Last week, the NEA came out with Audience 2.0: How Technology Influences Arts Participation, a 150-page report discussing, as you might expect, the effect of technology on different types of artsgoing. The report uses data from the 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA), and is dense, fascinating and prescient—and as NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman notes, “In the arts, we are deeply invested in the…necessity of the live experience. Technology is often seen as our nemesis.”
Right off the bat, the report lays out its main finding, which is that “people who engage with art through media technologies attend live performances or arts exhibits at two to three times the rate of non-media arts participants.” This finding is repeated over and over in various contexts in the report, and the data seems to at least show a correlation between the use of technology to appreciate art and the frequency of attendance at live arts/exhibitions. What seems unclear to me is how much that can be attributed to technological assistance leading to more tech-based arts experiences and in turn more live arts experiences, and how much it’s simply that people who like art like art of all kinds, more and more often, than those who don’t.
Of note is that, according to this report, arts participation through media does not seem to replace live arts participation, personal arts creation or performance. In fact, the report points out, arts engagement through media is correlated with higher rates of participation in those activities. This again leads me to question whether this just means people who like theatre in real life are more likely to track down that YouTube performance of Patty Lupone, but the report suggests that that relationship needs much further prodding to fully understand it.
As Audience 2.0 goes on to note, “It’s is unclear…whether participating in the arts through electronic media directly leads to live attendance at arts events. Other possibilities are…live attendance leads to arts participation through electronic media or arts participation through electronic media and arts participating through other means reinforce each other.” Indeed.
Despite the inability to actually definitively link non-live attendance causally to more live attendance, which is going to involve some much more in-depth research, this report’s a good read, and it is interesting to see the NEA palpably trying to dispel the fears associated with the internet and other media for arts organizations of all stripes—something which is obviously particularly evident for theatre companies, artists and unions.
Here are some of the report’s more fascinating findings about what percentage of people that have participated in a performance through electronic or digital media:
• 21% of US adults say they’ve used the internet to view/download an arts performance.
• 8% and 7% of US adults say they’ve watched a musical or play, respectively, through electronic or digital media (fascinating given that only about 16% and 9.5% of the entire adult American population attends musicals and plays in a given year)
• 22% of US adults participated in both media and live performances—more on what doing both may do to frequency of attendance later
• A full 50% of the entire American adult population seems to take part in no art of any sort—media-based or not—a problem particularly prominent for Hispanics and African Americans, in which populations 61% and 59% respectively “neither attended live events nor used media to engage in arts activities.”
The report also adds nuance to one of the most startling findings from the 2008 SPPA: according to the 2008 SPPA, “In 2008, 67 percent of people with graduate degrees attended at least one benchmark activity, compared with only 38 percent of people with some college education and 19 percent of people with only a high school diploma.”
Audience 2.0 overlays the media aspect and finds something sort of startling—while that same negative correlation between education and attendance exists if you’re looking at people who both attend live and media-based arts experiences, if you look at people who only experience art through non-live media, the correlation actually flips, and people with less education and lower income tended to show higher rates of viewing/listening to art than those with higher incomes/education levels. While the obvious answer here is simply that if you’ve got the education and income, you probably can afford to attend live events in the way others can’t, and so you do, it’s still interesting to note that media accessibility means that art of all forms is now flowing more directly out to many of the constituencies our live events simply can’t touch.
Given this info, it’s probably not surprising that, when you zoom in particularly on theatre, specifically (surprisingly enough) straight plays, non-whites “attend” (watch/listen to on media) non-live theatre performances at a higher rate than they attend live theatre events, and in fact match fairly closely to the overall population of the country. Take a look:
Note particularly the drastic jump in Hispanics and African Americans who say they have experienced a straight play via non-live media (13.5% and 14.7%) versus those who say they've experienced a straight play live (6.1% and 6.6%). Also worth noting, almost twice as many African Americans have experienced a musical via non-live media than have seen one live (10.2% versus 5.8%).
So what does this mean? The takeaway for me, which isn’t new, but is perhaps now more urgent, is that there is a percentage of the population who wants theatre, but is currently only getting it, in whatever limited way, through non-live media. That percentage of the population is mostly non-white, mostly less affluent, and mostly more rural (another finding of the study), and it seems to me that this report serves as a call-to-arms of sorts to get it in gear and figure out how to translate our place-based medium into something that can function as powerfully and impactfully online.
The views represented in this Chatterbox Art & Opinion post are those of the individual author, and do not necessarily represent the views of Theatre Bay Area or its staff.