My Eyeballs Work Anywhere: On Demographic Destiny

by Paddy Johnson on March 29, 2011 · 5 comments Opinion

From A Case Against Demographic Destiny

People are engaging in art online in higher numbers than ever before, but are they visiting galleries and attending arts events? A fascinating 78 page study published by the NEA, Age and Arts Participation: A Case Against Demographic Destiny, tracks among other things the decline of “the omnivore”, a demographic known for its interest in galleries and concert halls.  The paper’s author Mark J. Stern tells us that the largely unexplained diminution of this group is a key reason attendance at arts events continues to dwindle (NYC museums notwithstanding).

According to the numbers, the percentage of the population who fit this bill dropped from 15 percent in 1982 to 10 percent in 2008. A population he calls the “highbrow”, more interested in ballet and classical music, also declined, from just over 7 percent in 1982 to 5 percent in 2008.

From a Miller-McCullen summary:

These numbers matter enormously, since together, the two groups make up “more than half of all respondents that reported any type of arts attendance,” writes Mark J. Stern.

Moreover, “The average number of events attended by omnivores and highbrows dropped sharply between 2002 and 2008,” Stern notes.

“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.”

Stern points to larger societal trends to explain this shift. He notes that, since 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 in the 1970s, 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.

Miller-McCune writes that these findings imply an increased difficulty in getting people out of their homes to experience art and culture, a possible problem for many arts organizations. While this query may be slightly outside the scope of this particular study, I wonder whether our authentic experience — that is, experiencing art in the flesh — is as valuable as we often assume. If I can watch The Metropolitan Opera at home on a live HD simulcast is my experience any less valid? As long as arts organizations succeed in making the general public more aware of their collections and performances, I’m not sure we need to be counting the number of feet that travel through the door, as though the eyeballs collected on the net are worthless.


PC March 30, 2011 at 12:10 pm

Eyeballs collected on the net *are worth less than feet through the door unless you have a “pay-per-view” setup. But then everyone wants the internet to be free right?

laura palmer April 1, 2011 at 2:08 am

It’s not that the ‘eyeballs collected to the net’ are worthless, but as someone that appreciates having to navigate the spectacle of openings by drinking 4 glasses of wine beforehand, I find this alarming. Face to face discourse, along with all it’s awkward silences, & the intrusion of mobile devices when someone wants an escape are all necessary social attributes of these events.

insert Walter Benjamin here; and i’ve expressed my point.

(still, I can’t say I’ve witnessed a drastic decrease in attendance to events I frequent)

sally April 1, 2011 at 2:30 pm

Of course the experience of opera on a screen is no less “valid” than opera live. But it is different. (It’s sure cheaper!) If someone were to offer me a choice between free season’s tickets to the opera vs. real time video streams of every production, I’d take the tickets. I like sitting in the cheap seats and watching how the scale of the choreography and set design activates a giant public space. Watching in that context is a very active, engaged process. You don’t get that in the same way on the screen which is all close-ups and camera angles. Also, unamplified audio in a big room that’s been acoustically engineered is pretty darn fantastic (especially when it’s good).

I’d say the experience of art in the flesh is really valuable. But, when I look at art online that is designed to be seen online, I am experiencing art in the flesh. When I look at a jpeg of a painting I’m seeing documentation. But I’m still having a real experience. You are right that the viewer’s sensorium is working in either case – so as an aesthetic experience both are authentic – they just have different conceptual frames and different sensual effects. If you never go to be present with artworks and only look at pictures of them, you are missing out on something great, not ‘more valid’ but different and cool and worth it. If you engage with online art designed for the web, then you are present with the works. In such circumstances I think its good to remember that you are a body in that aesthetic exchange as well.

C.H. April 3, 2011 at 2:00 pm

Though people are engaging in art online in higher numbers than ever before, while there is a decline in cultural attendance by historic demographic categories, I am not sure it is as simple as people connecting with more art online and therefore going to see it in person less. In other words it is not necessarily a matter of engaging in one over the other but rather an attempt to understand the relationship between forms of participation online and in more traditional venues.The excerpt from this study mentions benchmark arts events, and I wonder what constitutes a benchmark arts event- and whether events in alternative spaces would fall in to this category or would fall outside of it?

I don’t think that the excerpt from the summary in this post necessarily provide insights in to which experiences of culture, online or in person are more authentic, since I think we have moved beyond a point already where engaging with culture online, is automatically perceived as less valid then an encounter in another context (off-line) with a work of art.

Another issue that may be worth considering in relation to this is the cost of museum admission in comparison with incomes over the same period. I would be interested to know if that might also be a contributing factor in declining attendance.

artgrl April 5, 2011 at 2:02 am

It is true, Paddy, your eyeballs do work anywhere. Seeing the opera at Carnegie Hall isn’t more or less valid than watching it in your underwear on simulcast, but we’re comparing apples to orangutans. Going to the opera in person means taking a cab, buying a glass of wine at intermission from a local vendor, and making reservations at that new Moroccan restaurant around the corner. It means having an awkward conversation with your date, smiling at the volunteer usher from the elderly home who takes you to your seat, and thanking the person who you see vacuuming the carpet on your way out. Sure it involves marveling at the acoustics and architecture of the space, but for the argument I’m laying out here, the way the art is presented is less important. Online, your opera simulcast brings with it an entirely different network of actors: data miners, software engineers, and advertisers from multinational corporations who won’t necessarily being putting dollars back into your local economy. For arts organizations that count the number of feet, it isn’t that the online experience is less authentic. But it may eventually keep cultural communities from having the financial freedom to be who they really are.

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