Quick Study: July 21, 2022

Jo Reed: Welcome to “Quick Study,” the monthly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts.  This is where we’ll share stats and stories to help us better understand the value of art in everyday life.  I’m copiloting “Quick Study” with Sunil Iyengar.  He’s the Director of Research & Analysis here at the Arts Endowment.  Hello, Sunil.

Sunil Iyengar: Hi, Jo.

Jo Reed: What are we talking about today?

Sunil Iyengar: <laughs> Well, for this edition of “Quick Study,” I thought I could maybe give you some quick studies, plural, or maybe--

Jo Reed: Ho, ho.

Sunil Iyengar: <laughs> I know.

Jo Reed: <laughs>

Sunil Iyengar: Or rather some summaries of three different research projects that they sort of shed light on the art sector’s well-being in 2021, year two of the pandemic.

Jo Reed: Okay.  Why are you calling it year two?

Sunil Iyengar: Well, it’s because it’s been consistently hard to get a handle on the real-time effects of COVID-19 for the arts community, at least where systematic data collection and reporting are concerned.  Most of the government data we have that would help us evaluate the situation are lagged by a year or two.  For instance, back in March we released national and state level figures about the economic value of arts and cultural production in 2020.  So that can be called the first year of the pandemic.  We did this with our colleagues at the Bureau of Economic Analysis at the U.S. Department of Commerce, so those 2020 figures show that while the total arts sector continued to punch in more than four percent overall GDP, that’s roughly 877 billion dollars.  Arts and cultural production still shrank at nearly twice the rate of the U.S. economy as a whole.  Presenters of performing arts events, theaters, concert halls and festivals, for example, saw 73 percent decline in their economic value, and performing arts organizations such as music groups or dance and theater troupes saw more than half their economic value erode all in the first year of the pandemic.  There were also severe drops in arts employment, as we all know.

Jo Reed: So it does sound like we have a pretty good understanding of how hard the arts economy was hit by the first wave of COVID.  Well, do we know anything about 2021?

Sunil Iyengar: So that’s the difficulty.  We do have some signals from federal data.  For example, we know that employment in the arts improved over 2021 but remained well below 2019 levels.  For knowledge about other indicators, such as arts attendance or the state of arts philanthropy, were turning to some of the reports coming out of the private sector.  So we have these reports out of the private sector.

Jo Reed: Okay.  So what are they saying about 2021?

Sunil Iyengar: So I’m not going to go into them in any great detail, just sort of skim the surface, but one that caught my eye is SMU data arts, an organization, their recent trend analysis of performing arts ticket sales for a hundred organizations.  The establishment of this unique data source was supported by an NEA grant.  Mining the data, researchers found that as vaccine options began to become available throughout 2021, there was initial enthusiasm for going out to arts events again.  Even a rebound in household ticket purchases, average ticket prices, and the number of performances offered.

Jo Reed: You know, I believe that.  I saw a documentary called “Reopening Night.”

Sunil Iyengar: Oh.

Jo Reed: And it was about reopening The Delacorte Theater in 2021.  You know, that’s in New York City’s Central Park.

Sunil Iyengar: Yeah.

Jo Reed: It’s free Shakespeare in the park.  Opening Night it is pouring rain.  Pouring rain.  And people are standing in line in this rain for hours, in order to sit in the rain, because it’s outdoor theater to watch theater.  I was so moved by that, and so I think people are just thrilled for live performance again.

Sunil Iyengar: Yeah, and I think we saw that kind of enthusiasm, the exuberance, you know, especially when things were starting to reopen again I think last fall, but as the year wore on, that is 2021, ticket demand actually slowed down despite wider-spread availability of vaccines.  Especially in U.S. counties with high rates of vaccination there were fewer ticket sales over time as breakthrough cases of COVID started to occur and as new variants such as Omicron took hold.  So those who had stayed away in early 2021 when there had been a slight reawakening because of vaccine availability continued to stay away while those who had ventured out were less inclined to do so now and participated in performing arts events at lower rates.  The bottom line according to the researchers is that ticket sales became less responsive to vaccination rates and more responsive to COVID cases.  Again, this happened especially in counties that already had high rates of vaccination, which the researchers note, are also counties with older populations.

