Art Works Blog

Taking Note: New Arts Survey Findings—and Questions, For That Matter

Last month, the National Endowment for the Arts released comprehensive data from the 2017 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA). Since the early 1980s, this nationally representative survey, conducted in partnership with the U.S. Census Bureau, has allowed cultural policymakers, arts managers, scholars, and journalists to handle reliable statistics about American patterns of arts engagement. The survey permits an empirical understanding of factors including: the frequency with which people do different arts activities in the course of a year; which socio-demographic groups do which activities; and how their arts behaviors compare with participation in an array of (non-arts) leisure activities.

Several questions on the survey have remained constant over the decades. This continuity enables trend analysis of arts participation rates for certain categories (mostly question-items about attending arts events and reading literature). In the last few waves of the survey, however, considerable advances have been made to capture art forms and activities that formerly were not represented on the questionnaire. For the 2017 survey, question-items also were added to discover personal motives for art-going and art-making, and to gauge common perceptions about access to the arts in one’s neighborhood.

For example, roughly a third of adults in the survey disagreed with the statement that “there are many different kinds of arts and cultural activities in my neighborhood or community.” Nearly equivalent percentages disagreed that there are “plenty of opportunities” to take part in such events, and/or that it is easy to “find information” about them. As is the case with arts attendance rates, the frequency of these negative responses was greater for adults with comparably low education levels (a proxy for income) and for African-American and Hispanic adults.

The data are useful to the Arts Endowment in considering how best to address historically underserved groups with arts programs and funding opportunities. It is to be hoped that other grant-makers, no less than arts organizations and community planners, will avail of the results as well. A shrewder understanding of incentives for arts participation also might be helpful here. The survey finds that 62 percent of adults who participated—as creators or performers—in performing arts activities did so to spend time with family and friends. By contrast, most adults who created visual artworks reported doing so because they felt “creative or creatively inspired.” Different motives also obtain for attending performing arts events versus art exhibits.

Likewise, the locations of these activities can play a factor in effective programming. Among adults who sang, made music, danced, or acted, 63 percent did so in the home, while 40 percent did so in a place of worship.

Beyond the aggregate survey results, Arts Endowment researchers have conducted analyses of arts participation for all 50 states, and for 35 metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs). Here again the idea is to assist arts organizations, funders, and policymakers to serve unmet needs in their own communities. Along the way, some states and cities rate highly for participation in certain art forms. For example:

  • North Dakota is one of very few states whose residents attend live performing arts events at a higher rate than U.S. adults as a whole—with 62 percent of North Dakota residents attending in the course of a year, versus 48.5 percent of U.S. adults.
  • Montana outperforms the national rate of art exhibit-going, with 33.5 percent of this state’s residents doing this activity versus 23 percent of Americans overall. Likewise, literary reading rates in Oregon and Washington state (upwards of 60 percent) far exceed the U.S. as a whole (44 percent).
  • Attending performing arts events at places of worship is considerably more frequent in Kansas and Mississippi (with nearly 25 percent of each state’s residents doing this activity) than in the nation as a whole.
  • Among the 35 MSAs, Cleveland and Dallas stand out for their high rates of performing arts attendance and exhibit-going, respectively.
  • Idaho and Utah are remarkable for their relatively high rates of arts consumption via electronic and digital media.

Go here for the state-level and metro area findings, which combine data from 2017 survey and the 2018 Arts Basic Survey, a short-form version of the SPPA. If you’re a data junkie, or simply would like to browse research data and articles about the arts, see the National Archive of Data on Arts & Culture (NADAC), a free online data repository that the Arts Endowment supports at the University of Michigan. Register here for a February 12 webinar about the repository!


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