2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts

Kevin Williams, David Keen

104 pages, November 2009. National Endowment for the Arts, 1100 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC, 20506, (202) 682-5400.


   2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (2.2Mb)

Executive Summary

The 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA) marks the sixth National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) survey of arts participation in the past 26 years, updating results from 2002. Performed by the U.S. Bureau of the Census, the 2008 SPPA collected arts participation data and other information from more than 18,000 adults (18 and above) across the United States. The SPPA represents the largest, most detailed long-term data source for a broad range of arts participation in the United States, including:

  • Attending arts events;
  • Experiencing recorded or broadcasted live performances;
  • Exploring arts through the Internet;
  • Personally performing or creating art; and
  • Taking arts-related classes.

Attending Arts Exhibits and Performances

One in three adults attended an art museum or a live arts performance in the 12 months ending in May 2008.1

  • About 35 percent of all U.S. adults — or 78 million Americans — visited an art museum or gallery or attended at least one of six types of the “benchmark” arts events tracked since 1982.2
  • About 23 percent of all adults visited an art museum or gallery.
  • Musicals drew 17 percent of all adults, and nonmusical plays drew 9 percent.
  • About 9 percent of adults attended classical music. Relatively fewer adults attended jazz (8 percent), ballet or other dance (7 percent), Latin or salsa music (5 percent), and opera (2 percent).3

Figure 1-2 shows the number of U.S. adults (in millions) attending an arts activity at least once in the 12 months ending in May 2008. More than 50 million adults attended historic sites, art/craft fairs and festivals, and art museums or galleries in 2008.

Outdoor performing arts festivals drew 47 million adults attending at least once in 2008. About 7 million people attended a ballet, and 5 million attended an opera performance.

Declining percentage of adults attending arts events. Relatively fewer adults attended performing arts events in 2008 than in previous years. The percentage of adults attending at least one benchmark arts activity declined from 39 percent in 2002 to less than 35 percent in 2008, as shown in Figure 1-1. Analysis of specific art forms are provided in Figure 1-3.

  • The percentage of adults going to classical music, non-musical theater, ballet and other dance performances continued to decline from levels in previous years.
  • Opera and jazz participation decreased for the first time in the survey’s history, with attendance rates falling below what they were in 1982.4
  • Only musical plays saw no statistically significant change in participation from 2002 to 2008.

Attendance at the most popular types of arts events — such as museums and craft fairs — also saw declines.

  • After topping 26 percent in 1992 and 2002, art museum attendance slipped to 23 percent in 2008 — comparable to the 1982 level. For the first time in the SPPA, women reduced their rate of attendance.5
  • The proportion of U.S. adults touring parks or historical buildings (25 percent) has diminished by one-third since 1982.

Trends in attendance by art form are summarized in Figure 1-3.

Economic conditions affecting arts participation. The declines in arts attendance occurred in a weakening economic climate and as travel costs were rising.

  • At the time of the 2008 survey, the U.S. economy had been in recession for six months. Consumer spending throughout the survey period was weak.6
    Consumer spending on performing arts admissions tracks closely with trends in the U.S. economy.7
  • For much of the 2008 survey period, average gas prices were $3.00 or more per gallon. By contrast, the average per-gallon price of gasoline was only $1.51 in 2002, the prior year of the survey.8
  • Participation rates for low-cost, low-travel arts opportunities, including literary reading and the researching of art over the Internet, were relatively high in 2008. That year, 41 percent of adults watched, listened, or explored the arts through some form of media. Literary reading rose from 2002 to 2008 to reach 50 percent of adults.9

Changes in attendance patterns by age group. Longterm trends suggest fundamental shifts in the relationship between age and arts attendance.10

  • Performing arts attenders are increasingly older than the average U.S. adult.
  • Jazz concert-goers are no longer the youngest group of arts participants. Since 1982, young adult (18-24 years old) attendance rates for jazz and classical music have declined the most, relative to other art forms.
  • From 2002 to 2008, 45-54-year-olds — historically a large component of arts audiences — showed the steepest declines in attendance for arts events including classical music concerts, ballet and theater performances, and art museum visits.

Sharp drops in attendance among the most educated adults. Arts activity still rises with education level,11
but even the most educated groups of Americans were participating less in 2008 than in 2002 and 1982.12

  • College-educated adults (including those with graduate or professional degrees) curbed their attendance in nearly all art forms.
  • Ballet attendance for adults with a college degree declined at the sharpest rate — down by nearly one-half since 1982.

Other Modes of Arts Participation: Creating, Performing, Listening, and Learning

Creating and performing. Adults were generally creating or performing at lower rates in 2008 — despite opportunities for sharing their work online. Figure 1-6 shows these trends.

  • Only photography/movie-making increased from 1992 to 2008 — likely due to the advent of digital media, enhanced sharing/viewing opportunities through the Internet, and increased affordability of advanced equipment.
  • The proportion of U.S. adults participating in creative writing has held at around 7 percent.
  • The proportion of adults performing classical music slipped from 1992 to 2002, and then grew by 2008.
  • Even though the adult participation rate for weaving, quilting, or sewing dropped by about one-half between 1992 and 2008, these activities remain among the most popular forms of arts creation.

