Here is a report from the National Endowment for the Arts that has serious implications for arts organizations around the country. It’s entitled “Arts Education in America: What the Declines Mean for Arts Participation,” an ominous heading that derives from findings from the 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (the latest version of the Endowment’s surveys of how often people listen to classical music, visit museums and historic sites, attend dance performances, etc.).
The main finding from the 2008 Survey was a five percent decline in arts participation by Americans. The percentage of American adults who participated in one way or another in one of the “benchmark” arts activities in the preceding 12 months fell from 39.4 percent in 2002 to 34.6 percent in 2008.
The new report on arts education takes the participation findings from the 2008 report and connects them to other findings regarding arts education. The Arts Endowment asked researchers at, respectively, the University of Pennsylvania, WolfBrown, and the National Opinion Research Center to analyze the results and draw conclusions about the two areas. Here is what they said, in the words of Sunil Iyengar, head of the research office at the Endowment:
In their analysis, NORC researchers Nick Rabkin and Eric Hedberg test and ultimately confirm the validity of an assumption made with prior SPPA data, that participation in arts lessons and classes is the most significant predictor of arts participation later in life, even after controlling for other variables.
Working along quite different lines, Mark Stern similarly concludes that arts education is the most important known factor in influencing arts participation trends.
This is an important finding for every museum, symphony hall, gallery space, and theater that wishes to boost attendance and support. It is also crucial for mayors and other local politicians who want to raise the cultural environment of their towns and cities. If you do not bolster arts education classes in K-12 schools, your arts organizations will continue to lose audience. Arts course work for Americans at age 10 promotes arts attendance at age 30.
Immediate financial problems demand faster solutions, of course. It’s hard to think ahead when next year’s budget looks catastrophic. But if arts organizations wish to survive in the long run, and if political leaders want to take pride in their communities, then they must speak out in support of music, dance, theater, and visual arts in schools nearby. We remember ancient Athens not only for its democracy and its military. We also remember it for its drama festivals, which gave the world Sophocles et al.