Gauging Levels of Participation in the Arts across America

By Sunil Iyengar

Every segment of the economy, every branch of knowledge, and every field of human endeavor requires stories and statistics to help explain it to others and to itself.

Storytelling is the main approach we use, no matter who we are or where we come from, to justify choices as individuals or members of society. When it comes to decisions involving the arts—whether we’re talking about resource allocation for a school or community, how to curate a playlist or personal library, which furniture pieces to buy, or which show to attend—emotion-fueled narratives play an outsized part. This is to be expected. As we all know (increasingly through neuroscience), the arts routinely activate our deepest personal responses.

Still, when expressing the arts’ value and impact within a greater societal context, numbers come in handy. At the National Endowment for the Arts, the trifecta of federal statistics we use for monitoring the arts as an ecosystem relate to 1) arts industries and organizations; 2) artists and other cultural workers; and 3) levels of arts participation.

The chief data source for the third element is the NEA’s Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA), the nation’s premier tool for measuring rates of arts engagement by U.S. adults as a whole, and by various sub-populations. The Arts Benchmarking Survey (ABS), a short-form version of the SPPA, captures complementary data on a biennial basis. Both surveys are done in partnership with the U.S. Census Bureau.

The most recent SPPA was conducted was in 2017. A “first look” of the findings have just been released. As the new report’s title indicates, U.S. Trends in Arts Attendance and Literary Reading Rates: 2002-2017, focuses on two popular modes of arts participation: art-going and reading.

Over the next several months, moreover, the NEA will mine the 2017 data for a wealth of other variables concerning arts participation. A comprehensive summary report will identify the frequency of personal art-making and performances, art consumption and sharing via electronic media, and learning in and about the arts. In addition, the NEA is commissioning a series of monographs on topics such as motivations and barriers affecting arts participation, personal tastes and preferences in the arts, the role of media and technology, and reading and other literary activities.

Findings from the SPPA (and its biennial counterpart, the ABS) are valuable for all sorts of reasons. Clearly the surveys have much to communicate to sociologists and journalists about the numbers and profiles of people who gravitate to different art forms. But for policy-makers, arts practitioners, and indeed the general public, there are at least three benefits from the data.

  1. To establish national benchmarks that can be used to make comparisons at the regional level. Arts organizations—practitioners and funders alike—can do their own community fact-finding to see if local rates of arts participation resemble or contradict national trends. Surveys similar to the SPPA have been fielded across communities in Houston, Philadelphia, and the state of California, to name a few places. In 2019, the NEA will release state-level rates from the SPPA, which can assist such benchmarking efforts.
  1. To provide positive indicators of cultural, social, and civic engagement that can be folded into larger statistical systems. Example: For the past several years, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget has included arts participation statistics from the NEA in its “Social Indicators” that accompany annual budget documents that are submitted to Congress.
  1. To diagnose factors hindering full access and engagement in the arts, so that arts funders and practitioners can strive to fill those gaps in serving Americans everywhere. Because the National Endowment for the Arts’ mission is to enable nationwide access to diverse arts experiences, such data are especially important. But for cultural providers focusing on a specific artistic tradition, the data can inform tools for market segmentation—to understand which demographic subgroups engage in which kinds of art forms.

Ultimately, these data, alongside other statistics from the SPPA, can infuse the storytelling that is necessary to get across the value proposition of becoming more engaged with the arts in general.