Cultivating Demand for the Arts

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 Cultivating Demand for the Arts

Spurred in part by a large influx of both philanthropic and government funding, the number of artists and nonprofit arts organizations in the United States has multiplied since the founding of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and most state arts agencies (SAAs) in the mid-1960s. Demand for their output has not kept pace, however, as evidenced by declining rates of arts participation for Americans, particularly those age 30 and under.1 Despite more than four decades of public support, the financial health of the U.S. arts sector has seen little to no improvement (McCarthy et al., 2001).

One explanation for these declining rates of arts participation is a lack of education: Many Americans have never acquired the knowledge and skills needed to understand and appreciate what the arts have to offer. According to this view, education policymakers have made little room for the arts in the public school curriculum, and policymakers in the arts have focused on increasing the availability of high-quality art (Fowler, 1996; Gioia, 2007). For various reasons, policies for cultivating demand for the arts—that is, for stimulating most Americans’ broad interest in and knowledge of the arts—have been either ineffective or nonexistent.

Our research explored the relationship between arts learning, arts engagement, and arts policy at the state level. The findings presented in this report are intended to shed light on what it means to cultivate demand for the arts, why this cultivation is necessary and important, and what SAAs and other arts and education policymakers can do to help. We focus on SAAs not because they are major funders of education or the arts—in budget terms, they are very small—but because they are in a position to influence arts learning,2 both by leveraging other public and private resources and by participating in policymaking decisions.

This is the third in a series of reports on the roles and missions of SAAs. In 2002, RAND was asked to study the results of a multiyear Wallace Foundation initiative encouraging SAAs to explore new ways to increase public participation in the arts.3 As reported by Lowell (2004), the initiative caused many SAAs to rethink how they might best serve the citizens of their states through grantmaking and other means.


According to data collected by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, the population of professional artists in the United States increased by 127 percent between 1970 and 1990 while the population of “all professionals” increased by 89 percent, and the labor force as a whole increased by 55 percent (Ellis and Beresford, 1994).4 During the 1990s, this growth in the number of professional artists slowed somewhat; but for the visual arts, theater, music, and literature, there remains “keen competition for both salaried jobs and freelance work [as] the number of qualified workers exceeds the number of available openings” (U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2008).

Growth in the number of nonprofit arts organizations has been nearly as dramatic. Schwarz and Peters (1983) estimate that during the decade of the 1970s, the number of opera companies increased by 150 percent, the number of art museums increased by 150 percent, and the number of nonprofit literary organizations doubled.5 Between 1982 and 2002, the number of nonprofit performing arts establishments grew by approximately 9 percent per year, significantly outdoing manufacturing establishments, which grew in number by less than 0.05 percent per year (U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, 1984, 2005b).

The growth and spread of artists and nonprofit arts organizations generated a corresponding surge in arts participation among members of the baby boomer generation in the 1970s and 1980s. More recent trends, however, show that demand is not keeping up with supply. Data from the NEA’s Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA) for 1982, 1992, and 2002 offer evidence of “ongoing attrition in the audience for many of the arts” (DiMaggio and Mukhtar, 2004, p. 169). When growth in population and growth in education levels are held constant, the participation rate (the number of participants as a percentage of the adult population) can be seen to decline in all seven of the benchmark art forms surveyed by the NEA (McCarthy et al., 2001). This decline holds true for all age and education groups.

Perhaps the most worrying trend is that fewer young adults (persons age 18 to 24) than ever are visiting art museums, going to the ballet, and attending classical or jazz concerts. Except in the case of opera, the share of young adult audience members for nonprofit performing arts has declined across the board; accordingly, the median age of the performing arts audience is rising faster than the median age of the general population (Peterson, Hull, and Kern, 2002; Nichols, 2003). And not only the performing arts have been affected. Of all the arts tracked by the NEA, the literary arts have suffered the largest decline in young adult participation. In 1982, young adults had the highest reading rate across all age categories; 20 years later, they had the lowest rate of all adults under 65.

Part of this broad-based decline in adult, particularly young adult, rates of participation can be explained by the huge expansion of home-entertainment options, including greater access to music and film via computers and other electronic devices.6 Many observers see mass-entertainment marketing that targets the young as the main culprit. Others point to new forms of cultural participation among those under 30: a surge in creative practices made possible by new technologies, such as composing and editing music, making digital films, and creating video games (Tepper and Ivey, 2008). Hands-on participation rates in the benchmark arts, however, have not been rising among the young, and media participation (that is, listening to recordings or watching broadcasts) in those art forms has declined since 1982 (NEA, 2004).