Jo Reed: Well, that makes sense, right, because of the vulnerability of older populations.  But I’m assuming that also had really particular impact for live performance.

Sunil Iyengar: Yeah.  We know from our own data, the NEA’s data, that older adults and the generations they represent historically have made up a large share of attendees at music--

Jo Reed: Of course.

Sunil Iyengar: --dance and theater events over the last several years, so unless we start seeing some commensurate growth in the numbers of younger and middle-aged adults who go to arts events, there may be a serious overall decline in audiences if the pattern continues.  A new report actually by LaPaca Cohen and Slover Linette Audience Research is based on a survey of older adults in the U.S.  It concludes that adults between 55 and 65 years of age expressed a clear preference for spending at least half their time in person when participating in arts and cultural activities.  This was a higher rate than for any other age group surveyed, so it does suggest a large number of adults eager to encounter arts events in person, at least, or, you know, like to do that at least as much as they go online for such experiences, particularly among older adults.

Jo Reed: Well, what do we know about their online participation in the arts?

 Sunil Iyengar: So the 2021 survey showed that well over half of adults did online arts and cultural activities in the previous year.  While the rates were lower for older adults than for younger adults, the opportunity to, quote “learn something new” was perceived by older adults as a leading benefit of online arts participation.  By contrast, for younger adults, the biggest kick they got out of it was quote “to have fun.” <laughs>

Jo Reed: Yeah.

Sunil Iyengar: So when it comes to overall values for older adults, regardless of whether they participate in the arts in person, online or don’t participate at all, social connectedness emerged as more important to older than younger adults.

Jo Reed: Huh.

Sunil Iyengar: Those themes are worth considering for arts and cultural programmers.

Jo Reed: That’s so interesting.  Okay.  So those are your two studies about 2021 and COVID, but you mentioned a third?

Sunil Iyengar: Yeah, that’s right.  This one’s really just a data point but it seems pretty significant.  So there’s something called the Giving USA initiative which tracks the annual state of philanthropy in the U.S., and it’s concluded recently that giving for arts culture and the humanities grew 27.5 percent over 2020 levels, to about 23.5 billion dollars.  That’s a 21.8 percent climb after adjusting for inflation.  So that’s really historic growth in arts philanthropy from individuals, foundations and corporate donors.  As far as I can tell it’s more than for any other sector of philanthropy in 2021.

Jo Reed: Well, that seems to be good news, right?

Sunil Iyengar: Yeah, apparently it is, but we still need to learn whether those dollars flowed to arts organizations of different sizes and disciplines and how broadly they reached artists and arts workers, for example.  But we also wait to see if this cash infusion, along with federal relief, you know, through the American Rescue Plan and other legislation, help to improve the participation rates we discussed earlier.  This year we’re sponsoring two national surveys of arts participation that should get us closer to understanding how successful arts organizations have been in meeting mission and serving the general public with a diverse host of offerings, in person and online.  So plenty more to come, Jo.

Jo Reed: Definitely plenty more to come, and we’re counting on you, Sunil.

Sunil Iyengar: <laughs> I hope so.


Sunil Iyengar: I mean, I hope I can deliver, I should’ve said.

Jo Reed: I’m sure you can.

Sunil Iyengar: <laughs>

Jo Reed: Listen, many thanks, and I’ll talk to you next month.

Sunil Iyengar: Great to talk with you.  Thanks, Jo.

Jo Reed: That was Sunil Iyengar.  He’s the Director of Research & Analysis here at the National Endowment for the Arts.  This has been “Quick Study.”  The music is “We Are One” from Scott Holmes Music.  It’s licensed through Creative Commons.  Until next time, I’m Josephine Reed.  Thanks for listening.

In this month’s episode of Quick Study, we consider recent data monitoring the arts sector’s economic recovery from COVID-19.