Do The Fine Arts Have A Future?

August 26, 2015 | By Neil Howe

This editorial originally appeared in Forbes.

A changing of the guard is underway in America’s art museums. According to an Economist survey, more than a third of directors today are age 60 or older—many of whom postponed retirement to ride out the recession. Seven years later, turnover has begun in earnest, bringing an influx of new blood to the top. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about their visitors. The audiences for these museums—along with other forms of the visual and performing arts—have been steadily graying and shrinking, leading some to proclaim that entire genres are on their last legs. Arts leaders are trying all kinds of strategies to boost engagement and shed the stuffy image surrounding these activities.

Rates of attendance at fine arts events have declined significantly over the past few decades. According to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), only 33% of Americans attended a “benchmark” cultural event even once in 2012—down from 39% in 2002 and 41% in 1992. The numbers are even bleaker when broken down by individual activity: art museums (21.0%); musicals (15.2%); classical music (8.8%); non-musical plays (8.3%); jazz (8.1%); ballet (2.7%); and opera (2.1%). From 2002 to 2012, the average number of events attended per person also dropped from 6.1 to 4.8.

Share of Americans who Attended a "Benchmark" Arts Event in the Past Year (2002-2012)

Share of Americans who Attended a “Benchmark” Arts Event in the Past Year, by Age (2002-2012)

This decade-long decline has occurred across nearly every age group. Attendance has fallen most sharply among 35- to 44-year-olds (down 10%) and 45- to 54-year-olds (down 12%)—in other words, the brackets Generation X has been entering. Their overall participation rate now hovers just slightly above that of Millennials. The only age group to have seen statistically significant increases in arts attendance has been the oldest Americans (age 75 and over).

This shift has transformed audience composition: In 1982, the median age of a jazz concertgoer was 29; by 2008, it was 45. The same figure for classical concertgoers jumped from 40 to 49. “The last generation to broadly love classical music,” writer Mark Vanhoenacker remarks in Slate, “may simply be aging, like World War I veterans, out of existence.”

The strain on the arts is showing in plenty of other ways as well. As of 2014, jazz and classical music combined have dwindled to 2.8% of total music consumption. Symphony orchestras in New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Chicago have faced bankruptcies, strikes, and layoffs. And world-renowned organizations like the Metropolitan Opera are increasingly relying on contributions from deep-pocketed donors instead of earned revenue.

Forward-thinking arts directors are rushing to refashion these activities for a new generation. Many initiatives focus on providing more interactive experiences. The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Los Angeles County Museum of Art, for example, have taken a page from retailers and installed “beacons” in their galleries, which serve to enhance the knowledge of veteran visitors while demystifying the content for newcomers.

Others are offering audiences alternative ways to enjoy what’s onstage—including from their couch. A growing number of orchestras and opera companies now offer live HD webcasts of shows—most notably the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, which streams about 20 free concerts each season.  Cincinnati’s Lumenocity, a symphonic and light show launched in 2012, has proven so popular that organizers had to cut crowd size for public safety reasons. And with full-season subscriptions dwindling in popularity, many performing arts groups are rethinking traditional programming schedules, repackaging shows into themed mini-festivals.

Underpinning these moves is a sense of urgency within the fine arts world to respond more directly to audience desires. As the chief engagement officer at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA) observes in The Wall Street Journal: “It’s really a culture shift in museums for the curators to pay attention not just to what’s significant art historically, but also what’s perhaps on trend.” Data-mining tools like beacons and visitor surveys are shaping decisions on everything from exhibit design to donor outreach to curatorial decisions.

But this approach also has been controversial. Some museums, like the Frick Collection in New York, are opting out of technological upgrades, maintaining that galleries should be “places of quiet contemplation.” Another popular objection is that an audience-first approach dumbs down the material. Responding to the idea of crowdsourcing in The Wall Street Journal, one curator says: “You’re left with 10 paintings that may or may not make sense together… or may or may not teach anything about the history of art—it’s not the stuff of knowledge or scholarship.”

In the end, however, the question may not to be whether to include 21st century enhancements, but to what degree. Art galleries have it harder than most brick-and-mortar venues, since in many cases, there is no difference between what people can view in person and from home. Consider the Mona Lisa: The only reason to see it in person is to prove you were “really” there.

The second major challenge that arts leaders must confront is generational. From the American High through the retirement of the G.I. Generation, admission revenue from these events grew steadily fueled by rising attendance numbers. But beginning in the 1970s, the arts entered a new phase: Admission revenue kept rising briskly—but now due mainly to higher ticket prices, which concealed a deceleration in attendance. Since 2000, price hikes have not been able to compensate for a shrinking pool of ticket buyers: Annual revenue growth has halved from about 5% in real dollars per year to 2.5%.

The ‘70s-era slowdown coincided with the ascension of participatory forms of entertainment like rock and folk music. Younger generations, starting with Boomers, have thrived on a pop culture that invites audiences to join the fun—making the formal distance that characterizes the fine arts feel alien and outmoded by contrast. Nowadays, adults don’t patronize galleries to see a certain exhibit, but rather to socialize. As the efforts to increase engagement suggest, it may be that the only way the fine arts can revive enthusiasm is to lose the very trappings that set it apart.