What’s at Stake

There are several reasons to be concerned about declining demand for the arts and the growing imbalance between artistic supply and demand. First, if demand for the arts—and therefore the earned income of arts organizations—keeps declining, it is unlikely that government support and arts philanthropy will be able to take up the slack: Public and private funders alike are finding it increasingly difficult to justify support for the arts in the face of competing social and environmental claims (Americans for the Arts, 2007).7 Eventually, some arts organizations will go out of business. This, of course, happens frequently in the for-profit world, and there may be organizations that deserve to fail. But there are also institutions that are highly valued by a relatively small number of Americans now but could be highly valued by much larger numbers of Americans in the future—and these, too, may be forced to close their doors.8

Second, declining demand leads to a loss of the public and private benefits derived from the arts. Beyond the artist’s creative act and the work of art that he or she produces, there are the people who are “arts appreciators,” that is, who appreciate the arts and seek repeated arts encounters. The quality of those encounters—the level of emotional and mental engagement people experience with works of art—is critical to the creation of a range of benefits that enhance personal lives and contribute to the public welfare in ways that go beyond economics. People who experience high levels of engagement with works of art move imaginatively and emotionally into different worlds; broaden their field of reference beyond the confines of their own lives; exercise their capacity for empathy; develop faculties of perception, interpretation, and judgment; and form bonds with others who find in some works of art the expression of what whole communities of people have experienced (McCarthy et al., 2004). If the number of arts appreciators shrinks with succeeding generations, the cultivation of these humanizing effects will decline as well.

Third, declining demand is likely to be associated with increasing inequity in how the arts-derived benefits are distributed. Research suggests that early arts experiences, arts education, and the valuing of the arts by family members and peers dispose one toward arts participation (see Chapter Three for an overview of this research). Children who are provided with little or no experience or study of the arts are less likely to become arts participants as adults. Thus, if the public schools do not commit to providing arts education, the arts and the intrinsic benefits they offer will not be equally available to America’s children.

Fourth, a number of educators and others argue that by deemphasizing the education of children in the arts and humanities, American public schools are no longer adequately preparing their students to participate in the rich cultural life that is one of civilization’s greatest achievements. Finn and Ravitch (2007, p. 1) warn that a liberal education, which includes the arts, is “critical to young people because it prepares them for ‘public life’—not just politics and government, but the civic life in which we should all partake.” Ferrero (2007, p. 37) refers to the “nascent hunger for schools to do more than help children read and compute and obtain a credential that will land them a lucrative job.” And von Zastrow and Janc (2004) state that because the liberal arts “span the domains of human experience,” they foster “an understanding of what it means to be human.” In this view, the narrowing of the K–12 curriculum to mathematics, science, and reading does a disservice to American children.

Research Questions

This report seeks to clarify what it means to cultivate demand for the arts, how well American institutions are cultivating this demand, and whether it is in the public interest for policymakers to make cultivation of this demand a greater priority. Specifically, we address four research questions:

  1. What role does demand play in the creation of a vibrant nonprofit cultural sector?
  2. What role does arts learning play in the cultivation of demand?
  3. What does the current support infrastructure for demand look like, and does it develop in individuals the skills needed to stimulate their engagement with the arts?
  4. How and to what extent have SAAs supported demand for the arts in the past, and how can they improve their effectiveness in this role?

Although we single out SAAs for special attention, we recognize that many other policymakers—such as leaders of arts organizations and their education departments, arts educators and their professional associations, the foundation community and other funders of the arts and arts education, and education leaders committed to the value of the arts—face similar issues in their strategic planning. Our ultimate objective is to shed light on what it takes to cultivate demand, particularly the role of arts learning in this cultivation, and to encourage all these stakeholders to develop a shared commitment to improving policy and practice in this area.

Research Approach

Our analysis took three main avenues. First, we read widely in several areas: (1) theoretical literature on arts education, arts education policy, and the philosophy of art; (2) empirical research on arts education in the public schools, including historical perspectives on policies that have influenced the arts curriculum, teaching practices, teacher education, and assessment; (3) research on youth arts learning beyond the school day, including studies of after-school programs and community-based arts learning for children; and (4) studies of arts learning opportunities for adults, including college arts programs and community-based programs for lifelong learning in the arts. This body of work helped us draw a picture of the main institutional supports for arts learning. We also discovered large uncharted areas in which data and research simply do not exist.

Second, we analyzed national data on the value of SAA grants by type of recipient, type of activity, and education orientation of the activity funded. These data have been compiled by the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies every year since 1986. Although they represent an imperfect measure of SAA priorities, they indicate where the bulk of SAA money and attention has been directed over the past 20 years. (Chapter Six describes the dataset in detail.)

