Quick Study: October 19, 2023

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. Sunil Iyengar is the pilot of Quick Study. He's the Director of Research and Analysis here at the Arts Endowment. Hi, Sunil.

Sunil Iyengar: Hi, Jo.

Jo Reed: Okay. Hit me with it. What are we talking about?

Sunil Iyengar: All right. Well, today I'd like to share findings from two reports we've just released. One is based on the NEA's most recent survey of public participation in the arts, or the SPPA. The other is a research brief with findings from the General Social Survey, specifically from a series of arts-related question items that the NEA designed. Both surveys were conducted in 2022, and they're intended to capture arts participation habits of U.S. adults as reported for a 12-month period.

Jo Reed: Well, knowing you, I'm assuming you're going to want to tell me a little bit more about the surveys used.

Sunil Iyengar: Yeah, just a little, Jo. The first survey, the SPPA, has been conducted every few years in partnership with the U.S. Census Bureau for several decades, going back to the early 1980s, in fact. It's a large, nationally representative survey. The other survey, the GSS, is conducted by the organization NORC at the University of Chicago, and we worked with them and the National Science Foundation to design and add questions about arts participation. The sample size was much smaller than for the SPPA, but it still yielded some insightful findings for researchers and arts practitioners. Both surveys tracked arts participation patterns during the pandemic.

Jo Reed: Okay, let's get down to it. What did the surveys find? And let's start with SPPA.

Sunil Iyengar: Sure. The survey showed that more than half of all adults, 52 percent, or 129 million of them, created or performed art on their own. This is roughly equivalent to what we found five years earlier, in 2017, using a slightly different set of questions. When you look at individual art forms that people chose to create in, you see that some activities have gone up. A greater proportion of adults did leatherwork, metalwork, and woodwork, for example, or played musical instruments than in 2017. For other activities, the share of adults who created art remained the same as five years earlier. Those activities included textile arts, taking artistic photos, or doing creative writing. However, the proportion of adults who sang, either alone or in a group or choir, fell between 2017 and 2022, as did the share of adults who performed or practiced dance.

Jo Reed: What about people attending arts events?

Sunil Iyengar: Yeah, in this category of arts participation, because we're talking about the period of mid-2021 to mid-2022, we're arguably seeing the second- to third-year effects of COVID-19, that is, for attendance. In 2022, just under half of all adults attended at least one arts event in person. That's 48 percent, down six points from 2017. When you look across various types of arts attendance activities, the story gets worse. You see sharp declines in attendance for activities such as visiting art museums or galleries and attending jazz, classical music, or Latin or Spanish or salsa music performances. You see drops in attending musical and non-musical plays and you might recall, Jo, some stories in the news about ailing box office sales for regional theater. So that seems to be reflected in these declines, and you also see declines in attending craft fairs, outdoor performing arts festivals, operas, ballet, and other dance forms, as well as declines in moviegoing, all from 2017 to 2022. In our report, we discuss the rates of decline for all these attendance categories, and we show which demographic groups were most severely affected.

Jo Reed: Well, yeah, it's a slow recovery for the performing arts, for sure. Well, despite this bad news, were there any bright spots with arts attendance?

Sunil Iyengar: Yeah, a couple. One is it seems that visits to parks or monuments and neighborhoods or buildings that held historic or design value did not decline sharply from 2017 to 2022. It dipped a little, but not by much. This may speak to the relatively higher comfort level of many Americans to go outdoors during the pandemic. In fact, open air facilities such as parks, pavilions, and amphitheaters were among the most popular venue types for people attending arts events in 2017. The second bright spot is that the only form of in-person arts attendance that actually went up from 2017 to 2022 was for a category called other performing arts. Now, this covers types of arts events that the survey didn't specifically ask about, like rock or country music performances, rap or hip-hop, or music from other countries or cultural traditions. It might even cover comedy or improv, circus acts, or magic shows. We need to do more research to understand what all is contained in this "other" category. But in any case, it grew to 21% of all adults in 2022.

Jo Reed: That's interesting. You know, there was an article in the news lately that referenced how arena concerts were thriving while other performing arts continued to struggle. So I'd be interested to know the demographics, the age range of people attending these other events.

Sunil Iyengar: Yeah, it is interesting, Jo. Nearly 24% of 18 to 24-year-olds attended one of these "other" types of performing arts events that the survey didn't ask about. That was statistically more or less equivalent to what we found in 2017. But where you saw intensive growth was for the 25 to 54 age bracket. For example, those between 35 and 44 were now attending such activities at a 26% rate. For this age group, the proportion attending was 80% higher than five years earlier.

