Thursday, January 21, 2010

National Arts Index 2009 - What does it mean for us?

Yesterday morning Americans for the Arts issued the "National Arts Index 2009," a research project over four years in the making. In it's own words it is designed to be "an annual measure of the vitality of arts and culture in the United States."  It takes 76 national-level indicators and consolidates them into an index of the cultural health of the country. 2003 was set as the benchmark year at 100, and the survey covers a ten year period from 1998-2008. The plan is to now update it every year.

The study is motivated by the desire to have a reliable national measure of our culture sector, one that goes beyond just measuring economic impact or attendance figures, but gets at the nuances that go into cultural participation and vitality.

What has already gotten a lot of pick-up in the news media is the "sound bite" version of the study: The 2008 index score is 98.4, a 4.2 point decline from its 2007 score, and down  significantly from its high point of 105.5 in 1999. The other broad stroke finding is that demand for the arts increasingly lags supply. Between 1998 and 2008 the number of artists, non-profit arts organizations and arts-related employment steadily grew, while attendance and funding delined.

But embedded in the guts of the 136 page report are lots of findings that deserve attention as well. Arts participation is actally slowly but steadily growing. What is declining is attendance at "mainstream" arts organizations, while at the same time personal creation of art is growing, and the number of community-based and culturally-specific arts groups is growing faster than the rate of the growth in the minority population and faster than the growth of nonprofit arts groups in general (AND, they are actually somewhat healthier financially, contrary to stereotype). Attendance at live popular music is stable - not declining, but not rising. Demand for arts education is also up significantly. The non-profit arts model is struggling, with nonprofit arts organizations steadily - and dramatically - losing market share to other causes; that index has declined from a high of 119.3 in 1999 to 98.9 in 2007. The drop-off in market share for the arts in corporate giving is especially dramatic, from 2.53 in 1999 to .85 in 2007. It is certainly even lower now.

Some statistics that feed into the Index show dramatic (if unsurprising) changes. CD and record store sales have essentially fallen off a cliff, dropping by 50% in the past 5 years. The index for "creative industry" businesses, covering a wide array of types of creative businesses, have grown dramatically, increasing from an index of 1.00 in 2003 to 1.25 in 2008. The number of people with visual and performing arts degrees has grown dramatically, in effect following or feeding the comparable dramatic growth in numbers of nonprofit arts organizations that presumably are employing many of them.

As Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute said at the press conference where the study was released, the study can be an important policy tool if we are open to the implications. We have adopted an attitude in the arts and funding community that it is a tragedy when an arts group dies. As a result we have frankly artificially kept alive too many arts group for both audience demad and funding capacity. This also makes it difficult for new artist-entrepreneurs that want to enter the market. We need to make it easier to "die with dignity," to create a culture that treats arts groups like restuarants - they come and go, shifting with public taste, quality of product, demographic changes, etc. Put the public still is being served their art, even if their "server" may change over time. We also need to meake it easier for artists to come together, make work for a period of time and disband or move on, without having to form an "institution."  We need to figure out how to support and foster not just nonprofit arts and culture organizations, but also new forms of art creation and distribution and art that happens in the for profit realm - digital music, live music clubs, video production, etc. We need to figure out how to better support and celebrate personal practice in the arts - singing, playing music, writing, painting and other forms of visual art creation, faith-based arts, etc.

Also curious about some measures that may or not be in the study. Did it look at digital downloads and file sharing as a measure of cultural participation? NetFlix rentals? Participation in church choirs? Even though live popular music particopation seems flat, I wonder how it breaks down by type of venue - are large arenas slipping while smaller, more intimate clubs are rising?  Even though there is a growth in NUMBER of community-based culturallly-specific organizations, is there a growth in attendance/particiopation at these organizations, and is that participation now "lumped in" with the other measures of participation? If so, if you take them out of the measure of nonprofit arts participation, are the numbers in fact even worse?

This long list of what we "need" to do, does not fit easily with our existing systems. Does it change the priority decisions that Americans for the Arts makes on what to advocate for?  For example, do we need to put as much energy into fostering a focus in Commerce and SBA on creative businesses, and/or on digital copyright issues, as now goes into advocating for more NEA $? What do we do at the local level? What about grant programs that won't or can't support for-profit arts businesses or non-professional activity. Are we focussing enough on the organizations that serve communities of color?

Somehow the story has to be made into a story of opportunity. Demand for the arts is not necessarily oustripping supply. Demand for the type of art our systems have been focussing on delivering in the way we have been delivering it seems to be slipping, even as the supply of these offerings have risen. People still very much want art to be a part of their lives. It is a critical part of the life of our growing immigrant populations, despite budget challenges it is an increasibly important part of the educational experience. Frankly, even with "traditional" arts groups, sales are actually flat or even up this year for most groups, according to what I am hearing, despite the difficult economy (though price per ticket may be down because people are seeking out cheaper tickets or free events). And there is growing research that shows people consider the arts critical in making choices about where they want to live or visit as leisure travellers.

I think the National Arts Index can be a rich opportunity to engage in a critically important dialogue, and I look forward to Randy Cohen from Americans for the Arts, who oversaw this research, coming to Philadelphia to break down the data and start the conversation going locally.

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