Finally, we conducted structured and informal interviews and roundtables with arts education experts, arts journalists, arts education advocates, staff members of state departments of education, and current and past NEA and SAA staff to find out about recent approaches—most of which have not yet been well documented—used to cultivate demand for the arts at the federal and state levels. The interviews were designed to provide qualitative insights into a range of issues, including the state of arts education in public schools and ways to encourage lifelong learning in the arts.

Report Organization

Chapter Two begins with an overview of the process of artistic creation and arts appreciation, describing how the communicative cycle of art creates unique benefits for the individual and the broader public, and arguing that both the artist and the arts appreciator are needed to create these benefits. With that understanding in place, we then set out a framework that illustrates the importance of both supply and demand for a healthy cultural system, and describe the institutional supports for supply and for demand. We then discuss why we think policy objectives will have to address three critical areas—supply, access, and demand—if they are to create the most value for the public through the arts.

Chapter Three looks at how to develop an individual’s capacity to engage with the arts, a capacity we argue is critical to spurring ongoing demand for arts experiences. We draw on a number of studies offering evidence that arts learning stimulates arts participation later in life. We also synthesize a body of conceptual research that identifies the skills and knowledge individuals need to be taught if they are to be able to fully engage with works of art—or partake in aesthetic experiences. Many of these studies broadened the understanding of arts education’s purpose in the 1970s and 1980s and helped create the foundation for the national and state arts content standards adopted in the 1990s and 2000s. We also point to the need for further research to test our hypothesis that the decline in school-based arts education has contributed to the decline in arts participation.

The next two chapters then examine the institutional infrastructure that promotes individual demand for arts experiences. Chapter Four concentrates on youth arts learning; Chapter Five, on adult arts learning. Our purpose in describing this complex landscape of organizations is to improve the general understanding of it, since it is within this environment that public and private policies will have to be targeted to stimulate demand for the arts.

Chapter Six examines SAA grantmaking over the past 20 years, revealing that state arts funding has typically emphasized support for the production and performance or exhibition of works of art, with minimal attention to arts learning. We describe initiatives in two states that are designed to strengthen youth arts learning. These initiatives show how SAAs, despite their modest resources, can have a notable effect on arts learning in their states if they use their position as state government agencies to facilitate collaborations among stakeholders.

Chapter Seven, our concluding chapter, summarizes the main insights from our analysis and highlights our overall purpose, which is to stimulate discussion about the appropriate balance of policy objectives for the arts and to shed light on policy options.

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1. For this report, “the arts” are the seven benchmark art forms surveyed by the NEA—ballet, classical music, jazz, musical theater, opera, theater, and the visual arts—most of which are produced in the nonprofit sector. However, many of the basic skills and much of the knowledge needed to appreciate the benchmark arts are also needed to appreciate the wide range of art forms produced in the commercial and volunteer sectors.

2. Although many use the terms arts education and arts learning as synonyms, we use the term arts education to mean formal instruction in a school setting and the term arts learning to mean the many ways in which arts knowledge and skills can be gained in less formal settings. We also use arts learning, as in the sentence above, as the more inclusive term to mean both formal and informal instruction.

3. The State Arts Partnerships for Cultural Participation (START) initiative was launched in 2001. Through START, The Wallace Foundation gave 13 SAAs multiyear grants in support of innovative programs, research, and outreach efforts aimed at increasing arts participation in their states. Most of the grants concluded in 2005–2006.

4. In this study, artists self-identified. The artist occupations listed were actors and directors; announcers; architects; authors; dancers; designers; musicians and composers; painters, sculptors, and craft artists; photographers; and teachers of the arts in higher education.

5. The time spans measured were 1970 to 1980 for opera companies, 1966 to 1978 for art museums, and 1974 to 1980 for nonprofit literary publishers. This report is one of the few sources of data on nonprofit arts organizations for the period. The U.S. Census Bureau did not begin its Economic Census, which counts for-profit and nonprofit arts establishments, until 1977.

6. We define entertainment as cultural activity whose full appreciation requires little in the way of intellectual/aesthetic skill or historical/cultural knowledge.

7. Also see “Is Giving to Universities and Arts Groups Under Attack?” (Chronicle of Philanthropy, 2007).

8. Heilbrun and Gray (1993, p. 205) describe this as the “legacy to future generations” argument: “The argument is that both those who enjoy the arts and those who do not would be willing to pay something today to ensure that the arts are preserved for the benefit of future generations.” The legacy argument is also used as a justification for public subsidy of historic preservation.