Changing Arts Audiences: Capitalizing on Omnivorousness

October, 2005

These should be boom times for the fine arts in America, as the Baby Boom generation - - those born between 1946 and 1965 -- are better educated, wealthier, more urban and more widely traveled than their parents - - all correlates of active arts participation. Not only are they very numerous and in many ways similar to those who have attended the arts in the past, their participation in live arts events should be reaching its highest level now as child-rearing activities are waning, and the large cohort of Boomers can more easily go out to enjoy arts events.

But as those in the art world know, the reality is not so rosy. Many arts organizations have experienced lower attendance, some notable organizations have failed or have been drastically reorganized, and all are finding that their audiences are aging. The graying of U.S. fine arts audiences can be graphically seen in the figures periodically collected by the U.S. Bureau of the Census for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). As Table 1.1 shows, in 1982 only the opera audience(shown in the second row of the table) had a higher median age1 than that of all survey respondents (shown in the first row). By 2002, just twenty years later, only ballet and jazz have audiences younger than the median for all respondents. As can be seen in the right hand column, the graying has been the greatest for jazz, classical music concert attenders and art museum attenders. Special circumstances may account for the rapid aging of the jazz audience,2 but no art-form specific circumstance can explain the fact that over the twenty years in question, the median age of audiences for classical music and art museums has risen by nine years, the equivalent of 5.4 months per year. In their studies of earlier waves of the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA), Balfe & Meyersohn (1996), Peterson & Sherkat (1996), and Peterson et al (2000) conclude that the reason for the increasing age is that the numerous well-educated, affluent, traveled Boomers – and the birth cohorts coming after them – are not more, but are much less likely to attend fine arts events than were the older generations born before World War Two.

As clear as they are about the facts of aging arts audiences and the implications for declines in arts audiences,3 these studies do not point to the reasons for these tectonic shifts in the behavior of potential arts participants. The reasons may be many and various, but this study uses the available SPPA data to point to a significant shift in how cultivation of the fine arts is used in signaling high social status. Put simply, we see a shift in elite status group politics from those highbrows who snobbishly disdain all base, vulgar, or mass popular culture, (here called snobs or univores) to those highbrows who omnivorously consume a wide range of popular as well as highbrow art forms (here called omnivores). It is important for arts policy leaders to understand this general process so they can better interpret all the specific changes they see going on in the contemporary arts worlds and consider how best to take advantages of these changes in promoting the arts.

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