Parsing the Cultural Economy's Contradictory Trends, From Sagging Museum Attendance to the Art Book Boom

Despite blockbuster shows at the nation's largest museums breaking ticket sale records, such as McQueen's show at the Met, overall fewer people are setting foot inside art institutions.
(Courtesy asterix611 via Flickr)

Last year, the well-known advocacy group Americans for the Arts started putting out an annual index that would provide a measure of the health of the arts in the United States. The data was two years behind, though, and working with 2009 numbers things looked understandably grim (memorably, the report called on struggling non-profits to "die with dignity"). This year, the data from 2010 has been crunched, and while the outlook is not quite as rosy for the art industry as recent auction results may have you believe, it does show that the public began spending more money on art, music, and culture in 2010 as the country emerged from the Great Recession.

The index brings together many different indicators — everything from music sales to Broadway attendance to overall employment in the arts-and-culture industry, and not all of these indicators are that relevant to the state of visual arts. On that specific front, two statistics culled from the Index are worth highlighting: 43 percent of non-profit arts organizations were operating at a deficit (up from slightly from 2009, but still down from the crisis year of 2008), while the amount of philanthropic giving to the arts is increasing in total, but losing market share to other forms of giving (down from 4.9 percent in 2001 to 4.5 percent in 2010).

However, there is much more in the report — such as the fact that federal arts spending is going down (but we already knew that). ARTINFO has pulled out some of the more interesting points that relate to the visual and performing arts industries. 

People are Spending More at Museums...

Personal expenditures on museums/library visits (not the way we would break down the category, but we are not statisticians) are down from $7.2 billion in 2008 to $5.9 billion in 2010. However, there is hope. In 2000 the number was $3.8 billion. Even adjusted for inflation — $3.8 billion in 2000 dollars is $5 billion today — that's almost $1 billion more than a decade ago. As a percentage of the overall expenditures on cultural goods (things like books, music, and movies), museum and library expenditures are up from 2.9 percent in 2000 to 3.9 percent in 2010 (the high-water mark was 4.36 percent in 2008).

...But That Doesn't Necessarily Mean That More People Are Going

The data about art museum attendance is mixed. Despite blockbuster shows at the nation's largest museums (think Tim Burton at the MoMA, since we are talking about 2010), fewer people are setting foot inside art institutions overall. Art museum attendance in metropolitan areas declined from about 33 million visitors in 2003 to 30.6 million in 2010 (that's a loss of about 8 percent). However, the 2010 total is about level with 2008 numbers, which is an achievement considering that in 2009 the number dropped all the way down to 26.7 million.

While the total numbers may be declining, the number the index defines as "median museum attendance" — the median number when all museum attendance figures are lined up, meaning it is probably the attendance total most representative of a medium-sized museum in a smaller city — is up from 2000. The American Association of Museums takes the median visitor count of all the museums that report as a way of balancing between the blockbuster museums like the Met or MoMA and the smaller, more specialized museums — say, the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer in Grand Island, Nebraska.

How to square all this with the idea that Americans are spending more on culture? It could just be that museum entry fees are going up.

People Are Really Into Self-Publishing

Book publishing on art-related themes is way up, to 11,390 books published on music, theatre, dance, or art from a measly 7,092 in 2009 — likely not because there is so much more demand for arts literature, but because many more ebooks and self-published books are being issued ISBN numbers, according to the report.

People Are Going to Art School — After Liberal Arts School

Visual or performing arts degrees are up in the associates and masters categories, but down in the bachelors categories (from 18,643 to 19,703 associates degrees conferred, 14,948 to 15,552 masters degrees, and 93,009 to 91,802 bachelors degrees conferred, comparing 2009 to 2010). However, if people went back to school when the recession hit, those advanced degrees won't be doled out until 2011 or beyond, so the real impact of the recession isn't yet clear on the education front.

Don't Become a Dancer or a Stage Actor

A whopping 12 percent fewer people went to a live arts performance (dance, theater, opera, symphony) in the 77 metropolitan markets surveyed than in 2003 (the year it was indexed). Overall, participation in live performances is trending sharply downward. Opera attendance continues to decline, even from 2009 (it dropped from 3.9 million in 2000 to 2.9 million in 2009, to 2.7 million in 2010). The one bright spot for aspiring performers is traveling shows: while theater attendance on Broadway is going down, attendance at traveling Broadway shows around the country is skyrocketing. 

The Arts Shed Jobs for the First Time This Decade

Employment didn't really start to bounce back until early 2012 (and employment in general is still sluggish), so it isn't all that surprising that the arts industries appear to be continuing to lose jobs. In this report, job numbers appear to be a year or two behind other indicators. In 2008 there were 1.66 million arts jobs (that includes music, performing arts, etc.); in 2009 there were 1.69 million. In 2010 there were only 1.56 million.

As a percentage of all occupations, 2010 was the first year that the number of people in arts occupations as a percentage of all occupations did not grow. Up from 1.07 percent in 2000, the percentage of workers who worked in arts and culture was 1.29 in 2009. In 2010 it dropped to 1.24 percent — though, it's worth noting, this still marks a big jump in the last decade (that's better than we can say for journalism, for sure).

Rich Urban People See the Most Art

New this year to the Arts Index is a section that allows for searching in localized areas (counties), a feature which allows you to see a lot about the way different regions of the country value art, especially when compared with census data about median incomes in the region.* With a quick comparison of some of the economic and cultural hubs, along with some more suburban and rural places, it seems that the percentage of the population attending art museums is dependent partially on income — richer counties on average have higher museum attendance — but also partially on cultural infrastructure.

In rich suburban counties a smaller percentage of people visit museums than in poorer urban areas. For example, New York County (Manhattan) has an astonishing 45.7 percent museum attendance (ARTINFO can only assume this includes tourists who do not actually reside in the county) and a median household income (MHI) of $64,971. The wealthy Southern California suburban enclave of Orange County, on the other hand, has a MHI of $74,344 but only sees 10.6 percent of its population attending museums. In Brooklyn, where the MHI is $43,567, but the landscape is urban and there is plenty of access to arts institutions, 21.3 percent of the population went to a museum in 2010. But in a more rural locale with a similar median income — the mostly agricultural Kern County, California, where the MHI stands at $47,089 but it takes over two hours to get to Los Angeles — a truly measly 9.5 percent of the population has been to a museum in the last year. The Bronx, on the other hand, is poor (MHI of $34,264), but urban, and the rate of museum attendance there is 16.7 percent.

* U.S. Census demographic data from

Click on the slide show to see the raw data ARTINFO looked at, or click here to read the full report.