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Survey says: taking stock of declining audiences

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In this week's issue of The New Yorker, music critic Alex Ross takes stock of the decline in the public appetite for classical music in America. In his column (unavailable online for non-subscribers), Ross cites a recent study released by the National Endowment for the Arts, a problematic document which I wrote about last month. The study shows, rather unsurprisingly, that audiences for classical music are in the midst of a protracted dive that, for a host of reasons, classical music institutions have not been able to stall or reverse.

Ross, not unlike like the orchestras, string quartets and opera companies he covers, seems to be looking high and low for any approach that might usher a new and younger generation of musical thrill-seekers into the art form's fold. He urged organizations to find "a deeper transformation," asking what ought to be the key question among arts groups of any kind as they search for a way to sustain themselves in the future: "There's a growing feeling in the classical business that the customary way of presenting music must evolve if new devotees are to join the ranks. But how? Can you refresh the ritual while remaining true to the music?"

Ross found one promising example in the efforts of Justin Kantor and David Handler, a pair of classical musicians who opened a jazz-style club in New York City to hippify the traditionally stodgy atmosphere that surrounds the majority of classical performances in the United States. Seems like a step in the right the direction. In a blog entry that accompanies the piece, Ross instructed affected organizations to "drop the mask of professional aloofness" and start radically modifying the way they interact with audiences. Hear hear.

But Ross's column also brings up another point about the NEA survey, and others like it, which has to do with the alarmist nature of these documents and the ways they exclude or marginalize cultural modes of expression and consumption that have become increasingly popular in recent years. Foremost of these is, of course, the Internet, where more and more people are consuming and creating culture. Ross rightly points that out. Secondly, it should hardly be surprising that classical audiences are falling off as popular tastes gravitate toward newer genres of music, rock and hip hop being just two of thousands.

What's more disturbing is the way the statistics mislead some people into thinking that America is somehow becoming culturally bankrupt, when, in fact, it is simply undergoing a natural progression and evolution of taste. What I tried to make clear in my column last month was that traditional organizations -- who rightly believe that their art is worth saving and probably more revelatory than most of what we saw last week on the Grammies -- need to actively engage with younger audiences in ways that don't condescend or patronize.

A couple examples of innovative local approaches include the Road Less Traveled theater company, which chose to open a live theater in a cinema multiplex, and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, which consciously infuses other and more popular art forms into its programming through such events as Gusto at the Gallery and Rockin' at the Knox. Let's have more of that, and soon.

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On a related note, I want to respond to a letter to the editor from Sunil Iyengar, the NEA's director of research and analysis, in response to my column. (I feel the need to note here that I did contact the NEA in an effort to get in touch with Iyengar prior to writing the column, but received no response. But better late than never.) Iyengar wrote, and I agree, that the NEA's survey has "wide-ranging merit." It was not my intention to impugn the survey's findings, but rather to criticize its limited scope. 

Any statistician will tell you that what you leave out of an analysis can be just as important as what you include. In my view, the NEA's survey -- along with the subsequent "National Arts Index" report from the advocacy group Americans for the Arts -- tells a woefully inaccurate story about culture in America. Such reports have the potential to further alienate audiences from the arts by portraying "culture" in America as a moribund enterprise, and as such, certainly not worth the time it would take new audience members to explore. Nothing could be further from the truth.

--Colin Dabkowski

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