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Americans go online for art, skip museums, theater

Dancers perform during a Sacramento Ballet dress rehearsal of "The Nutcracker" at the Sacramento Community Theater in Sacramento on Thursday, December 5, 2013.
Dancers perform during a Sacramento Ballet dress rehearsal of "The Nutcracker" at the Sacramento Community Theater in Sacramento on Thursday, December 5, 2013. rbenton@sacbee.com

A growing number of Americans are listening to classical music, viewing art and otherwise sampling creative work on electronic devices rather than experiencing them in person, according to national research being unveiled Monday in Sacramento.

Jane Chu, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, will discuss the organization’s study of the changing habits of Americans in a visit to Sacramento’s Capital Stage at 11 a.m. today, where she also will participate in a panel discussion. Chu was confirmed in June as head of the NEA, a federal agency that funds and promotes the arts.

Arts leaders in Sacramento called Chu’s visit a key event in a region where many arts organizations have struggled since the onset of the recession. Three separate NEA reports are expected to provide a crucial look into how the arts landscape has changed since the recession and the rise of the digital age.

Chu’s visit was marketed to people in the arts community, and the number of RSVPs has filled the venue to capacity.

“Arts organizations everywhere seem to be wrestling with a similar set of issues,” said Josephine Ramirez, program director for the James Irvine Foundation, a major funding source for arts groups in the Central Valley. Ramirez and five other arts leaders will join Chu during the panel discussion at the Capital Stage.

In its latest survey of public participation in the arts, which includes data spanning 20 years, the NEA found that audiences for seven arts activities – including classical concerts, museums, ballet, opera and theater – have steadily declined.

The NEA found that in 2012, nearly three-quarters of American adults – about 167 million people – used electronic media to view or listen to art.

But just 33.4 percent of the more than 37,000 adults surveyed attended one of the seven categories of art events that same year, compared with 41 percent in 1992, according to the NEA. The greatest drop came between 2002 and 2008, with a leveling out from 2008 and 2012.

Art museums and galleries were among those hardest hit. Attendance at such institutions fell by about 58 million people between 2002 and 2012, after a steep rise between 1982 and 1992.

In an email interview with The Sacramento Bee, Chu suggested that arts groups have to make themselves more accessible to the public to win new patrons. Another NEA survey found that cost and difficulty getting to a venue were often cited as reasons not to go.

“As cultural providers we must become more relevant to our communities and go to where our audiences are as opposed to waiting for them to come to us,” Chu said. “We think this research can spark more programmatic ideas to achieve this goal.”

Lial Jones, executive director of Sacramento’s Crocker Art Museum, agreed that arts organizations need to work hard to stay relevant in the digital age. The Crocker is currently trying to boost its social media presence and is redesigning its website, which saw more than 226,000 visitors during the last fiscal year – slightly more than the 225,000 people who actually visited the museum in downtown Sacramento.

The Crocker spent $25 million on a major expansion and refurbishing that opened in 2010. Since then, attendance has held steady, Jones said, adding that she thinks viewing art online is no substitute for experiencing it in a museum.

B Street Theatre managing director Bill Blake said he is eager to hear what Chu has to say about attracting audiences.

The B Street Theatre draws 80 percent of its revenue from ticket sales. Times have been tough at B Street since the recession, Blake said, but that may be changing.

“Attendance at B Street has been building slowly since the recession, said Blake. “It looks like we’ve turned a corner the last year and a half, where we’re seeing some steady regrowth.”

Blake said the theater hit a low point in 2011-12 season, when annual attendance dipped to 85,000. The recent high-water mark in attendance at B Street was during the 2007-08 season, when annual attendance spiked at 114,000.

Blake said the theater’s annual attendance crept back to 95,000 in 2013-14, and that this year the theater will sell slightly more tickets than last season.

At the Mondavi Center at UC Davis, the largest presenter of arts in the region, the idea that most people experience arts on electronic media is not being seen as a foundational change.

“I’m not sure that behavior is changing that much,” said Don Roth, executive director of Mondavi Center. “People still attend live events, even though they have the option to stream some of them.”

“In the past, the same was true when arts events were televised or earlier yet on the radio,” Roth said. “The fact that there is ample audio and video content online for Yo-Yo Ma or Chris Thile doesn’t affect their ticket sales.”

Roth said that Mondavi is on track to meet its attendance goals for the 2014-15 season. It has also sought to attract a younger audience to the center.

Some other Sacramento arts groups have struggled to stay afloat in recent years, however. The Sacramento Philharmonic and Sacramento Opera scrapped their fall seasons in 2014-2015 season due to financial troubles.

The board president of the Sacramento Region Performing Arts Alliance, the umbrella nonprofit that runs both the philharmonic and the opera, was not available for comment last week.

Ramirez said the James Irvine Foundation is looking to fund more arts engagement in the Central Valley – a move away from funding general operating expenses and programming efforts at arts organizations.

“This depends significantly on the existence of a field of relevant, nimble and responsive arts nonprofits,” said Ramirez. “Our lens under this strategy is not focused on serving geographic regions per se, but instead focuses on the types of organizations that are ready to look at themselves, and what they do, differently.”

One of the NEA reports also establishes how the arts are an economic generator – an issue that arts organizations have been eager to get into the public discourse.

In its Arts and Cultural Production report, the NEA partnered with the Department of Commerce on economic analysis and concluded that the arts are a bigger driver of U.S. gross domestic product than previously estimated.

In 2012, arts and cultural production contributed more than $698 billion to the U.S. gross domestic product – a bigger contribution than either construction or transportation, the report said.

“It’s fitting that the NEA selected California, and specifically our state capital, as the location to introduce this important new research,” said Craig Watson, director of the California Arts Council.

The arts council has analyzed the economic benefit that the arts provide communities in the state. That research, called the Otis Report, said the state’s creative economy contributes nearly 8 percent of California’s gross domestic product.

“One in 10 jobs in California is part of the creative economy,” said Watson, also scheduled as a panel participant in Monday’s discussion.

Watson said Chu’s visit will be critical in getting that message out to elected officials who hold the purse strings on state and local arts funding.

Public funding from the arts has been under pressure in recent years. The arts council saw its funding cut 94 percent in 2003. This past year, Watson said, the council received a one-time $5 million increase in general fund support from the state.

Call The Bee’s Edward Ortiz, (916) 321-1071. Follow him on Twitter @edwardortiz.

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