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National Endowment for the Arts Presents Highlights from the 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts

The latest survey explores five areas of arts engagement

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Cover image for 2012 SPPA Highlights Report

Highlights report: 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts

WASHINGTON, DC—How do Americans participate in the arts in the course of a year? What kinds of art forms and activities do they engage with, and in what numbers? The NEA investigates these questions and more in the 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA), the nation’s largest population survey of arts participation trends. Today the NEA released an initial report of the survey's findings. A more comprehensive report will be available in 2015.

“One of the most important things we can do as the National Endowment for the Arts is to understand how our nation engages with the arts,” said NEA Senior Deputy Chairman Joan Shigekawa. “This iteration of the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts is our most comprehensive look yet at the myriad ways art works for Americans.”

A Yardstick for Arts Engagement

The NEA has partnered with the United States Census Bureau six times since 1982 to conduct the SPPA. The 2012 survey asked a nationally representative sample of adults ages 18 and older if they had participated in five broad categories of arts activity in the past year: attending, reading, learning, making/sharing art, and consuming art via electronic media.

Within the arts attendance category, the survey collected data on performing arts events; art museums, galleries, and visual arts events; destinations with historic or design value; and movies. In the reading category, the survey measured reading rates for literature (novels or short stories, poetry, and plays), as well as reading rates for any book (fiction or nonfiction) outside of school or work. The art-making or art-sharing category gathered data on dance; photography; various types of music; film/video; the fiber arts; leatherwork, metalwork, and woodwork; scrapbooking; creative writing and books in general; the visual arts; pottery, ceramics, and jewelry-making; theater; and opera. The survey also asked about electronic consumption of books and literature, the visual arts, dance, theater, opera, and various types of music. In addition, the survey asked people if they had taken an arts class or lesson in or out of school, or had learned arts subjects through some other means. 

For the 2012 survey, the NEA doubled the sample size in order ask more questions and discover new patterns of arts engagement. The NEA developed the new questions through dialogues with researchers, policymakers, and practitioners in the arts. Since the survey captures more art forms, it also captures more people who are participating in the arts. 

Key Findings

This initial analysis of the 2012 SPPA shows that large segments of the U.S. adult population reported taking part in at least one kind of arts activity. A closer look at the data reveals subtle shifts in demographic and behavioral patterns that occurred since 2008, the previous survey year.

Art and Electronic Media

  • More than two-thirds of American adults (71 percent or 167 million) accessed art via electronic media, including TV, radio, handheld or mobile devices, the Internet, and DVDs, CDs, tapes, or records.
  • Music viewing and/or listening is the most popular form of media arts participation—whether on TV, radio, or the Internet. Fifty percent of adults used TV or radio to watch or listen to music, and 29 percent used the Internet to watch, listen to, or download music.
  • Mobile devices appear to narrow racial/ethnic gaps in arts engagement. Whether listening to music, looking at a photo, or watching a dance or theater performance, all racial/ethnic groups show roughly the same rates of engagement via mobile devices.

Attending Arts Events and Activities

  • Nearly half of the nation's adults (49 percent or 115 million) attended at least one type of visual or performing arts activity. Fifty-nine percent of adults attended at least one movie, an activity that increased substantially among most demographic subgroups.
  • Musical play attendance saw the first significant drop since the 1985 SPPA: a 9 percent rate of decline from 2008 to 2012. Non-musical play attendance fell at a 12 percent rate over the same period.  Museum-going also saw a decline: 21 percent of adults (or 47 million) visited an art museum or gallery in 2012, down from 23 percent in 2008.
  • Non-white and Hispanic Americans saw no declines in their arts attendance rates from 2008 to 2012; on the contrary, they even saw increases in some categories. In 2012, African Americans outpaced whites' attendance rates at jazz events.
  • Festivals show promise as entry points to the arts. One in four younger adults (ages 18-24) attended an outdoor performing arts festival in 2012, up from 22 percent in 2008. 

