Age and Arts Participation with a Focus of the Baby Boom Cohort

Published in: GIA Newsletter, Vol 9, No 2 (Fall 1998)

Richard A. Peterson and Darren E. Sherkat, Judith Huggins Balfe and Rolf Meyersohn, Edited by Erin V. Lehman
Review by Deena Epstein

1996, 142 pages, National Endowment for the Arts, Seven Locks Press, Santa Ana, California, 800-354-5348

The demographic information detailed in Age and Arts Participation should come as no surprise to anyone who has ever done a quick visual survey of who is sitting in U.S. concert halls and theaters. Audiences, our observations tell us and this report confirms, are graying. However, the book does provide insightful analysis of changes in audience participation between 1982 and 1992 of seven different age cohorts in seven basic art forms. Special focus is given to the baby boom generation—early boomers, those born between 1946 and 1955, and late boomers, born between 1956 and 1965.

The key question posed by the research is: Will the next generation of adults show the same level of dedication, the same pattern of active arts attendance as their elders? Many factors influence the findings, ranging from education and income levels to life course changes, such as parenthood or retirement. However, looking at specific age cohorts adds another dimension because each age group shares formative experiences that affect choices its members make throughout later life.

The first section of the book considers the effects of age on audience participation and offers detailed age comparisons for each art form, analyzes the composition of audiences in 1982 and 1992, and adjusts the findings for various life course events and demographic variables. Detailed graphs accompany information on each art form—classical music, opera, ballet, musicals, jazz, plays, and art museums—and make it easier to understand differences in audiences among the forms studied. The survey also gathered information about “alternatives to active arts consumption” via media such as television, videos, and recordings, all of which have taken on increased significance in the cultural sphere.

The second section of the book focuses on the baby boomers who, because of their large numbers and higher education levels, had been expected to match, or even exceed, the arts participation levels of their elders. However, as the research in the previous section indicates, this does not seem to be happening. Attendance patterns for boomers are analyzed in detail and variables such as education and income are factored in. A number of hypotheses are offered for the participation—or lack of participation—of boomers in various art forms, ranging from the impact of television to dual income families.

Although the surveys upon which this report is based are somewhat dated, they still are relevant to recent discussions in the arts world and among grantmakers about programmatic, marketing, and organizational changes needed to ensure the vitality of arts activities in communities across the country.

Deena Epstein