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How Doing the Hustle at Your Cousin’s Wedding is ‘Art’

According to the NEA’s latest arts participation survey, social dancing is the most popular form of art-making, with nearly one in three adults engaging in dance at weddings, clubs or other social settings. Photo by Flickr user auchard

When was the last time you went to a museum? Or read a short story? Or danced “the hustle” at a wedding? If it was in the last year, consider yourself engaged with the arts. At least according to a new survey from the National Endowment for the Arts.

The NEA, along with the U.S. Census Bureau, surveyed adults 18 and older to estimate how Americans have participated in arts in the past year. They used five broad categories: attending, reading, learning, making/sharing (including social dancing), and consuming art via electronic media. The organization released key findings Thursday, broken into the demographic variables of age, race and ethnicity, gender and educational attainment. See the full 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts here.

Some of the findings may not surprise. For example, most adults (71 percent) in the last year have accessed art — listened to music, watched a video, looked at photography — through electronic media like television, radio and the internet. But did you know that cutting a rug, say at a wedding or a nightclub, qualifies as a form of art sharing?

Why not, says NEA Research Director Sunil Iyengar. By including categories like social dancing and scrapbooking, for example, the survey captures how a 21st century audience is increasingly regarding art. Dancing, he says, is “certainly a cultural a phenomenon that involves the arts.”

PBS NewsHour chief arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown spoke to Iyengar on the phone Thursday to talk about the results — what they all mean and what some of the surprises are.

Listen to their conversation below:

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome to Art Beat again, I’m Jeffrey Brown. The National Endowment for the Arts has just released its survey of public participation in the arts, the first since 2008. The survey asked a sample of Americans if they had participated in 5 broad categories of arts activities in the past year: attending, reading, learning, making/sharing art, and consuming art via electronic media. Sunil Iyengar is NEA research director, and he joins us now – welcome.

So, overall results, what jumps out at you in the big picture?

SUNIL IYENGAR: Well, if you put it, we did look at five broad modes of art participation inclusive of arts attendance, but some of the new areas we really delved into in the survey were how often people make or share arts activity, as well as how often they consume arts activity through various electronics and digital media. It turns out that 71 percent, more than two-thirds of all Americans, in an adult survey I should clarify, used either traditional electronic media like TV and radio but also handheld mobile devices, the internet, to engage with the variety of — one of the variety of art forms. That’s probably the highest number that reached out at the report. The next highest number is actually 59 percent of all adults went to see a movie in the last year. And then the numbers get a little lower.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask specifically about some of the things that jump out where on the negative side, musical theatre, non-musical plays, museum-going, they all went down as did adults’ rates of literary reading. I guess these are the things we all think we know, but this puts some numbers on it.

SUNIL IYENGAR: Yes, you’re right. Actually, this was the first time in the survey’s history, except for I think 1985 — we’ve been doing this survey since 1982, periodically — where we found musical play-going dropped by 9percent rate since 2008. Now with non-musical plays, there has been more of unfortunately a steady decline in attendance there. With a 12 percent decline since 2008. And with literary reading, unfortunately, we saw an uptick in the last survey, more people reading, and now it seems to be less particularly I would point out — poetry, which seems to have lost about a third or so — or more than a third of its readership in the last several years, according to these numbers. One thing I just wanna point out though is, it’s important to also understand the different demographic subgroups that make up the total U.S. population and how these subgroups participate in the arts, for example, some groups have bucked the trend. So if you look at something like art museums that you pointed out, is going down, specifically find that older adults are not going to museums more than in the past. Um … you find for example, you look at another category, such as reading, you find again, older adults happen to be drawing on that particular demographic, but you find sort of an anomaly here and there, so book reading of any type, reading any kind of book, older adults reading more books than in the past.

JEFFREY BROWN: Were there surprises that jumped out at you?

SUNIL IYENGAR: well, actually, it’s interesting — with outdoor performing arts festivals — let’s stick with the theme of age here, you see that both younger adults and older adults are going at higher rates to outdoor performing arts festivals than in previous years — and that’s in attendance. The other things that struck me were that first time we ever asked about social dancing — the reason we asked about it, partly, was because I think it’s fair to say that the proliferation of all these programs about dancing, with reality shows and so forth, there have been questions as to, are Americans actually dancing more, maybe ask about this phenomenon going on? So we slipped in the questions about: did you ever do — do you do social dancing, what did you do in the last year?

JEFFREY BROWN: That one jumped out at us and I did want to ask you about it — because it says social dancing I’m quoting from, at least the highlights you put out — social dancing is the most popular form of art-making or art-sharing; nearly 1 in 3 adults danced at weddings, clubs, or other social settings. Now, okay, I get that, doesn’t that raise the question of how you define arts participation? Because I wonder if people dancing at a wedding think that they’re making art. So why include that? What are you getting at?

SUNIL IYENGAR: Actually that’s a very good point. One of the things that the survey does, compared to that of prior years, is that we retain the ability to do some trend comparisons over some of the art forms that I think you could say have been venerated and stand the test of time in terms of recognition by arts policy makers and practitioners as historically funded kinds of art forms. However, you want to also be adaptive and understand how changing demographics, and how the population is increasingly regarding art. So there are many categories of art here, such as social dancing, which is an expressive act, and certainly cultural phenomenon that involves the arts. We do ask about it. Such as scrapbooking in the arts — people who do scrapbooks in the arts — they share photography or film, through the internet, and all kinds of questions we have regarding making and sharing art, to give us a broader picture of these kinds of subcategories of art, or you could say genres, to know: what does the total picture look like, are some of these people also the same people who walk into see a museum or gallery? Are they the same people who go see an opera? And what does that mean? That’s the value having multiple variables in the survey of how in the arts — we can play around with them and understand, what is a profile of an arts participant in the 21st century?

JEFFREY BROWN: Were you able, to what extent, were you able to gage the impact of social media of all the gadgets that we all have, with the various entertainment options, how much does that play into what you see in terms of participation?

SUNIL IYENGAR: It certainly plays a big role. I just cited the number — something like 71 percent of adults — and it breaks down further by type of art, and by type of technology, by who participated in electronics and digital media, and various kinds of arts, but then you know, in terms of looking at specific art forms, you sometimes see some disparities still very apparent, for literary reading — for example, poetry, plays, novels to short stories, you’re asked if you did that in the last year by using a handheld mobile device. There look to be still some disparities by racial ethnic groups, for example, by education level, and I’m sure by income, and that parallels what we see when you ask them, did they read those types of literature independent of those devices. So I think we still see some persistent patterns that we have to get a handle on — to understand: how can arts education be more broadly promoted and integrated in American life in a way that makes sense for average Americans that they would embrace their own community and their own practices.

JEFFREY BROWN: Alright, well that’s just a bit from the survey of public participation in the arts. Sunil Iyengar is the NEA research director. Thanks so much for talking to us.


JEFFREY BROWN: And thank you so much for joining us at art beat, I’m Jeffrey Brown.

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