Save the Arts Omnivore!

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Image by Flickr user: mcmorgan08 / Creative Commons

Do you know someone who constantly attends art openings, theatrical premieres, and every good jazz concert that comes to town? If so, your friend is probably an “arts omnivore,” a species that supports many cultural activities–and whose kind may be endangered.

Miller-McCune (March 14, 2011) reports on the research of Mark J. Stern, who has studied the decline of the American arts omnivore in an analysis released by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). “According to Stern,” writes Tom Jacobs, “the percentage of the population classified as omnivores has dropped dramatically, from 15 percent in 1982 to 10 percent in 2008,” and omnivores now attend 9 percent fewer events.

This takes place against a backdrop of a “precipitous” drop in overall attendance at art museums, plays, operas, dance performances, and concerts of both jazz and classical music.

Age and generational factors come into play, says Stern, noting that “the proportion of cultural omnivores tends to decline with age” and “the omnivore pattern is more associated with the World War II and early baby boom cohorts than with later groups.”

Stern is not, however, keen to repeat often heard oversimplifications about the “graying” of arts audiences; the report’s subtitle is A Case Against Demographic Destiny. He holds that other factors, foremost among them arts education, are more important than age in influencing participation trends.

While concert hall seats sit empty, some people be may be participating in the arts in different ways. After all, as Miller-McCune notes, “a separate NEA report . . . finds that while 34.6 percent of adults attended ‘benchmark’ arts events such as ballets or art museum exhibits in 2008, nearly 75 percent ‘attended arts activities, created arts, or engaged with art via electronic media.’ “

Have something to say? Send a letter to This article first appeared in the July-August 2011 issue of Utne Reader

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