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The Slate Arts Index

Is high culture riding high?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

According to the Wall Street Journal, high culture is flourishing in America. The evidence? In a front-page story published a couple of weeks ago, the paper noted that Americans are drinking microbrews instead of Bud and that you can now get a cappuccino in Alpena, Ark.

Though it might shock my Seattle-based colleagues, I’m not sure that better coffee is the ultimate measure of a civilization. But if we don’t count Starbucks, how do we know that the arts are flourishing in America? There’s some support for the notion in a recent survey of public participation in the arts published by the National Endowment for the Arts. According to numbers extrapolated from a poll, 97 million people, or half the adult population of the United States, participate in the arts in some way. A full 34.9 percent of us went to an art museum last year; 15.6 percent attended classical music concerts. From these numbers, the NEA has derived a figure of 88 million classical music concerts attended in 1997 vs. 60 million in 1992, and 225 million art museum visits in 1997, up from 163 million in 1992.

However, the NEA points out that its 1992 numbers aren’t comparable to the 1997 ones. Weirdly, the 1992 survey was appended to the National Crime Victimization Survey. (Has anyone in your household been mugged in the past 12 months? Have you been to see Riverdance?) The bleak context may have led to underreporting. The 1997 poll, by contrast, was free-standing, but one can see how it might register false positives. An NEA survey that asks whether you like to go to the theater, opera, ballet, etc., subtly begs for affirmative answers. And in fact, the five year increase indicated by the NEA is much greater than the numbers tabulated by various arts-service organizations–which in some cases report a decline where the NEA sees growth.

But the chief limitation of using the NEA numbers as a proxy for the health of high culture is that it’s a demand-side picture–it captures consumption rather than production. It tells us nothing about the quality or quantity of high culture being created in the United States today. And in fact, the new study’s upbeat tone cuts directly against the conclusions of a report issued by former NEA Chair Jane Alexander on her way out. The American Canvas study, published in 1997, argues that arts institutions are elitist, complacent, and largely hostile to popular audiences. Last year, according to the NEA, the arts were sick. This year, they’re thriving.

Of course, numbers can never resolve the inherently subjective question of cultural health. For a consensus about whether a lot of masterpieces were painted or written in 1998, check back in 100 years. But it may be possible to come up with a more rounded portrait of relative cultural well-being–one that takes into account how well artists are doing as well as how many butts are in auditorium seats.

To that end, I hereby initiate the Slate Arts Index. This is a measure based on statistics culled from various sources that give a clue about the health of different art forms. Here’s how it works. The baseline is 100 points, composed of six separate categories. It breaks down as follows: 20 points for literature, 20 for music, 20 for the fine arts, 20 for theater, 10 for film, and 10 for dance. On the basis of the numbers I’ve gathered, it’s hard to say how well any art form–or culture as a whole–is doing. But in a year, we should be able to say whether they’re doing better or worse. If the music score rises to 22, that would suggest a 10 percent improvement. A total tally of 92 would mean an 8 percent decline in the health of high culture overall.

Literature (20 points)

10 points–number of weeks that literary books were on the New York Times best-seller list

(1997 = 295)

5 points–number of full-length poetry titles published

(1997 = 942)

5 points–number of Penguin classics sold

(1997 = 3.95 million)

The only book question on the NEA survey is “Have you read any literature in the past year?” Sixty-three percent said yes. The Slate literature index derives from three more compelling factors. The first is the number of weeks new works of literature spent on the Times best-seller list in the past year–295, as it turns out, out of a total of 780. What is literature? Rather than attempting to gauge quality, I have included all books that have literary aspirations or are regarded as literature by most reviewers: Cold Mountain, yes, The Partner, no. Elmore Leonard, yes, Carl Hiaasen, no. As opposed to the commonly cited figure of total book sales, this number is a reasonable stand-in for the question of how many Americans are reading nonpulp new novels. I’ve reserved the other 10 points for poetry and classic literature. Our proxy for verse is a fairly crude one–the number of books of poetry published. For classics, I’m using sales from one publisher, since Penguin keeps most of the world’s great literature in print.

