Art Works Blog

Taking Note: Updating the Public Record of Arts Participation in America

The cover of the 2008 SPPA Report. You can access the full report here.

Next month, the U.S. Census Bureau will interview roughly 36,000 Americans about their levels of engagement with the arts as part of the 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA). Since 1982, this NEA-designed survey has culled such data from a nationally representative sample of adults (ages 18 and older). For the survey, Census interviewers ask people about their participation in a wide range of arts activities, including performing arts and film attendance, art museum-going, literary reading, and visits to historic sites, parks, or neighborhoods for their architectural or design value. Historically, the survey has also included questions about personal creation and performance of art, and arts participation via electronic media, including the Internet. But with five surveys conducted over nearly three decades, it seemed time to revisit the way we ask about the arts in America.

With fieldwork for the 2012 SPPA slated to begin in July, the public can expect to see early results reported in winter of 2012 or early spring of 2013. So, to ready you for the onset of "SPPA 2012," we thought it would be a good idea to preview some of the changes we've made to this year's survey.

But first, a refresher on how it has traditionally been structured.

The SPPA consists of a "core" set of questions that all survey-takers are asked. It also contains a series of "modules" on additional  topics (i.e., music-listening preferences, participation via Internet and other media, participation in various leisure pursuits, and arts educational activities). Adults are randomly selected to answer particular modules.

In previous versions of the SPPA, we've tried to address limitations of time and space---as in questionnaire space. With only ten minutes worth of questions at our disposal, we've had to make hard choices about what to ask and what to omit. Despite this trade-off, we've attempted throughout the years to capture emerging art forms and new modes of participation. In 2008, to address changes in U.S. demographics, we added a question about attendance at live performances of Latin, Spanish, or salsa music. Nevertheless, the remaining core questions about live music attendance were still confined to jazz, classical music, and opera.

In preparation for the 2012 survey, we sought advice from multiple stakeholders, both within and outside the NEA. In 2010, we held a planning meeting where over 20 research methodologists, arts managers, and others gave their opinions on which elements of the survey were most important to retain, and where they saw opportunities for improvement.

In addition to improving our ability to measure participation in emerging art forms and modes, we've tried to address a number of other limitations with the SPPA. Below are some of the challenges we encountered, and how we decided to tackle them.

  • Conflation of arts attendance and arts venues: Previous versions of the SPPA ask about going to an art museum or gallery. The 2012 SPPA will ask the respondent if he/she attended an art exhibit, and, if so, where it took place (museums, galleries, and community centers will all be options, among others). Similarly, we included a new question that asks the survey-taker to identify venues where he or she attended a live music, dance, or theater performance. 
  • Narrow constructs for media-related arts engagement: We've completely rethought questions related to electronic or digital media. In the 2012 version, there will be two modules related to participation via media: one on accessing art through electronic/digital media and related platforms, and another on creating art through media. In addition, we ask about sharing artworks and arts experiences via these technologies.
  • Narrow constructs for arts learning: Traditionally, we've asked questions about participation in arts lessons or classes, yet these modes have not captured many other vital ways that people regularly engage in arts learning. We've eliminated a reference to "private" lessons, and incorporated new questions that capture participation in different forms of arts learning (e.g., being self-taught, or learning through family tradition). We've distinguished between in-school and out-of-school arts learning, and have added a question asking adults whether they attended arts events as children.

Despite the push to modernize the SPPA, we want to be careful not to lose our ability to analyze trends based on data from previous iterations. Therefore, the 2012 SPPA will include two sets of core questions---the "old" core will include longstanding questions that will enable us to analyze trends, and a "new" core will include the changes we've outlined above. Starting with the 2017 SPPA, our working plan is to replace the old core completely with the new core.

One of the primary purposes of conducting the 2012 SPPA is to create baseline rates of arts participation inclusive of both traditional and non-traditional modes of participation. In combination with a new Annual Arts Benchmarking Survey (AABS) we're launching in 2013, these new baseline measures will be used to report more timely data on arts activities. The AABS will be comprised of a smaller set of questions from the SPPA.

So what's next? In addition to the public release of the newly revised 2012 SPPA data in early 2013, you should also look forward to a new NEA report that will summarize the findings from an analysis of the data, as well as a few topical publications. For data junkies like us, we'll also release raw data sets (with data dictionaries) from the survey. To get a feel for how the SPPA results have been interpreted in the past, check out our research publications at



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