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Arts Kate Taylor: The arts paradox sees us consuming more but attending less

Why did 3 per cent of Americans decide not to go to the show? They couldn't find a date.

Sounds like a light-bulb joke, but it's actually a finding from two new U.S. studies of arts participation. The National Endowment for the Arts recently released its survey of arts participation from 2002 to 2012, as well as a companion study that asked people why they didn't attend arts events. More than one-half of Americans attended live performances, art museums and galleries, arts festivals or historic sites in 2012; another 13 per cent expressed interest but didn't make it. Their most commonly cited reason for not going was a lack of time, while about 20 per cent complained they couldn't find anyone to go with.

The art itself may aspire to the metaphysical, but the reasons people stay away are often wholly practical: time, money, kids – and, many artists suspect, electronic distractions. The U.S. research confirms what a lot of museum directors and theatre producers are already saying anecdotally, that arts audiences are shrinking. And yet it also shows how routinely the majority of Americans engage in the arts, how technology facilitates that engagement and how important the arts are to the American economy.

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Current research on arts participation often seem paradoxical: we are all reading books, playing instruments and listening to music to beat the band; the arts can boast billion-dollar spinoff effects in the economy; and yet arts organizations find it increasingly hard to reach us.

There is no direct Canadian equivalent of the NEA's continuing project to track arts participation, although Statistics Canada does survey our consumer spending, our time use and the incomes of various cultural sectors, while arts councils and industry groups commission one-off polls. Both these and Statscan's 2010 time use figures (the latest ones available) reveal huge amounts of activity – 2014 research by Business for the Arts showed that more than half of all Canadians go to a museum or gallery at least once a year, read fiction several times a month and listen to music daily – and occasionally there is some suggestion that Canadians outstrip Americans in their enthusiasm. (For example, separate national literacy studies in the 2000s showed that Canadians seemed to be reading at greater rates than Americans, while the 2010 time use numbers showed increases in cultural activity – but probably spread over a larger number of organizations and sites.)

Still, there's no reason to think the declining attendance at performances and exhibitions that the NEA has been tracking since 2002 is anything but a North American phenomenon: It so accurately reflects what both Canadians and Americans who are trying to get bums in seats will tell you. The NEA reports that in the traditional areas that it has tracked since 1982 – jazz and classical, opera, musicals, plays, ballets and art museums and galleries – the number of Americans who attended at least once a year dropped sharply from 39 per cent to less than 35 per cent between 2002 and 2008, and has dropped slightly again between 2008 and 2012, down to about 33 per cent. Meanwhile, people increasingly use technology to engage with the arts: For example, about 6 per cent of Americans surveyed in 2012 had created visual art in the previous 12 months; about half of them has used electronic means to do it. Five per cent had created or performed music, almost half of them had shared their creation electronically.

The paradox you can observe here is the same one you may have observed out there: We just can't get enough media, which is why we are often too busy for culture. Some people are cynical about this development – the museum selfie has replaced the museum experience; the mash-up has replaced the concert – but there is a rich overlap between live culture and media that both distribute and create culture themselves. Similarly, there is an increasing overlap between the audience and the creator, which is why the buzz term in the arts is audience engagement.

You can't just sell the folks tickets, you have to include them in the art-making or at the very least in the institution-building. This comes fairly naturally to small arts groups – if your audience members number in the dozens you can have a pretty direct relationship with them – but a powerful democratic impulse is now moving upward.

You can see it at play in Toronto's largest institutions, for example. In an attempt to break up the monolithic universal museum, the Royal Ontario Museum (whose staff are all over Twitter) has divided itself into eight "centres of discovery" that are supposed to engage the public directly in discussions of their research and their shows. The Canadian Opera Company, meanwhile, has turned the annual season announcement, usually a cozy little event for the media and board members, into a large-scale freebie for potential subscribers featuring a show of operatic snippets, wine and snacks.

And next week, Toronto Symphony Orchestra music director Peter Oundjian will follow his season announcement with a Ask Me Anything session on Reddit. Maybe he has some advice on how to find a date for the 2015-2016 season.

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