Internet use. Many Americans use the Internet to engage with artworks or performances, and those who participate via the Internet do so frequently.

  • Four in ten U.S. adults who used the Internet did so to view, listen to, download, or post artworks or performances in 2008.
  • Of all Internet-users who downloaded, watched, or listened to music, theater, or dance performances online (30 percent), most did those activities at least once a week.
  • Also typically once a week, 20 percent of all Internet-using adults viewed paintings, sculpture, or photography online.

Other media use. As in prior years, more Americans listened to or watched recordings or broadcasts of performing arts events than attended them live.

  • The sole exception is live theater, which still attracts higher percentages of adults than broadcasts or recordings of plays or musicals.
  • Classical music broadcasts or recordings attracted the greatest number of adult listeners in 2008, followed by Latin or salsa music (see Figure 1-7).
  • About 34 million Americans listened to or watched recordings or programs about books (not including audio books).

Adult arts lessons or classes. The 2008 SPPA asked adults about their exposure to arts and music lessons.

  • About 2.1 percent of adults took a visual arts class, 1.7 percent took a music lesson, and 1.4 percent took a creative writing class at least once in the 12 months ending May 2008.
  • Lifetime participation in arts learning activities was similar to the 2002 rate of participation for visual arts and music classes, but it declined for acting, writing, and music and art appreciation classes.
  • Participation by young adults in arts learning activities has declined substantially since 1982 across all art forms.

Performances in schools and religious institutions. Schools and religious institutions engage sizeable percentages of Americans in arts events.

  • One in four adults attended an elementary, middle, or high school music, theater, or dance performance in 2008.
  • About 19 percent of all adults attended a live arts performance at a church, synagogue, or other religious institution.

Arts attendance and arts learning patterns for children of parents surveyed in the SPPA. The 2008 SPPA also collected information on arts attendance and art learning for children aged 5 to 17.

  • One in three parents said their child had attended a music, theater, or dance performance outside of school.
  • About 8 percent of parents with school-age children said their child had taken private arts lessons in the past year.

Additional Resources and Analyses

In an effort to improve the public’s understanding of issues critical to arts engagement, the NEA’s Office of Research and Analysis is currently exploring the relationship between arts participation and the following factors:

  • Age;
  • Race/ethnicity;
  • Arts learning;
  • Media and technology; and
  • Arts creation and performance.

Reports on these and other topics will become available in 2010 via the NEA’s Research web page(www.nea.gov/research/index.html).

The complete 2008 SPPA dataset and questionaire can be downloaded from Princeton University’s Cultural Policy and the Arts National Data Archive website at www.cpanda.org.13
(The questionaire is also available on the NEA’s Research web page.) Alternatively, the dataset can be ordered from the U.S. Census Bureau, Customer Services Center.14
Further information on the details of the survey methodology is available in the 2008 SPPA User’s Guide.15
For a detailed description of Current Population Survey methodology, please see the U.S. Census Bureau technical brief at www.bls.census.gov/cps/tp/tp63.htm.


  1. Elementary or high school performances were not included in these figures.
  2. Those events are plays or musicals, classical music or jazz concerts, ballet or opera performances.
  3. Latin/Spanish/salsa music attendance was asked about for the first time in 2008.
  4. Trend analysis excludes data from the 1997 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts because of fundamental differences in data collection. (For details, see National Endowment for the Arts, 1997 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts: Summary Report, 1999.) Similarly, the 1985 SPPA survey results are excluded because they are largely similar to the 1982 survey results.
  5. From 1982 to 2002, women increased their art museum attendance rate from 23.1 percent to 28.2 percent. In 2008, their attendance rate retreated to 24.0 percent.
  6. During the fourth quarter of 2007, real consumer spending grew by only 1 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce (Bureau of Economic Analysis). For the next two consecutive quarters (January through June 2008), it grew by 0.9 percent and 1.2 percent, respectively. By comparison, real consumer spending grew by an annual average of 3.0 percent in 2006.
  7. For more information, see National Endowment for the Arts, Arts Participation 2008: Highlights from a National Survey.
  8. See U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Average Price Data. Figures are reported for U.S. city averages and for all types of gasoline per gallon.
  9. From 2002 to 2008, the percentage of adults reading literature rose from 46.7 percent to 50.2 percent. (For more information, see National Endowment for the Arts, Reading on the Rise: A New Chapter in American Literacy.)
  10. Figure 1-4 captures data from 2002 to 2008 only. For tables illustrating age-related declines in attendance rates from 1982 to 2008, see Arts Participation 2008: Highlights from a National Survey and the tables available at www.nea.gov/research/SPPA/index.html.
  11. See National Endowment for the Arts, Effects of Arts Education on Participation in the Arts, 1996, and Age and Arts Participation: 1982-1997, 2000.
  12. Figure 1-5 captures data from 2002 to 2008 only. For a chart and tables illustrating education-related declines in attendance rates from 1982 to 2008, see Arts Participation 2008: Highlights from a National Survey and the tables available at www.nea.gov/research/SPPA/index.html.
  13. www.cpanda.org/cpanda/studies/a00249
  14. www.census.gov/aboutus/contacts.html
  15. arts.endow.gov/research/SPPA/users-guide.pdf