Sunday, January 03, 2010

Recession helps museum attendance ... and it may matter for informal science outreach

Last year, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) released fairly pessimistic overview data of attendance at art museums in the U.S.  35% of U.S. adults overall (about 78 million people) attended an art museum or an arts performance in 2008. On the plus side, this is much higher than attendance of science or natural history museums, of course, which  hovered below 40% for college graduates in 2006 and below 10% for folks without a high school diploma. But the bad news -- back in 2009 -- was the fact that attendance had been on the decline for a while:
""A new study from the National Endowment for the Arts finds a notable decline in theater, museum and concert attendance and other "benchmark" cultural activities between 2002 and 2008 for adults 18 and older, and a sharper fall from 25 years ago. The drop was for virtually all art forms and for virtually all age groups and levels of education." (click here for the full AP story.)
"Surprisingly, the largest drop in arts consumption [came] from people ages 45 to 54, which has traditionally been the most dependable group of arts participants." (click here for full Los Angeles Times article)
These data are somewhat inconsistent with a new report in the December 2009 issue of Art Newspaper:
"A survey ... of 20 museums across the country found that two-thirds have experienced a clear increase in visitor numbers over the past three years."
The New York Times today speculated that the global economic downturn and its impact on U.S. families may be partly responsible for the reversal of a long-term downturn, and at least the 2009 numbers support that conclusion:
"Just as tellingly, evidence can also be found in culture. While one new study shows that attendance at museums and cultural events dropped from 2002 to 2008, it has climbed in 2009 at many major institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Art Institute of Chicago. Movie attendance was also up 5 percent in 2009, and in the world of the Walt Disney Company, product sales have declined as the company’s theme parks enjoyed a 3 percent increase in visitors last quarter." (Click here for the full article.)

According to the Art Newspaper survey, "[t]he trend holds for institutions with free and paid admissions alike, and institutions that show contemporary art have seen the most clear-cut increase. New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), one of the nation’s most expensive museums at $20 per ticket, had the best year in its 80-year history, bringing in 2.8 million visitors between 2008 and 2009. The size of its membership rose to a record 120,000. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s Frank Lloyd Wright retrospective was its best-attended show yet, attracting 372,000 people. The New York museum has also broken its 2008 attendance record of just over one million."
So what does all of this mean for science and natural history museums? Will they see a similar renaissance as Americans (re)focus their attention on what to do rather than what to buy? The forthcoming 2010 Science and Engineering Indicators may have some answers, but will have trend data only up to 2008. At the very least, there may be an opportunity for informal science education with an audience that is less distracted during the recession than it used to be in previous years.