Art Works Blog

Taking Note: A Researcher's Take on #SupplyDemand

Washington, DC

Colorful Art, by Leogirly4life via Flickr

When we look at the growth of not-for-profit arts organizations---particularly of performing arts groups---and the declines in attendance over a comparable period, it becomes hard not to declare a state of disequilibrium. As Chairman Landesman has noted on this blog, the number of arts not-for-profits has grown 60 percent faster than the general population, even as adults in the U.S. report flat or reduced rates of attendance for most activities captured by the NEA’s Survey of Public Participation in the Arts.

But the phrase “state of disequilibrium” smacks too cleanly of textbook economics. Therefore, we should ask ourselves: is the supply-and-demand model appropriate for a sector whose existence is based on the premise that certain needs cannot be gauged, much less served, by market forces?

I propose two alternative analogies. The first may sound familiar. It is the notion of the not-for-profit arts sector as roughly similar in mission to R&D start-ups.

This model is more aspirational than actual. Yet consider the possibility of more not-for-profits seeking funds to experiment and innovate in arts creation and presentation---with the full knowledge that these organizations might move on to tackle fresh problems once a project is adequately established. (Unhappily, a not-for-profit can never look forward to "cashing out" like a start-up venture that has transferred its R&D to a large pharmaceutical firm.)

This perspective betrays a bias lurking in my job title---that of "research,” if not quite “development.” So let me hazard another metaphor, this time from evolutionary biology.

Right away I hear a collective groan: “Here we go again with Darwinism and survival-of-the-fittest.” Well, not exactly. Rather, I suggest that instead of viewing the gap between the not-for-profit arts boom and the arts attendance slump as a state of disequilibrium, we consider a term coined by Stephen Jay Gould. That term is punctuated equilibrium.

As defined by the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (5th ed.), punctuated equilibrium refers to a theory of evolutionary development "marked by isolated episodes of rapid speciation between long periods of little or no change." From this perspective, the relatively recent rise of not-for-profits---alongside changing patterns of arts engagement---mimics biology’s occasional process of abrupt growth.

I arrived at this parallel after re-reading a section of a report the NEA released last week. Titled Age and Arts Participation: A Case against Demographic Destiny, the report concludes that 82 percent of the decline in total number of art events attended between 2002 and 2008 can be attributed to two factors. First, the report’s author Mark J. Stern (University of Pennsylvania), finds that the share of “cultural omnivores”---adults who participate in many different kinds of arts events, in many different genres---has declined markedly since 2002, when the previous survey was conducted. Second, Stern shows that the omnivores who did exist in the general population in 2008 attended far fewer arts events than the omnivores of previous years. Where another might worry, however, Stern is stoic, describing his observations in evolutionary terms:

“If we are correct that the cultural omnivore is in decline, it may be because the omnivore represented a transitional stage in our cultural development. After all, the omnivore concept originated with the surprise that [researchers] experienced in discovering that the straitjacket of cultural capital, which they had expected to define musical tastes, was no longer as tight as it had been (or was presumed to have been). Cultural participants were no longer willing to let their social status define what cultural tastes were acceptable for them. Although the omnivore---as measured by the [NEA survey]---may be foundering, this quest for a more personal, flexible, and protean approach to cultural engagement appears to be very much alive.”

Surely this “quest for a more personal, flexible, and protean approach to cultural engagement” is part of the renewed mission of not-for-profit arts organizations nationwide. If “supply” as measured by the number of organizations seems in excess of “demand” as measured by attendance, then we may need to examine other ways that Americans reveal their preferences for art.

Much of our own recent research has acknowledged what Jennifer L. Novak and Alan S. Brown call, in a new report for the NEA, “multiple modes” of participation. To keep up with these rapidly evolving preferences, the NEA’s research office will modify its research questions and methods accordingly, so that all types of arts participation---whether through attendance, media, or personal performance or creation---can be examined. There’s a state of equilibrium worth striving for.

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