Revisiting the First U.S. Statistical Report about the Arts  

By Sunil Iyengar

With the start of each new year, it’s salutary not only to make new plans but also to practice humility and take encouragement from what has gone before. Those of us who aggregate and analyze quantitative data about the arts can embark on 2023 with the knowledge that, 90 years earlier, the first major statistical product of this thrillingly complex enterprise was delivered to the U.S. government. Not only that—some of the observations in the report, though they may have seemed whimsical at the time, now have become fixtures of contemporary discourse about the arts and cultural sector.

The following text comes from a blog entry I posted originally on August 1, 2019, to the NEA website.

The systematic collection and analysis of federal statistics about the arts can be traced to the mid-1970s, when the National Endowment for the Arts established a research function. Among core measurements we routinely take are: the breadth and frequency of arts participation in the U.S.; the numbers and types of artists and other cultural workers; and the size of arts and cultural industries and their impact on the nation’s economy. And yet, it’s humbling to learn that the first in-depth statistical report about the arts—one commissioned by the U.S. government—antedates this agency by more than three decades.

In 1929, the year of the stock market crash that precipitated the Great Depression, President Herbert Hoover tasked a battalion of social scientists with producing a statistical compendium that could help guide public policy decisions. Running to nearly 1,600 pages, the two-volume report is titled Recent Social Trends in the United States. It appeared in 1933, just before Hoover left office.

Tucked away in the report is a chapter called “The Arts in Social Life,” authored by Frederick Keppel, then president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York. In an accompanying monograph (248 pages!) Keppel claims his report chapter is “so far as I know, the first attempt to study the arts as a whole from the social as contrasted with the aesthetic point of view.”

Both the report chapter and the monograph (co-authored with the journalist R.L. Duffus) are worth skimming by anyone interested in the history of sociological research on the arts. The monograph is replete with statistical tables. Sample headings include: “Imports of Art Goods into the United States,” “Numbers of Males and Females Engaged in Occupations Connected with the Arts,” “Annual Value of Manufacturers [of] Motion Picture Cameras and Projectors,” “Census of Books and Pamphlets Published in the United States,” and “Registrations of Art Schools and Architectural Schools Connected with the 50 Largest Colleges and Universities.”

The authors proved resourceful. They used qualitative data to good effect, but they also pulled figures from government agencies, and they sampled arts organizations, schools, and libraries, among others. The monograph concedes, however, that “the quantitative data in this field are admittedly incomplete and unsatisfactory. It is not easy to draw a hard and fast line between activities that come under the head of the arts and those that do not.” They add: “Hunting and fishing, for examples, are arts only by courtesy of a figure of speech. Yet an appreciation of outdoor life and natural scenery undoubtedly has an aesthetic significance.” (Indeed, the National Endowment of the Arts’ Survey of Public Participation in the Arts contains a question-item about hunting and fishing as a leisure activity.)

A better formulation of this dilemma is expressed in the full report, where Keppel writes: “The instinct to create beauty and the capacity to derive pleasure therefrom are manifested in numberless ways; and the arts are too closely interwoven with other elements in human life to be cut out for statistical presentation without risk of bleeding to death before our eyes.”

What follows is a mini-anthology of quotes from Keppel’s report chapter. Comparisons with present-day perceptions and orthodoxies are bound to be instructive—or, at any rate, amusing.

  • “Shorter working days and longer holidays have brought more leisure time, and this demands inquiry as to whether an increased share of art in the recreational dividend can be observed.”
  • [After defining the arts as a lengthy catalogue of activities:] “Though this list is embarrassingly long, it does not cover the whole story. The dentist, for example, emphasizes the aesthetic element in his calling, and there are many other marginal activities, such as that of the caterer, which have [the arts’] influence.”
  • “It is both a stimulating influence and a sign of the times that organized giving, as represented in the foundations, is becoming more and more identified with the arts. In all, thirty-seven have made grants in this field.”
  • “At not a few points formal education has risen to its opportunities, but, broadly speaking, it may be said that so far as the arts are concerned, it has…’missed the bus.’ During the five years to come we may expect the bus to be caught. Certainly education needs the arts as badly as the arts need education. As we achieve the goal of ‘less teaching and more learning how’ [,] the creative artist should tend to take the place of the drill master.” • “It must be more than a coincidence that of the hundred or more manufacturers, merchants, advertisers and others consulted as to art and business, two-thirds should select the same ‘modern instance’ of change, namely, in the design of the Ford car.”
  • “Not so long ago there was little to see in mural painting in America outside the Library of Congress and the Boston Public Library. Today there are admirable examples all over the country, nearly all of them directly attributable to the advertising value of a handsome bank or office building or department store.”
  • “Psychologically the aesthetic pleasures to be derived from nature and those from man’s conscious creation are closely allied, and if we are coming to rely more and more upon the beauties of nature as one of our major sources of satisfaction, this may be expected to be accompanied by corresponding growth in art appreciation, particularly in color, line, and composition.”
  • “Town and regional planning, with the architect and engineer working together, parks and other opportunities for the aesthetic enjoyment of nature, museums, concert halls, will be further developed. They will be regarded as social investments, for which the public will be willing to pay.”
  • “The belief that active participation yields richer dividends than passive enjoyment [of the arts], and that both may be achieved by those who have the will, cannot be statistically measured, yet there is good reason to conclude that it characterizes present cultural thinking, and that during the coming years it will influence groups and individuals not heretofore affected by it.”