Death of the Arts Snob?

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The theater, once the most elite of institutions, now has patrons who enjoy dance music as well as classical works, and who like to go bowling as well as visit museums.

The American arts fan, long mythologized as a snooty, wealthy elitist, is changing. Over the past decade, the number of Americans who visit art museums and attend operas, plays, and classical music concerts has steadily increased to nearly 100 million — roughly half of the adult U.S. population. A study of participation rates in 100 leisure activities reveals that today's typical arts consumer is neither elitist nor populist, but rather a devotee of eclectic interests with a fondness for both theatergoing and bowling.

This portrait of the omnivorous culture buff is a stretch from the old image of Americans divided by highbrow and lowbrow pursuits: an intellectual elite supporting the fine arts on one side of the velvet curtain and the hoi polloi indiscriminately gobbling up pop culture on the other. In part, this change reflects blurring class distinctions. Fewer people today define themselves by their educational degrees or job titles, thanks to a high-tech economy that has created millionaire college dropouts. Many Americans no longer feel compelled to conform to traditional notions of how they should behave on and off the job. The emergence of professional wrestling as the most popular programming on cable TV could not have occurred without the ringside histrionics attracting large numbers of middle-class suburbanites. A generation ago, they'd have tended to appreciate Rembrandt instead of The Rock.

Such out-of-the-box attitudes now extend across the cultural landscape: The theater, once the most elite of institutions, now has patrons who enjoy dance music as well as classical works, and who like to go bowling as well as visit museums. As for the presumed sophisticates who read The New Yorker, they also show a remarkable fondness for shooting billiards and — hang on to your monocle — attending theme parks.

These unlikely associations are the results of a computer-generated preference map [see right] that outlines the relationships between 100 arts, media, and leisure activities. At a time when researchers are challenged by increasingly fragmented American lifestyles, this consumption map offers critical insight into the shifting boundaries of contemporary taste. (The map is based on a nationwide survey of 40,000 U.S. households by Mediamark Research Inc., and was drawn using Claritas COMPASS software and an SPSS-MDS spatial analysis system to create a statistically accurate representation of ways in which Americans spend their leisure time and money.)

It is not a pretty picture, at least not in any conventional sense. Divided along dimensions of rich vs. poor and city vs. country demographics — the centroid represents middle-class suburbanites — the map exposes some of the contradictory impulses of American behavior (like ordering a Diet Coke with French fries). In the quadrant dominated by the upscale rural, for instance, consumers exhibit a liking for CNBC, Forbes magazine, and zoos. Their downscale rural counterparts, meanwhile, favor The Drew Carey Show, Woman's Day, and car races.

For some marketers, such correlations provide useful information for media planning and product positioning in the New Economy. Creative departments often seek complementary products linked in consumers' minds to develop cross-promotional campaigns. Fund-raisers for Greenpeace, for example, target households with Volvos in the driveway, knowing that those who care about automotive safety also tend to support environmental protection.

The new landscape of American taste may also inspire the altering of some storyboard plans. Although the NFL marketing mix now includes commercials screaming with heavy metal music, the preference map shows that gridiron fans tend to enjoy jazz and Christian rock music. While newspapers rarely promote their arts coverage, according to a 1999 study by the National Arts Journalism Program, the map indicates that they'd find a ready audience among adults enrolled in continuing-education programs. And given the map's disclosure of a close association between attendance at ice hockey games, trips to museums, and patronage of live theater, NHL team owners may want to develop promotional tie-ins with community theaters and art galleries.

Ultimately, the preference map clearly shows that American consumers defy easy cultural classification, and that the traditional highbrow snob is a vanishing species. Indeed, moviegoers are less likely to watch Showtime than VH1. And museum patrons not only go to dance performances but also visit zoos in large numbers. This finding has anecdotal support from some arts organizations. The Ordway Center for the Performing Arts and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts have conducted marketing surveys that show the Minnesota Twins baseball team as their chief competition for the leisure time of their patrons.

As Frank Loesser observed in Guys and Dolls, that postmodern classic straddling cultural boundaries, “Brow schmow.� In a society with blurred class distinctions and eclectic arts preferences, that's as good a characterization of today's culture buff as any.


Michael J. Weiss is a contributing editor of this magazine, Morris B. Holbrook is a marketing professor at Columbia University, and John Habich is senior cultural editor at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

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