Take Me Out to the Opera

By Published on .

Americans generally don't consider themselves the most cultured lot on earth. Ask a dozen people whether we as a country favor sports or cultural events, and chances are the majority would say sports.

But the just-released 1997 National Endowment for the Arts Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, conducted by Silver Spring, Maryland-based polling firm WESTAT, tells another story. According to the survey, to which more than 12,000 responded, 46 percent of American adults say they attended an arts event-defined as visiting a museum, or attending an opera, theatrical, dance, jazz, or classical music performance-in the last year, compared to 41 percent who attended a sports event.

"Everyone thinks that sports are ubiquitous," says Randy Cohen, director of research for the nonprofit Americans for the Arts. Culture is frequently seen as elitist, he says, but asks, "Is 46 percent of the American population elitist? This study brings arts attendance into proper perspective."

The highest-ranking cities in terms of cultural attendance are Boston, San Francisco and New York City. Residents of all three reported that they go to almost 50 percent more arts than sports events. San Francisco and Boston lead, with the average resident going to see Pavarotti, Monet, and the like about five times a year. This reflects the concentration of highly educated residents in San Francisco and Boston, since education, not income, is the major predictor of arts participation. New York City's average outings were about four per year.

Follow the money Some local governments are ahead of the curve when it comes to realizing the popularity of culture in their cities, and are funding the arts accordingly. For instance, the Washington, D.C.-based polling firm Schroth & Associates last March conducted a survey in the Miami area that showed 68 percent of respondents attended a cultural event last year. "Miami has typically been promoted as a fun-and-sun tourist destination," says Michael Spring, executive director of the Miami-Dade County Cultural Affairs Council. "But about a year ago, the Miami convention and visitors bureau added a cultural tourism director. We're beginning to see the arts as a vital part of the economy. Our new performing arts center is close to a $230 million project. It's set to break ground in the spring, and open in 2002."

Other municipalities are slower to spend. Though the Detroit Red Wings might come to mind more readily than the symphony orchestra when one conjures up an image of the Motor City, its denizens merited a high cultural average. But in terms of investment in facilities over the past ten years, $520 million is projected for the construction of new football and baseball stadiums, whereas only $20 million is being spent on additions and renovations to Detroit Symphony Orchestra Hall. "Nobody would say anything disparaging about building a new stadium," says Marilyn Wheaton, director of the Cultural Affairs Department for Detroit. "But I wish maybe just 50 percent of the money that goes into stadiums would go to cultural events. We should readjust our priorities. I don't mean to say give less for new stadiums. I'm suggesting we give more to the arts."

Private sponsorship And it's not only local arts administrators who think so. "There's a hell of a lot of money spent on sports," says Stephen Disson of the D&F Group, a Washington, D.C.-based corporate-events sponsorship firm whose clients, like VISA, tie into both arts and sports events. Disson encourages clients to sponsor theatrical tours to reach a higher-income, female-skewed audience. "How do you most effectively reach people?" he asks. "Is it by television, or at a live event?" While televised sporting events like figure skating have the potential to reach 10 million viewers, corporate sponsorship of a live event such as a play, says Disson, makes "the greatest impression on people." A theatrical tour generally engages audiences over a two-year period, while a televised event has only a day or two to make its impact.

This opportunity, coupled with the rising popularity of musicals, opera and dance (other than ballet), offer marketers fertile ground. The audience share for musicals compared to non-musicals increased from a 30 percent lead in 1992 to a 55 percent lead in 1997. Opera attendance numbers show a similar trend: Audience share relative to other classical music performances rose to 30 percent, from its 20 percent share in the 1980s. Attendance at modern dance was double that of ballet in 1997, up from being only about half again as large in 1992.

Ethnic attendance is up Respondents who identify themselves with an ethnic group scored among the highest in cultural-events attendance, while those who simply described themselves as "American" scored the lowest. The highest levels were reported by those with ties to Eastern European countries-with people of Russian ancestry reporting twice the national average. Those with roots in Western Europe-England, Holland or Norway, but not France or Germany-reported notably higher arts participation than average.

Lower levels of arts participation were reported by those with ties to Central American and Caribbean countries, such as Mexico or Puerto Rico, with the possible exception of Cubans. Says Miami's Spring, "Half of our population is Hispanic; the largest group within it is Cuban Americans. If arts participation is increasing, Cuban Americans have to be going."

Work played a decisive role in attendance levels. Surprisingly, those who spend more time at work also turn out at more events than those who work less-even taking into account education, age, and other major predictors of free time.

Most Popular