Thursday, June 21, 2012

New NEA Analysis – An Average Day In The Arts

The method used by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to benchmark participation in various art forms, both commercial and not-for-profit just took a huge leap forward in a report distributed this month entitled An Average Day in the Arts.

For the just-released analysis, the NEA does an excellent job of leveraging the work of other government agencies by using the intriguing American Time Use Survey (ATUS.)

The new NEA report measures participation across all arts categories from the consumer side regardless of whether they are private sector or not-for-profit related and mines to the state level but not local.

This should not be confused with studies such as the one recently released for Durham and one statewide for North Carolina which measures only the non-profit aspect of the arts using a great model developed for that purpose by Americans for the Arts.

The American Time Use Survey is conducted throughout the year with 10% of the sample allocated to each work day and 25% to each weekend day.  Rather than asking the respondent to recall 12 months of activity, it more reliably measures just the activity during the preceding 24 hour period.

This report, similar to others by the NEA, is hugely valuable tool for policy and decision makers across every sector and well worth taking time to read in depth but here are some of my take-aways:

  • The link between participation levels and the size or caliber of facilities or presenters is very week but participation is strongly linked to education and poverty levels.


  • As economists have long ago proven, people don’t spend more money on a category such as leisure just because new facilities are added; and there is little change over the years in the amount of time people devote to various forms of activity.


  • On any given day in America, there are:
    • 1.4 million people attend performing arts (not just theaters but churches and nightclubs etc.)
    • 540,000 visiting museums including art history museums and botanical gardens,
    • More than 2 million are involved with other arts and entertainment which includes historic sites, festivals, lectures, etc.
    • 3.3 million watch movies,
    • 2.6 million attend sporting events,
    • 2.7 million participate in arts and crafts,
    • 5.9 million listen to or play music,
    • 57.2 million read for personal interest,
    • 546,000 write for personal interest (such as I do with this blog,)

Read pages 18 and 25 of the report for participation in many other leisure activities.


  • Participation in various activities varies widely by state, even between adjacent states and regions of the country.


  • For example, on any given day in North Carolina, where I live, .7% of the population, age 15 and above attends some type of performing arts event or 50,000 people state-wide (mid-range) while the state has 63% of the national average for the number of performing arts organizations per 100,000 residents in that age cluster.


  • North Carolina has a slightly higher level of educational attainment than the national average but also a higher level of poverty.

Study the report for more information about participation in North Carolina and other states.

In my more than 40-years of experience in cultural and economic development in several different states and communities, far too many projects have relied on the long discredited zero-sum notion of “build it and they will come” as a strategy, typically and politically driven by powerful or special interests who are afraid of data-driven decision making.

“Thinking big” which is often used to silence any questions or observations is never a good substitute for “thinking smart.”

It is clear that this strategy is heavily reliant on visitor promotion and officials or developers must pay more heed to data that should be available from respective community-destination marketing organizations (DMOs) including a close evaluation of of a community or state’s strengths and needs areas compared to peers and of course the law of supply and demand.

Also, far too little careful consideration is given to well-proven principles of consumer behavior such as “access to opportunity” and to the reality that people allocate a certain amount of time and money for leisure.

Any private or public proposal to add more facilities should look first at how the project will shift time and money from one leisure activity or business to another and the impact the proposed project will have not only locally but on nearby communities as well as the regional cultural ecosystem in terms of not only audience but volunteers and underwriting.

Leisure vitality is proven to be crucial to the overall health and economic vitality of a community but communities can no longer afford to entertain proposals without considering trade-offs and the most significant way for local and state officials to ensure vitality is to increase educational attainment and lower poverty.

Equally important is to focus on adding value to a particular community’s or state’s unique sense of place.  Vitality is short-lived if the path sought makes a place indistinguishable from others.

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