Chard Orzell on the NEA’s sampling bias

By way of the Science Blogs email, what do I find but  a post from Chad Orzell of the National Endowment for the Arts’ Survey of Public Participation in the Arts?

The report, which Orzell describes with cutting precision as “hand-wringing”, describes a steep decline in US attendance figures for a range of NEA-supported artforms such as ballet, classical music, opera and jazz. In this, it merely confirms a number of other studies in the field internationally for these particular artforms.

Orzell points out what many in the industry have long understood:

I have a number of problems with the study, but the biggest one is that this seems like an awfully narrow definition of what counts as “art.” And if you’re going to define “art” that narrowly, it’s not surprising that attendance is on the decline.

Conspicuously absent from their lists is pretty much any art form that is currently active. Jazz and classical music are on the decline, but rock/pop type music is not considered at all. Which means that there’s no tracking of the main musical form that has been widely popular in the last fifty-odd years.

Perhaps because I share Chad’s background in the natural sciences, I too find this “decline” unsurprising. Measuring artforms that are demonstrably less popular than they used to be is likely to find that they are … less popular than they used to be.

Orzell has put his finger on an endemic problem in cultural research: the tendency of public arts funding agencies to define “the arts” as the things that they have historically funded.

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