Music (20 points)

4 points–number of opera performances

(1996-97 season = 2,397)

4 points–number of opera premieres

(1997-98 season = 13)

4 points–number of trips to the symphony

(1996-97 = 31.9 million)

4 points–number of new orchestral works commissioned and performed

(1997-98 = 211)

4 points–jazz sales as a share of the recorded music market

(1997 = 2.8 percent)

The logic here is that while the first number gives a sense of the availability of opera as whole, the second number gives a sense of whether new work is being added to the standard repertoire. Both statistics come from Opera America. The third and fourth numbers, provided by the American Symphony Orchestra League, do the same thing with orchestral music. It would be nice to include chamber music, but there are simply no useful statistics. Lastly, while I wasn’t able to find any reliable numbers on jazz performance, the Recording Industry Association of America keeps track of jazz CD sales relative to other kinds of music.

Fine Arts (20 points)

10 points–attendance at 149 art museums

(1997 = 42.7 million)

10 points–number of people employed as painters, sculptors, craft-artists, and artist printmakers

(1997 = 251,000)

Art museum attendance is a reasonable proxy for how many people are experiencing art. The American Association of Art Museum Directors reports a much smaller increase in visits than the NEA. Based on the constant number of museums that responded between 1993 and 1996, attendance rose from 37.1 million to 41.3 million (for a slightly smaller sample group than the one used in 1997). As more people pay attention to art, it’s becoming easier to get by as an artist. The other useful figure is the number of people working as artists. According to the Department of Commerce, 251,000 people made their livings as painters, sculptors, and craft-workers last year, up from 222,000 in 1993.

Theater (20 points)

10 points–attendance at 81 nonprofit theaters

(1997 = 11.98 million)

10 points–number of nonprofit theaters in the United States

(1997 = 800)

The Theater Communications Group, a New York-based organization, keeps figures for nonprofit theaters such as the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., the Guthrie in Minneapolis, and the Steppenwolf in Chicago. For 197 theaters surveyed in a forthcoming TCG study, attendance was 17.25 million. However, in the interest of having an apples-to-apples comparison in the future, I’m using the smaller sample of 81 theaters tracked over time. In these, aggregate attendance is up slightly over the past three years–from 11.79 million in 1995 to 11.98 million in 1997. This does not include Broadway musicals, but then, we’re looking at high culture. Our other measure is the total number of nonprofit theaters–800, also according to TCG.

Film (10 points)

5 points–box office receipts for independent films as a share of total

(1997 = 3.8 percent)

5 points–foreign film receipts as a share of total

(1997 = 1.1 percent)

According to Exhibitor Relations, which provides numbers to Variety, box office receipts from independent films were $239 million in 1997, out of a total of $6.3 billion for all films. Foreign film receipts were $68.8 million. The first number is likely to be higher for 1998–the year-to-date figure is $210 million, while the second looks to be much lower–there being no Full Monty import hit this year. I’m using percentages rather than dollar amounts so that I don’t have to adjust for inflation in future. These numbers reflect consensus trends–foreign films are barely alive, while independent ones are flourishing.

Dance (10 points)

5 points–average attendance at 25 largest ballet companies

(1997 = 1,997)

5 points–contract hours per week for dancers at ballet and modern companies

(1997 = 36)

Dance indicators have been falling since 1991, when John Munger began keeping systematic track for Dance/USA. This contradicts the NEA report, a discrepancy possibly explained by a rise in attendance at school performances. There are two useful measures of dance strength. The first is the average attendance per performance at the 25 largest ballet companies, which has declined from 2,400 in 1992 to 1,997 last year. The other is the average number of contract weeks for dancers at major companies–which includes modern as well as ballet companies. That figure was 36 in 1997–up from a low of 34 in 1994. In other words, the dance audience has been declining, while professional dancers are finding slightly more work. This suggests philanthropy at work.

I couldn’t come up with a plausible indicator for architecture. Nor have I devised one for criticism, which, perhaps self-servingly, I consider to be an important component of cultural health. Lastly, the Slate Arts Index doesn’t try to measure–as the NEA survey does–how many Americans are actively participating in the arts as amateur singers, writers, and painters. What the Slate index does do is establish a baseline. Next fall, we should be able to come back and say something meaningful about what kind of year the arts have had. For what it’s worth, I’m predicting we’ll hit 104.