There’s been quite a bit of outcry in response to Rocco Landesman’s, Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, assessment of the current state of supply and demand for theatre in the US. His address at the New Play Conference at Arena Stage in DC, set off an immediate and widespread reaction. The immediate response via the Arena blog is here; you can watch the video of his speech here; and read his follow-up blog post here. A few representative responses to his statements are here and here. Rather than add to these responses, I would like to focus on a more limited area of his address, specifically the emphasis that Landesman and the NEA place on technology in relation to arts development and consumption in this country.
In his follow-up blog post, Landesman points to the NEA’s Audience 2.0: How Technology Influences Arts Participation, suggesting that “people who consume art via the Internet and electronic media are nearly three times as likely to attend live arts events, that they attend a greater number of live events, and that they also attend a greater variety of arts events.”
I haven’t analyze the report as closely as I would like, but from my preliminary reading, I’m not convinced that Landesman’s equation only goes in the direction he suggests. I think it is far more plausible to read the data in the reverse: as evidence that people who attend a greater number and variety of events also consume more art via the Internet and electronic media. That is, those of us who are already invested in live art events and a variety of events are more likely than others to seek out and consume those works in electronic media.
Perhaps even more significantly according to the report, we are more likely than other segments of the population to have the financial resources to access both live events and technology. With more limited resources, technology becomes not an avenue to live performance and other arts, but rather a compensation for the lack of access to live events. At the risk of citing a few statistics out of context and with no idea what analyses were run on these, let me point out a few of the conclusions drawn in the report.
The summary data demonstrates that “Live attendance” rises steadily with income levels. For those earning less than $10k, attendance was 16.2% rising from 19.3% to 27.1% for the rise from $20k-30k to $30-40K. At $50-75k, the rate rises to 36.3%. The biggest spike, however, is from the $100-150k group (55.2%) to the $150k and over: 68.3%. What’s interesting, too, is that the higher income levels often reported higher percentage of live attendance than media consumption, whereas lower groups tended to consume greater percentages via media than through live events. This trend flipped for all benchmark activities around $30k, but if you look only at “Arts performances,” it is only at $75k and up that people are consuming more via live events than mediated versions of those events. (The category of “Visual arts,” was consumed less through media by every income level except for the less than $10k group.) You can see a chart of this data here (p. 32, Figure 3-4).
The report narrative concludes that “More U.S. adults viewed or listened to arts performances through electronic media than through live attendance (30% versus 27%)” (33). This is clearly true in aggregate, but look more closely and you’ll discover that this is heavily biased by income. In my reading, it appears that technology does not lead us to the “live event,” but rather compensates for its lack of availability. At the highest income levels, attendance at live events outstrips media by 68.3% to 58.1% for all and 44.3% for performances. This is the highest margin.
This understanding of art in media form as compensatory and reactive, rather than inspiring and proactive, is significant because it suggests that if you want more people to come to your live event, attention to cost is likely to have a more significant impact than whether your event (and others of its kind) are available via media. I wish I were a better economics student (one semester of micro, even with the great Chip Case doesn’t do me enough good now), but my read on Audience 2.0 is that it isn’t about technology, media, or new web 2.0 marketing strategies. It’s about the money. And, in the current economic climate, that’s not a good sign for theatre.