Monday, August 3, 2009

Is there a decline in arts appreciation? Evidence from theater

Whenever I hear about whether or not the arts are in decline, I see far more anecdotes than data. And even when data are presented, they rarely go back very far -- so how do we know if a supposed decline is really a decline or merely the down-swing of a cycle? Even worse, the data typically come in 5 or 10-year intervals, so we have no clue what's going on in between. Who cares if ballet attendance is down from 1987 -- we want to know whether it has gone steadily down during that interval.

To settle this once and for all, I've put together some time series for patronizing the theater. I dug through the arts & leisure chapters across many editions of the Statistical Abstract of the United States, and I've included two ways of measuring patronizing the theater -- attendance (on the demand side) and number of playing weeks (on the supply side). I've controlled for population size by making them per capita rates, since the population doubled from 1955 to the present. The playing weeks data go back to 1955, while the attendance data go back to 1976 for Broadway and 1985 for road shows. There are some years missing here and there at the earlier times, but all are more or less complete.

Here are the plots:

The attendance data show pretty much the same pattern as the playing weeks data, which isn't surprising since they're just two ways of measuring the same thing. So I'll stick to the playing weeks data for the discussion.

The first thing we notice is a downward trend, more so for Broadway than for road shows (down about 33% vs. 16%, respectively, from their 1955 values). Because we associate theater so strongly with Broadway in particular, we may have a somewhat exaggerated view of how bad the fall has been, since Broadway fell from a much greater height than road shows.

Despite this downward trend, there appears to be a cycle imposed on top. The mid-1970s to mid-1980s especially saw a resurgence of the theater's popularity. During this time, there was also a "ballet boom" (google ballet boom 1980s), so that the theater boom was part of a greater increase in arts appreciation in general. We don't normally associate the period from 1975 to 1985 as a cultural renaissance -- well, as someone who likes punk, disco, and new wave, I do, but most don't. For all I know, people who were alive then may actually recall vividly how culturally alive the country felt. But those of us born in 1980 or later have inherited Generation X's telling of the story -- and we all know they were no fun, so it wouldn't surprise me to find out that there's little basis for their accounts of cultural vapidity during a period that saw a theater and ballet boom.

Moving forward, notice how similarly the Broadway and road show data move from 1955 through the 1980s -- the parallel movements are pretty striking. However, from the late 1980s (it looks like 1987) to today, they move in opposite directions. There could be a very simple explanation for this -- if the rhythm of the cycle is slightly different between Broadway and the rest of the country, sometimes they will be in synch and other times out of synch, even though they are not influencing each other at all. This is what produces beats in sound, as when two faucets dripping at slightly different rhythms will sometimes be perfectly in synch and later out of synch.

But I doubt this, since Broadway and the rest of the country are in synch for a little over 30 years, and only recently have they gone out of synch, with little transition, as you'd expect if this were just an instance of beats. Not knowing much about the recent history of theater, I couldn't tell you what happened in the mid-to-late 1980s that might have set Broadway off along a different path from the rest of the country.

I also doubt that Broadway patrons began to purposefully do the opposite of whatever the masses were doing, as some naive theories assume. First, the idea makes little sense because the masses are completely out of sight and out of mind for Broadway patrons -- their real conflicts and competitions are held among themselves. Second, snobbery goes back much farther than 1987 -- why was Broadway patrons' behavior so in synch with that of the rest of us for the 30 years before then?

In any event, most people today will probably prefer to watch movies in the theaters or at home rather than see live performances, so the future of theater doesn't look so hot. Still, there are large swings around this downward trend, and we could certainly see another boom -- as indeed there was among road shows in the mid-2000s. And it's not as if people will stop going altogether -- the attendance rates have always been on the order of 1%, whatever the fluctuations have been.

In the future, I'll dig up some more data but for a different arts category. The Statistical Abstract also has data on symphonic performances, so that seems like the natural next step in this look at recent cultural history.

1 comment:

  1. I couldn't tell you what happened in the mid-to-late 1980s that might have set Broadway off along a different path from the rest of the country.

    An increase in foreign tourism might be a factor. Broadway shows are quite popular among foreign tourists. This is part of the reason why musicals are gaining at the expense of dramatic plays, as people whose knowlege of English isn't perfect can enjoy the former more easily than the latter.