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.