 Art-Making and Art-Sharing

  • About half of the nation's adults created, performed, or shared art of various types. Social dancing is the most popular form of art-making or art-sharing; nearly one in three adults (32 percent) danced at weddings, clubs, or other social settings. Young adults and Hispanic Americans are the most avid dancers; 40 percent of 18-34 year olds and 36 percent of Hispanics reported social dancing.
  •  One in four adults (26 percent) e-mailed, posted, or shared photography in 2012. One in five adults (21 percent) e-mailed, posted, or shared music. Fifteen percent shared their own photos, and 13 percent shared film or videos. Thirteen percent did photo editing, and 12 percent did photography for artistic purposes.
  • In this category, the fiber arts were among the most popular. Thirteen percent of adults reported participating in weaving, crocheting, quilting, needlepoint, knitting, or sewing in 2012. Twelve percent of adults played a musical instrument. Nine percent reported singing, either alone or with others, and 8 percent created leatherwork, metalwork, or woodwork.

 Reading Books and Literature

  • More than half of American adults read a work of literature or a book (fiction or nonfiction) not required for work or school. However, adults' rates of literary reading (novels or short stories, poetry, and plays) dropped back to 2002 levels (from 50 percent in 2008 to 47 percent in 2012).
  • Older Americans (65 and older) now have higher rates of literary reading than any other adult age group. 

 Arts Education

As of 2012, roughly half of all adults had experienced some arts learning at some point in their lives, whether through classes or lessons, in or out of school, or outside of formal instruction. But disparities persist by gender, race/ethnicity, and level of general education. For example, a college graduate is nearly twice as likely to have taken an art class or lesson in childhood than a high school graduate (59 percent compared to 32 percent). Meanwhile, adults of all racial and ethnic backgrounds reported similar rates of taking arts classes or lessons in the last year.

  • The most popular classes adults reported taking in or out of school were voice training or playing an instrument (36 percent), visual arts (19 percent), and art appreciation or art history (18 percent).
  • A new, more inclusive question about arts education reveals more arts participants than before. Fifty-six percent of adults reported that they received arts education at some point in their lives—whether through classes, lessons, or through informal instruction (from friends, family tradition, or teaching oneself). This compares to the 50 percent who reported having taken formal instruction (a class or lesson, in or out of school) at some point in their lives. The most popular informal learning experiences were voice training or playing an instrument (18 percent), dance (16 percent), photography or filmmaking (13 percent), and music appreciation (11 percent).    

In 2015, the NEA will release a full report with in-depth findings including more geographic and demographic details for arts engagement among U.S. adults. Beyond today's highlights report, the entire survey questionnaire, raw data, and user's guide are available to researchers and the public at arts.gov.

The SPPA Challenge: Presenting Arts Data Artfully

Big data presents big challenges, and the SPPA is no exception. Consequently, the NEA is issuing a challenge to create interactive visualization tools to make the 2012 SPPA more accessible to the public. This challenge seeks to help researchers, academics, and the media explore and explain the reach of the arts in American life.  More than $20,000 will be awarded to select contestants; learn more when the SPPA Challenge goes live on September 30 at Challenge.gov.

NEA Art Works: Research Grants

The SPPA and its host survey instrument, the Current Population Survey, include a wealth of demographic information that can be mined for detailed characteristics of arts participants. Researchers are encouraged to analyze the SPPA through the NEA Research: Art Works grant program; the next deadline is November 5.

About NEA Research

The NEA is the only federal agency to conduct long-term and detailed analyses of arts participation. For more than 30 years, the NEA Office of Research & Analysis has produced periodic research reports, brochures, and notes on significant topics affecting artists and arts organizations, often in partnership with other federal agencies such as the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The NEA is committed to extending the conversation about arts participation by making data available to both the research community and the public at large. 

About the National Endowment for the Arts

The National Endowment for the Arts was established by Congress in 1965 as an independent agency of the federal government. To date, the NEA has awarded more than $4 billion to support artistic excellence, creativity, and innovation for the benefit of individuals and communities. The NEA extends its work through partnerships with state arts agencies, local leaders, other federal agencies, and the philanthropic sector. To join the discussion on how art works, visit the NEA at www.arts.gov.

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