Democratizing the Arts Sector - What Does It Look Like?

The art world as we know it is changing. Since 2002, there has been a decline in attendance at “benchmark” art events like theatre and dance performances, gallery and museum exhibits, and operas. Fewer Americans reported having ever taken a music or art appreciation/history class over the course of their life. What’s happening? What’s going wrong?

The problem is that we are looking for engagement in the wrong places. While large cultural institutions have historically played - and still do play - an important role in American culture, more arts activity is happening outside of these spaces than any other time in recent history.

With the help of technology, access to the arts and the number of ways to make and share art have increased significantly. For example, this NEA study demonstrates that 71.4 percent of Americans used electronic media to view or listen to art in 2012. According to the same study, African Americans and Hispanics were much more likely than whites to use electronic media to create their work. Additionally, a large percentage of Americans of every race/ethnicity, income level, gender, age, and education level created work in the visual arts through electronic media.



But the good news doesn’t stop there, “the percentage of U.S. adults taking music, creative writing, or visual arts lessons or classes at any point in their lives has increased over the past decade—by more than 15 percent for creative writing and visual arts and 5 percent for music.” This positive trend has been expressed most among African Americans and Hispanics. African Americans are also more likely than any other racial/ethnic group to perform art in a group, and their attendance rate at most types of performing arts events has held steady since 2002, while attendance by all other racial/ethnic groups has declined.


How do all of these statistics translate into the real world? Modern American culture currently revolved around "the exuberant expression of self," according to Steven Tepper, dean of the Arizona State University's Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts and an expert on audience engagement. Passive art participation is of the past. People do not want to be told what to like; instead they want to access, explore and curate their own passions, ideas and interests. Americans are demanding to be part of the the cultural production process from the inside out - it’s a democratization of creativity and creation. Sometimes the amount of content on the internet is stressful and overwhelming, but in this new landscape, more people have been able to find, make and share art that is meaningful to them and their communities.

Art institutions are getting the message that modern engagement looks and feels different, but isn’t necessarily more shallow. Take, for example, the SFMOMA’s new texting service. All you have to do is send their number a message saying “send me” followed by a keyword, like a color, object, place, or mood, and you will be texted an image of a work of art related to that term. Because of space constraints, only 5 percent of SFMOMA’s collection is on display at any given time. This program therefore exposes the public to works of art that they most likely haven’t seen before while also sparking excitement and reminding the millennials of the the excitement of the “old days” of messaging with AIM’s bots.



Local art museum’s cultural nights are another fun addition. Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art and the Museum of Fine Arts both have programming events on weekend nights, often with live music, performances and a cash bar that cater toward a younger and more diverse audience.

One of the biggest factors limiting people of color and those of lower income levels from attending such events is transportation. In a different NEA study, difficulty getting to the location of cultural institutions was cited more often than cost as the main reasons these demographics are less likely to attend. Non-white racial/ethnic groups also often cited lack of a companion as a deterrent from attending arts events. But, “When these people choose to attend the arts, they more often attribute their reasons to a wish to support their communities, to celebrate their cultural heritage, or to gain knowledge and learn new things.”

So let’s make community an even bigger part of the arts world! The more we honor diversity and emphasize the importance collaborating with people from all backgrounds, the more vibrant the community will be. In a time when many people feel disconnected from world around them, bringing people together is needed more than ever.


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