Taking Note: A Round-Up of Arts Participation Research

By Sunil Iyengar, NEA Director of Research & Analysis
Graphic of people looking at art

In July, households across the nation will get a call from the U.S. Census Bureau. They’ll be asked to discuss such matters as their present employment, their income and education levels, and—as if to enliven the conversation—how much they participated in the arts in the past year.

The Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA) is the nation’s largest, most representative and recurring data collection about how adults from all backgrounds engage with the arts. As an add-on to the Current Population Survey, itself the source of quarterly statistics on U.S. employment, the SPPA asks about arts attendance, art-making, arts consumption through electronic media, literary reading, arts education, and other cultural activities.

As known to regular readers of this blog, the survey remains the NEA’s premier research instrument, with data figuring routinely in research reports and news stories about arts and cultural vitality in the U.S. Over the years, the NEA has published its own findings from the survey, has made the raw data widely accessible to researchers and arts practitioners, and even has invited critiques of its research questions and survey methodology.

Alongside the SPPA, more recently the NEA began an annual survey, also in partnership with the U.S. Census Bureau, to track adults’ participation in attending art, making art, reading literature, and taking arts classes or lessons. These numbers have informed a set of Office of Management & Budget statistical indicators for policymakers and the public, and they have permitted state-level analyses of arts participation and other interactive data visuals on our website.

In its new five-year agenda, the NEA Office of Research & Analysis proposes not only to dig deeper into behavioral data emerging form the SPPA and its yearly counterpart; the office also will explore personal preferences, attitudes, and value statements about the arts and specific arts activities. The goal is to understand how these factors relate to frequency of arts engagement—and how the patterns vary for different subgroups. The new SPPA questionnaire (the one to be fielded this summer) includes several new items that will aid this analysis. Because of the NEA’s involvement, some of those items also appear in the 2016 General Social Survey, and can be consulted for the same purpose.

Here’s a sampling of SPPA-related research papers and publications that we’ve seen in the last 12 months:

  • In a recent journal article, Kenneth Elpus of the University of Maryland—the recipient of multiple NEA research grants—submits to closer inspection the long-observed correlation between adults’ previous levels of arts exposure (e.g., in childhood) and their likelihood to participate in the arts over time. “Rather than disengage from art-making and arts attendance upon graduation,” his study concludes, “students of school-based music and arts education were significantly more likely to create art in their own lives and to patronize arts events than were adults who lacked school-based music or arts education.” He points to “clear, consistent relationships between school-based arts education in various disciplines and later adult engagement as a performer or creator of the studied art.” These findings were obtained even after controlling for important socioeconomic and demographic variables. Elpus suggests that in our outcomes-obsessed climate, “lifelong engagement with music and the arts” surfaces as at least “one measurable outcome of school-based music education in the United States.”
  • Girija Kaimal, Drexel University, the recent recipient of a NEA Research Lab award and a recent Art Works blog contributor, has co-authored two articles from a perspective not captured by the SPPA questions alone: the vantage of arts therapy. In one study, she observes relatively high proportions of adults “using digital media for creating, archiving, and sharing their art.” These activities often reach sub-populations that tend to show lower rates of participation in more traditional arts activities, relative to the rates of other adults. “Especially with youth who are often familiar with apps and the languages of online tools, digital media might be particularly valuable to build a therapeutic alliance,” the authors write. Elsewhere, they note: “Given that large proportions of the U.S. population use the Internet to consume art and use digital media to create and share art, it is important to incorporate the discussion around digital media into the preparation and ongoing professional development of art therapists.”
  • In a second SPPA-based study, Kaimal et al. claim similar implications for using craft activities in arts therapy. Their findings show “a greater prevalence of craft-based practices compared with fine arts media, as well as, distinct differences in arts participation based on gender, ethnicity, and income levels.” They write: “Hobby crafts are often minimized as being lesser than fine arts activities; however, this preconception needs to be reconsidered in the context of art therapy and artistic practice.”
  • In a working paper resulting from a NEA research grant, Donald Polzella and Jeremy Forbis, University of Dayton, examined the 2012 SPPA results in tandem with the 2012 General Social Survey’s arts module. Seeking to quantify what they call some “intrinsic” benefits of arts participation, Polzella and Forbis find that adults who attend live arts events “are more likely to engage in pro-social behaviors (e.g., making charitable donations or volunteering, attending community meetings or voting),”a relationship  “irrespective of the artistic domain.” They also posit that “the link between exposure to the arts and pro-social behavior is based on the social characteristics of the encounters, e.g., shared group identity, familiarity with performers or artists, multimodal sensory experience, etiquette, venue, and customs or rituals.” And they show that “individuals who are exposed to the arts through the Internet are also more likely to engage in pro-social behavior,” which finding suggests that “live and media presentations are mutually reinforcing.”
  • The Los Angeles County Arts Commission has prepared a helpful review of arts participation research literature, which perforce refers heavily to the SPPA questionnaire construct—often as a point of departure. But what could be more redundant than to summarize a summary? So I’ll stop here.