occurring simultaneously. First, both the elderly and Hispanics are growing as a percentage of the population.

“Both groups have historically low rates of arts participation,” Iyengar says. In spite of a growing Hispanic population, the total number of tickets sold to Latin, Spanish, or salsa music programs “saw substantial declines” between 2002 and 2012.

Second, the report documents a decline in attendance among demographic groups that have traditionally formed the backbone of arts audiences (and donors). “Highly educated Americans are going (to arts events) at much lower levels than they did 10 years ago,” Iyengar says.

Of course, all this coincides with the rise of the smartphone and e-reader, which have become highly convenient ways to enjoy (and share) both music and written texts. But not all that many users are reading Shakespeare, or even John Grisham.

“The percentage of adults reading a play, poem, or novel dropped to 2002 levels (47 percent) after increasing to 50 percent in 2008,” the NEA reports. (Sadly, there is no breakdown on the amount of time spent watching cat videos.)

The NEA also pointed to some regional differences in their findings. Sorry, Eastern snobs: People living on the West Coast (including Alaska and Hawaii) “had among the highest rates of media consumption for nearly every art form referenced,” the NEA reports.

The state-by-state statistics also yielded an interesting additional piece of information: Exposure to the arts in childhood is a very strong predictor of participation in the arts as an adult. Indeed, it was even a stronger prediction that age or income.

For example, in Washington state, 75 percent of residents reported they had visited an art museum as a child—a figure far above the United States average of 54 percent. It’s likely not a coincidence that nearly 34 percent of adults in the state reported attending an arts museum or gallery in 2012—“among the highest museum attendance rates in the country,” and far beyond the national average of 21 percent.

So, it’s crucial to get people in the culture habit while they’re young. That realization makes the following finding still more troublesome: “Parents with children under age six at home are significantly less likely to attend arts overall, and they are especially less likely to visit art museums.”

“The most common barrier cited by interested non-attendees in this group is lack of time,” notes the NEA, which goes on to suggest “co-locating” arts events “with other family-friendly attractions and sites.” Such cooperative ventures would effectively reduce the cost of attendance, as well as save people valuable time—two of the issues cited by members of “the missing audience.”

Intriguingly, the report cites a number of zoos that have created cultural components in conjunction with area arts organizations. The alliance might not be an obvious one, but the symbolism works: Where better to preserve the endangered species of culture vultures?