Make Love, Not Art?

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Boomers are bored by Bach and Botticelli.

When you look out at audiences attending the ballet, opera, or theater, you probably notice lots of gray hair — as people tend to patronize the fine arts as they age. So considering that the United States is in for a bumper crop of senior citizens as the Baby Boomers push further into their 50s, you would think that the fine arts would be gearing up for an onslaught of new fans.

Instead, the art world should plan for lots of empty seats, according to a new analysis commissioned by The National Endowment of the Arts (NEA), and conducted by Richard A. Peterson, a professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University, along with colleagues Pamela C. Hull and Roger M. Kern. To test the relationship between aging and the arts, the researchers analyzed new data from the 1997 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, and compared it with data from previous surveys in 1982 and 1992.

The team confirmed that Boomers are not attending classical music concerts, opera, theater, ballet, or art museums in the same numbers as their parents. But they also found that not all of the Baby Boom carries blame for the decline. In fact, older Boomers, born between 1946 and 1955, are overrepresented in fine arts audiences. In 1997, this group accounted for 22 percent of the U.S. population, but among classical music audiences, the cohort represented nearly 25 percent. Older Boomers also made up 25 percent of art museum visitors, and 27 percent of ballet patrons.

It is actually the younger Boomers, born between 1956 and 1965, who are bored by Bach and Botticelli. And because they make up the largest share of the total U.S. adult population — 24 percent — their boredom best not be dismissed. Young Boomers account for just 16 percent of classical music audiences, less than 12 percent of opera attendees, and 21 percent of theatergoers. To make matters worse, young Boomers' interest in fine arts is actually decreasing as they age. In 1982, younger Boomers made up 44 percent of attendees at jazz concerts — their favorite of all fine art events — but by 1997, that figure fell dramatically to 26 percent.

The trend seems to be trickling down to the next generation, according to the report. While Gen Xers, people born between 1966 and 1975, composed about 17 percent of the population in 1997, they accounted for less than 10 percent of classical music patrons, 13 percent of ballet audiences, and 15 percent of theater attendees. But all hope is not lost: These consumers, aged 26 to 35 in 2001, were overrepresented at jazz concerts, making up 23 percent of those audiences.

It all points to a shift in how Americans perceive status and the pursuit of the fine arts, says Peterson. Attending these cultural events used to be the way of showing that one belonged to the so-called upper crust, but that sort of snobbishness is starting to fade. “Status is still very important, but the way it's gained is different,� he says. “People of high status still like classical art forms, but they are as equally prepared to embrace popular culture in all of its forms. When they go to the opera, it's not the thing they have to do, it's one option among many. One gets status now from being eclectic, or being omnivorous.�

As Americans turn to other art forms not currently considered “fine� — such as movies — there's a simultaneous turn toward recorded media, rather than live entertainment. Future surveys for the NEA may well see the addition of other categories to reflect these changing tastes, says Peterson. For the classifications that remain, “what they consist of will change radically,� he adds. “We may well call it classical music, for example, but a quarter of the concert performances will be movie scores.�

Purists may shudder. But if widening the definition of fine art brings younger people in for more than just a cameo appearance, it may be what saves the arts from all of those empty seats.

For more information, visit www.arts.endow.gov, or contact Richard Peterson at richard.a.peterson@vanderbilt.edu.

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