If you’ve been reading The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times this week, attempting to find out how the arts as a whole are doing, you would likely get a fairly consistent picture coming from the efforts of those two sources, and it doesn’t bode well for the arts in America. But if your focus happens to be on theatre, your head might spin from seeming conflicts.
On Monday, September 23, in The Los Angeles Times, Mike Boehm reported the Americans for the Arts just issued National Arts Index of arts participation, complete through 2011. He wrote, using their executive summary, “The report noted ‘overall increases’ in theater and symphony attendance in 2011, and drops for opera and movies.” Good news for the theatre crowd, right?
Well this morning, Patricia Cohen, writing in The New York Times about the National Endowment for the Arts newly released “Highlights from the 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts,” made the startling statement that “theater is the artistic discipline in America that is losing audience share at the fastest rate in recent years.” Scary, no?
So the question is, are these reports in conflict? Is there some underlying difference in methodology that has yielded markedly different results? Is it because the Americans for the Arts report is only through 2011, while the National Endowment for the Arts report is through 2012?
Much as I’d like to tell you that things are not as negative as the New York Times story makes it seem, the discrepancy is in fact due largely to aggregation of disciplines on the Americans for the Arts summary, while the NEA report keeps each art form distinct – as does the full text of the Americans for the Arts study. The rosier picture Boehm drew from Americans for the Arts emerged because it merges theatre with symphony and opera and, perhaps to the surprise of many, the latter disciplines had a very good year in 2011.
Symphony and opera attendance increased by almost 3 million from 2010 to 2011, while theatre attendance was down by about 300,000 in the same period. So in merging, the loss in theatre is masked by the jump in symphony and opera. The discrete numbers in the NEA report, sampled in 2002, 2008 and 2012, show an ongoing decline for theatre, with the rate of change for musicals at -9% and the rate of change for plays at -12%. This mirrors an aggregate decline from 50 million to 45.2 million theatre patrons over the period from 2003 to 2011, as shown by Americans for the Arts.
So while summaries may indicate that there’s some upside for theatre, the detail of the reports are quite clear: theatergoing is trending down. If there’s another comprehensive report that actually challenges this data, it would be good to see it, but if the combined results from these two central representatives and supporters of the arts in America have yielded comparable results, the wake up call for theatre cannot be sounded any more loudly and clearly. No one should cling to shreds seemingly offered in a part of one study. To be sure, theatre’s overall attendance numbers far outpace symphony, opera and dance combined, but the trend doesn’t look good at all. And with arts attendance/participation in general decline, can theatre collectively get its act together to stop the bleeding, let alone reverse course?
I urge anyone working in the arts, in any discipline, to study both of these reports carefully. By all means, get beyond summaries and condensations. I’ve only focused on a few pages and I’m quite certain we’ve got a lot more to learn if we’re going to be able to generate good news about the field again and continue to make the case for the vitality and centrality of the arts in American life.
P.S. When a government agency and an advocacy group agree about the problems in American arts, wouldn’t it be nice if our president cared enough to even nominate someone to run the Endowment? The clock keeps ticking, but that’s the only sound we hear.