Art Works Blog

Taking Note: Participation as Preservation

As my colleague Steven Shewfelt noted in a recent post, the NEA has published initial findings from the 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA). The survey tracks U.S. adult patterns of arts engagement in a variety of modes (e.g., attending, creating, learning), formats (e.g., traditional or electronic media), and art forms. As I wrote in the report's preface:

"The survey showcases the stunning plurality of art forms, genres, venues, and events and activities that constitute arts participation as a whole. This information can be reviewed alongsideand in direct relationship toother key variables about our nation's adult population: what it looks like, how it behaves, and how it changes over time."

Yet for all the diversity of arts experiences captured by the survey, a reader of the NEA report still may end up asking, "What does the survey tell us about the transmission of cultural heritage?" Arts participation cannot in all cases be linked back to this value, which evokes the idea of a specific set of cultural artifacts or practices being preserved and passed along from one generation to the next.

Except in a few rare instances, the NEA survey asks Americans about their levels of arts engagement irrespective of artworks or activities that may embody cultural traditions. For example, a survey question about dance-going does not have the respondent specify whether the genre was (to take an example from my own "cultural heritage") Bharatnatyam, a form of South Indian classical dance. Similarly, a survey question about museum-going does not ask, as a follow-up, whether the museum featured Pueblo pottery.

Despite an absence of questions singularly attuned to the goal of cultural preservation, the SPPA does reflect assumptions about cultural heritage being an integral part of arts participation itself. Staying with the example of arts attendance: the survey asks adults if they went to a jazz concert or a Latin/Spanish/salsa performance in the last year. It also asks about art museum-going, and about attendance at classical music, opera, ballet, and theaterall art forms that communicate some kind of cultural heritage, even if not the widest spectrum of options in this regard.

But the more salient questions with respect to cultural heritage are SPPA items that address art-making and art-sharing, as well as learning in specific art forms. Here are some of the activities that the survey captures and which connote cultural heritage, if not exclusively, then at least partly:

  • Weaving, crocheting, quilting, needlepoint, knitting, or sewing
  • Creating pottery, ceramics, or jewelry
  • Creating leatherwork, metalwork, or woodwork
  • Scrapbooking (including through electronic media)
  • Recording, editing, or remixing music or dance performances
  • Performing or practicing various kinds of music, or dance or theater
  • Teaching art
  • Learning about an art form from  friends or through a family tradition

Most of these questions are new to the 2012 SPPA and they take us closer than before to an understanding of arts participation as preserving and promoting a cultural legacy. Now that the SPPA 2012 data are up on the NEA website, complete with research tools and data files covering prior years of the survey (1982-2012), it is to be hoped that researchers will seek to analyze such dimensions of arts participation in new and exciting ways. It's also worth noting in this context that the host survey instrument for the SPPAthe U.S. Census Bureau's Current Population Survey, to which the NEA questionnaire is attachedcontains a wealth of demographic variables that can be used to describe the populations partaking of such cultural heritage activities. For example, whether these individuals are foreign-born and/or naturalized citizens.

As we have seen, then, the SPPA data may be analyzed as evidence of the retention and transfer of cultural heritage. But for a more direct metric, how about the number and status of publicly accessible collections around the country?

Heritage Preservation group, in partnership with two of the NEA's peer agencies, the Institute of Museum & Library Services (IMLS) and the National Endowment for the Humanities, is seeking to measure just that. In 2014, data-gathering begins for the Heritage Health Index, a cross-sectional survey of the nation's "collecting institutions, large and small, from internationally renowned art museums and research libraries to local historical societies and specialized archives."

The research partners are in the process of selecting a contractor to design and implement the survey, which will be based partly on a questionnaire administered nearly ten years ago. In 2004, Heritage Preservation and IMLS consulted various lists to identify a sampling frame of approximately 30,000 cultural heritage institutions. In 2014, however, two new datasets will be used to update the sample frame: the commercially available American Library Directory, and all museums identified through IMLS' "Museum Count" research project. There is expected to be some overlap in the 2004 and 2014 institutions sampled.

Using the 2004 survey findings, Heritage Preservation enumerated a total of 21 million art objects held in the public trust. The largest collections were held by art museums (7.9 million items); history museums and historic sites (7.6 million items); independent research libraries, including state or federal research libraries (1.9 million items); and historical societies (1.1 million items.)

But the survey also exposed serious issues for cultural artifact collections as a whole: lack of safe storage space, environmental controls, and emergency plans, and inadequate staff, training, and funds for conservation and preservation. The 2014 survey may allow us to see if there have been improvements in these areas. In keeping with technological advances, moreover, the survey will ask brand-new questions about digital preservation and digital artifacts.

For cultural researchers, the best news of all is that IMLS plans to release a data file of the 2014 survey results when available in 2015. Expect a report of the findings to be published in that year. 

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