Jo Reed: Wow, that is interesting. Okay, does the survey also cover people's reading habits?

Sunil Iyengar: I'm glad you remembered. The takeaway here is that the share of adults who read any book in print or electronically in 2022 was 48.5%, which is more than four points lower than five years earlier and six points lower than 10 years earlier. Steeper drops were observed for the reading of novels or short stories. By 2022, only 37.6 adults were reading this category. This rate marks a 17% decline over the last decade. I have to say, Jo, I thought there would be more and not less long-form reading going on, especially if one assumes that more people would be staying home and not going out as much as before. But then again, arts consumption via media remains the most common form of arts participation for most Americans. Three out of four adults engaged with art through electronic or digital media in 2022. At this point, I should add there's a lot more in the report about arts attendance, art making, and reading, and media engagement with the arts, and also about learning art subjects, and also there's information about doing other cultural and creative activities that I haven't mentioned. Listeners can go to arts.gov to read all about it.

Jo Reed: And I hope they will and you mentioned there was another report, correct?

Sunil Iyengar: Yes, this one's based on the General Social Survey, one of the nation's leading household surveys about social characteristics and attitudes. In the arts component of the survey, which the NEA supported, we asked largely about virtual arts activities that people did over the 12-month period ending in 2022. We also asked people to consider whether they were doing these activities at a higher or lower rate than they did in the first year of COVID in the U.S., from March 2020 to 2021, or whether they were now doing those activities at the same rate as before

Jo Reed: And you found?

Sunil Iyengar: 82% of the survey's respondents said they'd attended some type of digital or virtual arts activity in 2022. These activities may have included viewing or listening to archived and live-streamed web performing arts events, listening to arts-related podcasts, viewing or listening to archived and live-streamed web reading events, taking online art classes, and attending online art exhibits or tours. As far as these individual types of activities go, the greatest share of adults, 69%, attended web-archived performing arts events, and 43% attended live-streamed performing arts events, and 30% of respondents said they were now doing digital arts activities more often than in the first year of the pandemic.

Jo Reed: What do we know about these demographics? Do we have a sense of who participated or who watched digital arts activities?

Sunil Iyengar: You know, Jo, one of the most compelling insights from the General Social Survey's arts module is that women, 18 to 24-year-olds, African-Americans, Hispanics, and other non-white but non-Hispanic groups, were among the most likely to participate in virtual arts events, and they were reporting doing more often than in the first year of COVID-19. We also saw that adults who had not earned a high school diploma were among those reporting that they now participated in digital arts activities, more than they did since the first year of the pandemic. Some of these demographic groups, as people who track arts participation surveys know, are quite different from those who report high rates of attendance at in-person arts events, for example.

Jo Reed: Okay, now here's the big question. How do you think these two surveys can be used to help guide arts administrators or cultural policy in the next few years?

Sunil Iyengar: Yeah, that is a big question. One thing I see is the potential need for a lot more attention to be given by arts administrators to what we've tended to call informal arts spaces, including outdoor venues, but also for a variety of performing art forms that we just don't ask about in the SPPA. After all, this "other" performing arts category I talked about earlier, it jumped six percentage points between 2017 and 2022, and the growth was experienced for many different demographic groups, yet we don't know much about what those activities consist of, since this was a catch-all category in the survey, other performing arts. So we need more research there, of course.

Another lesson from the other survey is that digital arts attendance seems to be capturing populations that might not be participating in the arts in other ways, and we have an opportunity again to learn what types of events they are choosing to attend virtually, and how to reach these adults through creative programming.

And finally, it seems pretty clear, unambiguous really, that novel and short story reading is at a historic low, and that libraries, publishers, booksellers, and literacy and literary art organizations all have a part to play in encouraging more adults to enjoy works of fiction.

Jo Reed: And on that sad note, we'll leave it. Sunil, I'll talk to you next month.

Sunil Iyengar: Yes, look forward to it. Thanks, Jo.

Jo Reed: You're welcome. That was Sunil Iyengar. He's the Director of Research and Analysis here at the National Endowment for the Arts. You've been listening to Quick Study. The music is We Are One from Scott Holmes Music. It's licensed through Creative Commons. Until next month, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

In this episode of Quick Study, we discuss findings from two new NEA reports about how adults participated in the arts in 2022—and how these patterns have changed over time.