Analysis of data gathered as part of the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts shows that Americans attending performing arts performances dropped from 39% in 1982 to 33.4% in 2012.
The percentage attending musicals has fallen from 17.1% to 15.2% between 2002 and 2012, during a decade when communities, especially in the South, went on an explosive spending spree predicated on that art form, while attendance at arts events in the South Atlantic fell lower than it did nationwide.
Even more worrisome, the number of annual visits per attendee by these musical theater-goers fell from 2.3 to 2 during that decade with attendance from various minority groups still a fraction of the overall population they represent.
Nearly 60% of attendance at musicals is now from those with household incomes of $100,000 or more, with 32.4% making $150,000 or more, predominantly older, white Americans.
This is hardly reassuring given the rapid transformation underway in demographics which is often disguised by increases in the overall population. Nor is the percentage of Americans attending performing arts the only cultural activity in decline.
The percentage attending visual arts festivals or crafts fairs has declined from 33.4% to 22.4% over the decade between 2002 and 2012.
The percentage visiting historic sites or historic neighborhoods and architecture has fallen from 31.6% to 23.9% over that span while the percentage attending amateur or professional sports events fell from 35% to 30%.
Community destination marketing organizations (DMOs) will be able to find useful benchmarks in the analysis.
DMOs have the means to obtain the percentage of Americans who participate in individual activities. If a DMO has subscribed to receive this data, it can be compared to general interest in an activity from studies such as this one as a means to understand potential.
On trips of 50 miles or more away, less than 10% of Americans will participate in particular activities of interest they enjoy while at home.
A handful of DMOs, such as the one for Durham, NC, where I live, gather marketing intelligence on day-trip visitors who travel less than 50 miles from home.
Studies such as this one provide an idea of the interest level for an activity in that radius, although again, the proportion interested in enjoying that activity while away, regardless of proximity, is a third of what it is at home.
But there are many other consumer behaviors to take into account.
Access to opportunity is one. It is the long observed behavior that the more access a consumer has to an activity, the less likely or motivated they are to participate.
This means, for example, that the motivation to go to a musical or concert will lessen now that there are theaters offering those events in Charlotte, Durham, Greensboro and Raleigh.
Another is that participation can rapidly change over time as lifestyles change.
We’ve been aware for two decades now that the talent communities seek to attract is much less likely than earlier generations to frequent events in large-scale venues.
Rather than paying a large sum to sit looking forward without interacting for several hours is much less interesting to them than a street scene where they can come and go to a smorgasbord of various establishments such as restaurants, stores and nightclubs.
Even an analysis of motivations behind attendance at performing arts shows finds that more than three-quarters do it to socialize with family or friends. Of those who didn’t attend, 44% cited lack of time and cost as the reasons.
Only 6.9% cited lack of interest in the program or event as a barrier to attending.
Musicals, in particular, should take note. From my experience, the songs are far too long and the entire production is often twice the length it needs to be for the same impact. I’m obviously not their target audience but neither is half the audience and it never hurts to recalibrate.
Communities spend tens of millions on cultural venues but usually have their minds made up by the time they do a feasibility study having already dismissed data available from their DMO, should it be data-driven.
But even if officials didn’t have those wires crossed or were better at fending off special interests focused on propping up property values to instead keep their minds open, few consultants are inclined or able to factor in some of the things noted above.
Almost never do these consultants analyze the effects of access to opportunity or even inventory a community’s comp set to index the number of venues to population.
Also missing, in the words of Indiana professor Joanna Woronkowski, an expert on cultural policy is an analysis of whether these proposed facilities risk “wasting scarce public resources and creating negative externalities” such as unwanted gentrification by destroying the day to day linkages that foster entrepreneurialism.
I’ve never found a feasibility report that looks at the risk new mainstream facilities can do to a community’s sense of place ecosystem or closely examine the mistakes of other communities who did something similar rather than only those they envy.
Of course, travel and leisure activities are not the only areas of activity undergoing fundamental change.
Durham largest and oldest Rotary Club is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year dating back to when the movement was born. Through valiant effort, it is transforming its membership to be younger, more diverse.
But here and across the world, models such as this were focused not only to provide social interaction and feeding ground for extroverts but to harness critical mass to solve problems and improve communities.
Leaders there are well advised to read The Vanishing Neighborhood by researcher Marc Dunkelman. In part, it is a review of books and studies dealing with a behavioral transformation among Americans since WWII which appears to be accelerating.
As the author notes, “mainframe” approaches such as this which have become as much about fundraising as about socializing or doing are giving way to generations now more comfortable with ad hoc groups that form around issues or projects and then dissolve.
DMOs have been forced for decades by stakeholders to keep scores of obsolete organizations on life support that at one time made sense but failed to grasp when their missions were accomplished or no longer relevant.
Communities and groups are well advised to be much more judicious when adding to cultural offerings by studying more closely the changes in consumer behaviors and the concept of obsolescence.
It will take them back to a deeper appreciation of what makes a community distinct and organically appealing and the values and traits that make a particular place worthy of love.