Study Finds the NEA Serves Both Rich and Poor (Kind of)

by Corinna Kirsch on February 5, 2014 · 4 comments Newswire

Here are people in a museum. Photo by Courtney Velasco.

Here are people in a museum. Photo by Courtney Velasco.

2013 was a year like many others. The sun came out in the mornings, and government officials tried to shut down the National Endowment for the Arts. In March 2013 the U.S. House of Representatives budget called for slashing the NEA’s budget by 49 percent. That same month the House’s Budget Committee referred to the NEA and other federal cultural agencies as being “no longer justified, noting that NEA-funded activities are “generally enjoyed by people of higher-income levels, making them a wealth transfer from poorer to wealthier citizens.” In other words, we would be taxing the poor to build bastions for the rich.

In response to those claims, the National Center for Arts Research at Southern Methodist University (NCAR) has published a report to challenge this notion that NEA-funded art is for the wealthiest. They are super excited about what they’ve published, too. The study’s director told Art Seek that it proves that “the arts are far more democratic than they are given credit for.”

Here’s what they found out:

1) NEA grants do not favor arts organizations in wealthier communities; instead, funding is more often awarded to economically diverse communities [with a higher percentage of households that are wealthy and a higher percentage of households that are below the poverty line.]

2) Attendance rises with increases in the percentage of households below the poverty line, and with increases in the percentage of households with incomes above $200,000.

Alright, so those two findings need some interpretation. The first point says the NEA tends to fund activities in communities with large numbers of both rich and poor residents. In other words, these are places with a smaller middle-class. As for the second point, NEA-funded activities see higher attendance numbers in communities where such financial diversity is in place. But this type of very-rich-and-very-poor city sounds a lot like New York or any other metropolis. That’s not really big news.

What we still don’t know—and maybe this is for another report—is who’s going to those museums. College kids, gastroenterologists, factory workers, hedge-fund investors, or what? That’s what we really need to know, if we don’t want a repeat of 2013.


JeromeWeeks February 5, 2014 at 6:42 pm

If you’d followed the link in the report to the story about NCAR’s earlier study, some of your questions might be answered. In particular, scroll down a bit to the bulleted points under “Other surprises.” The fact is, big cities are both very attractive to arts audiences and are a very negative influence on them, too.

Corinna Kirsch February 5, 2014 at 7:47 pm

That’s a great article you wrote up, and SMU’s group is doing a great job at getting to the heart of what makes art organizations tick. I’m still curious about whether they’ll eventually address just who, exactly makes up regular museum attendees, the rich or the poor?

JeromeWeeks February 5, 2014 at 8:13 pm

For that, you might want to keep up with what the Dallas Museum of Art is doing – some of the most in-depth market research of any museum in the country. Sorry, it’s a lengthy essay but the first one that spelled out all the thinking and ramifications of what the DMA is trying.

David_Marcus February 11, 2014 at 9:57 am

The NEA itself has hard data showing that attendance at NEA funded events overwhelmingly skews towards the wealthy. Frankly, this study seems to be an attempt to hide that fact rather than to explore it. In an article I wrote last week I outline some of the actual evidence that belies the study’s claims.

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