The omnivore may not technically qualify as an endangered species. But the coveted creature — known for its sensitivity, inquisitiveness and tendency to congregate around galleries and concert halls — is in decline. And that poses a major challenge to America’s arts organizations.
Omnivores — defined by sociologists as people who regularly participate in a broad range of cultural activities — represent a small minority of the population, but a large portion of the arts audience. In a new analysis recently released by the National Endowment for the Arts, author Mark J. Stern concludes that this engaged, energetic group is both shrinking in size and becoming less active.
Stern, a professor of social policy and practice at the University of Pennsylvania, describes this trend as “a double blow” to the nation’s arts organizations. In Age and Arts Participation: A Case Against Demographic Destiny, he argues the largely unexplained diminution of this group is a key reason attendance at arts events continues to dwindle.
Stern notes that, in recent decades, there has been “a precipitous decline in attendance” at art museums, plays, operas, dance performances, and concerts of both jazz and classical music. According to NEA statistics, classical music attendance has declined at a 29 percent rate since 1982, with the steepest drop occurring form 2002 to 2008. The only art form that did not record a statistically significant drop between 2002 and 2008 — and the one that has had the smallest decline overall since 1982 — is musical theater.
This drop-off has often been ascribed to demographic factors, with some worrying the baby boom generation (raised on television) and its kids (raised on computers) are too caught up in the world of mass media and pop culture to cultivate a taste for the arts, which demand a level of focused attention that seems anathema to contemporary life.
Others have argued the graying audience many arts organizations have noted is a natural phenomenon. According to this school of thought, it isn’t until people’s kids have grown that they have the money and time to enjoy the finer things in life, including going to concerts and museums.
Stern argues that, when you look at the population as a whole, neither of those arguments hold much water. Using data from the NEA’s 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, he breaks down the audience by both age and generation (pre-1937, World War II, Early Baby Boom, Late Baby Boom, Gen X and Post-1975).
“When we control for other influences — especially the role of educational attainment — the predictive value of age and (generational) cohort turns out to be quite minor,” he writes. In contrast, the likelihood of attending arts events increases dramatically with education, from less than 10 percent for those whose education stopped at high school graduation to more than 40 percent for those with graduate degrees.
That said, age and generation become relevant when you focus on the aforementioned slice of the population known as omnivores (as well as their close cousins, highbrows). First identified by sociologist Richard Peterson in the 1990s, omnivores are people who attend both a wide range and a large number of arts events. Highbrows also attend arts events frequently but limit their participation to such art forms as ballet and classical music.
According to Stern, the percentage of population classified as omnivores has dropped dramatically, from 15 percent in 1982 to 10 percent in 2008. The highbrow population also declined, from just over 7 percent in 1982 to 5 percent in 2008. These numbers matter enormously, since together, the two groups make up “more than half of all respondents that reported any type of arts attendance,” he writes.
Moreover, “The average number of events attended by omnivores and highbrows dropped sharply between 2002 and 2008,” Stern notes. “Omnivores’ average number of events attended fell from 12.1 to 11.0 events per year, a decline of 9 percent. Highbrow attendance fell by 11 percent — from 6.1 to 5.5 events per year — while other participants’ attendance held steady.”
“Taken together,” he adds, “the decline of the omnivores’ share of the population, and their drop in average number of events attended, represented 82 percent of the entire decline in individual attendance at benchmark arts events between 2002 and 2008.”
To put it simply: When your regulars decline in number, and the remaining ones stop coming quite so regularly, you’re in trouble.
Stern links this phenomenon to both age and generation. “First, the proportion of cultural omnivores tends to decline with age,” he writes. “Younger adults are more likely to be omnivores than older adults. Second, omnivores are more likely to have been born before 1955 than after. The omnivore pattern is more associated with the World War II and early baby boom cohorts than with later groups.”
Stern points to larger societal trends to explain this shift. He notes that, since the 1970s, the trajectories of Americans’ lives have become far more varied and flexible. Perhaps, he argues, “the omnivore represented a transitional stage in our cultural development.”
After all, Stern writes, the omnivore arose at a time when people “were no longer willing to let their social status define what cultural tastes were acceptable for them.” This newfound freedom prompted them to sample cultural activities from throughout the spectrum.
Although it’s taking a different form, “this quest for a more personal, flexible and protean approach to cultural engagement appears very much alive,” he concludes. He points to a 2009 study of Philadelphia residents that found that while many consider themselves “culturally engaged,” their connection to music and the arts tends to be via radio, television and books.
That notion is compatible with a separate NEA report that finds while 34.6 percent of adults attended “benchmark” arts events such as ballets or art museum exhibits in 2008, nearly 75 percent “attended arts activities, created arts, or engaged with art via electronic media.”
While this suggests fears of the U.S. becoming a cultural wasteland are overblown, it also implies getting people to leave their homes to see a show or visit a gallery is becoming increasingly difficult, leaving arts organizations in a precarious position.
It also makes hybrid experiments, such as the live-in-HD simulcasts recently inaugurated by the Metropolitan Opera, Los Angeles Philharmonic and National Theatre of Great Britain, all the more important. Will they stimulate cinema-goers to attend live performances, or drain the in-person audience further by serving as acceptable substitutes? It appears a lot is riding on the answer.