Friday, December 11, 2009

It's Who You Read

What's one to think?

At the same time that the news spreads across,, The Los Angeles Times, MSNBC, ABC News, etc., etc., that, according to an NEA survey, attendance at US Museums is declining:

A new report released by the National Endowment for the Arts said that the number of American adults attending arts and cultural events has sunk to its lowest level since 1982, which was when the NEA began conducting the poll.

The study, which was organized in partnership with the Census Bureau, noted that the downward trend was at least partially due to the deteriorating economic conditions of the last two years, including the rise in the price of gasoline and an overall drop in consumer spending.

But it also emphasized larger shifts in the American public's relationship to the arts. The report, which uses data collected in 2008, said that the share of adults who attended at least one arts event was 34.6%, down from 39.4% in 2002, which was the last time the survey was conducted.

Moreover, those who did attend arts events did so less frequently. The report found that the average number of attendances per individual was 5.2 in 2008, down from 6.1 in 2002.

The Art Newspaper reports instead that "Museum attendance rises as the economy tumbles":
It may be because of the relative bargain of a museum ticket, an increased popular interest in contemporary art, or just a rainy summer, but admissions at the majority of art museums in the US have been holding steady through the recession—and many are dramatically on the rise. A survey by The Art Newspaper of 20 museums across the country found that two-thirds have experienced a clear increase in visitor numbers over the past three years.

The trend holds for institutions with free and paid admissions alike, and institutions that show contemporary art have seen the most clear-cut increase. New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), one of the nation’s most expensive museums at $20 per ticket, had the best year in its 80-year history, bringing in 2.8 million visitors between 2008 and 2009. The size of its membership rose to a record 120,000. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s Frank Lloyd Wright retrospective was its best-attended show yet, attracting 372,000 people. The New York museum has also broken its 2008 attendance record of just over one million.
Mind you, the discrepancy here is not just a matter of semantics (i.e., it's not that the NEA survey is centered on ALL arts and cultural events and The Art Newspaper survey was museums alone). According to
According to a study by the National Endowment for the Arts, only 22.7 percent of Americans made a visit to a museum during 2008, down from a not altogether more impressive figure of 26.5 percent in 2008.
Ignoring the suggestion that museum attendance for 2008 was compared with museum attendance in our parallel universe for 2008 (editor, shouldn't that be "only 22.7 percent of Americans made a visit to a museum during 2009"?), how is one to parse?

Perhaps the NEA survey included far more museums than 20. The Art Newspaper article does report, for example, that:
The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC, has seen a dip in visitor numbers, but its director Richard Koshalek has plans to reverse the slide (The Art Newspaper, November 2009, p12).
But even so, they conclude that:
Overall, many institutions have been pleasantly surprised by how well they have fared since the economic crisis.
Obviously, someone with more time that I have should compare the survey results and means to help get to the bottom of such extremely different results. Any takers? Email your results to info [at] and I'll publish, with my adoration.

Labels: art appreciation, art museums, art viewing


Anonymous Franklin said...

I see right off the bat that the NEA study has a much larger sample size. If I've understood this correctly, the NEA poll was conducted as part of the national census, and thus collected data from a wide range of adult citizens across the country. In comparison, the Art Newspaper survey checked in with 20 museums. If there are 800 art museums in this country (I estimate as much by poking around on the American Association of Museums website; I suspect it's more), 20 museums is a pathetic sample. There are fifty US states, after all.

12/11/2009 10:16:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

That's my initial conclusion as well, Franklin, leaving as an open question why The Art Newspaper would chose to conclude that "Overall, many institutions have been pleasantly surprised by how well they have fared since the economic crisis." Unless they were fully unaware of the NEA survey results.

12/11/2009 10:19:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

It occurs to me as well that the datasets aren't mutually exclusive. You could have increased attendance at 20 select museums while museum attendance declines nationally, particularly if the museums don't distinguish repeat visitors from unique visitors. But the conclusion by The Art Newspaper that "the majority of art museums in the US have been holding steady through the recession" based on a survey of a tiny minority of them is patently bogus.

12/11/2009 10:44:00 AM  
Anonymous Charles Browning said...

As Franklin says, they're not mutually exclusive polls. One polls people on attendance, the other polls specific museums - ones that are generally at the top of what we consider culturally significant institutions. I'd want more info on what was considered a museum in the NEA polling. There are plenty of institutions calling themselves museums that have collections of the obscure or culturally insignificant. That could pull numbers either way, i.e. "yes I went to a museum in the last year - the Bismark Museum of False Teeth" or "yes I go to museums, but now I only go to the big name places, not the fringe ones."

12/11/2009 12:06:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Agree with you both. My overarching point (as reflected in the title) however is that if the Art Newspaper were your only source for art news, you might assume museums were seeing significant increases in attendance, where as if you never read the Art Newspaper, you might conclude the opposite.

The truth, as usual, is more nuanced it seems.

12/11/2009 12:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Larry said...

The NEA survey appears to deal with a variety of "arts and cultural events." The Art Newspaper speaks only about museums. Just anecdotally and personally speaking, I have drastically cut back my attendance at "arts and cultural events," the primary reason being economic. When even a balcony ticket at the Metropolitan Opera costs $100 (not to mention transportation and a meal if I buy one), and a museum admission costs $20, which can I do relatively often and which only infrequently?

But I wouldn't draw any conclusions about "lack of interest" based on the numbers. A live seat at the Met is quite expensive. On the other hand, the recently introduced High Definition movie transmissions of operas from the Met, at about $22 a ticket, are selling like wildfire. It's not unusual for all four movie theatres within 20 miles of me to sell out for any of these events.

12/11/2009 12:47:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just because alot of people go to art museums doesn't mean they care about art. Walking around a museum space is as tasking as walking through a mall. The same mental action is required for both, in most cases I suspect. Curiosity, distraction, sunday outing, meeting friends. Maybe surveys like this are misleading.

12/12/2009 10:15:00 PM  

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