Art Works Blog

Taking Note: The Value of "Priceless"

Washington, DC


"art" by Swrobski via flickr

Last summer, when the NEA rewrote its strategic plan for the next five years, it placed a premium on research and the sharing of ideas. As an explicit goal, the agency now strives to “promote knowledge and understanding about the contributions of the arts.” To be sure, research is not a new function at the NEA; the Arts Endowment has commissioned and conducted studies of arts-related topics since the mid-1970s. Yet, for the first time in its history, the NEA’s strategic plan directs the agency to gather and distribute evidence about “the value and the impact” of the arts.

Let’s suspend the question of “impact” for a moment and talk about “value." Recall those MasterCard commercials that list costs associated with various objects or activities before an announcer says, with reference to a final commodity, the word “priceless.” That’s how many of us feel about art, when it works. Still, the arts can and do express tangible value---even if, in other ways, the arts are preeminently about intangibles.

To launch the NEA’s inquiry into value and value measurement, the Office of Research & Analysis has just released Research Note #102, Time and Money: Using Federal Data to Measure the Value of Performing Arts Activities. “Time” and “money” are mirror images; when we talk about daily consumer spending, we often forget that people are constrained by 24 hours no less than by their wallets. This study examines, among other things, previously unpublished data from the American Time Use Survey (ATUS), conducted by the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The ATUS researchers asked a nationally representative group of Americans aged 15 years or older what they did on the day before the survey. According to data from 2003-2009, 1.5 million Americans on any given day attended performing arts events. Most did this for two-and-a-half hours, with attendance peaking from 8 to 9 p.m.

At least 35 percent of this activity occurred in what we might term “non-traditional” performing arts venues: bars, restaurants, outdoors, schools, and places of worship. As further evidence of the value that Americans assign this activity, 41 percent of attendees brought along a friend---the highest rate of this type of socialization for any leisure activity measured by the survey.

It would be worse than misleading to suggest that performing arts attendance is a sufficient measure of Americans’ arts activities on any given day. The time-use survey also reports numbers, locations, and socialization tendencies for the considerable numbers of Americans who, on any given day, make arts and crafts, attend museums, or read or write “for personal interest.” (Museum attendance, for example, peaks at lunch hour---potentially offering the same kind of foot traffic that the performing arts generate around dinnertime.)

Although these data are useful as a gauge of public demand for various arts activities, more ambitious studies are needed. Research into subjective measures of well-being---such as studies that have been performed by Alan B. Krueger at Princeton University---suggests that time-use surveys have yet to reach their full potential. By asking Americans not only how they spend their time, but how they rate their time spent relative to other activities, future survey-work may bring us closer to putting a price on the priceless.


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