Age and Arts Participation, 1982-1997
Report 42: Executive Summary
On February 12, 1996 an article titled "As Patrons Age, Future of Arts is Uncertain" appeared in the
New York Times (Miller 1996). It galvanised attention on the question of the aging of arts audiences
in the United States. The findings of the National Endowment for the Arts Research Division Report
#34, Age and Arts Participation, released that same year, largely supported this assertion and
helped to energize the debate over the aging of arts audiences. While many interested in arts policy
echoed the fears of aging, the findings were hotly contested by some arts presenters who said that
they did not perceive their audiences as aging.
To bring further light to these issues, the National Endowment for the Arts commissioned Demographic
Data Consultants of Nashville to revisit the issue of the age of arts audiences with the newly
available data from the 1997 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts. Since Research Division
Report #34 had made particular note of the low rates of arts participation of the baby boom
generation (those in the United States born between 1946 and 1965), the Endowment asked Demographic
Data Consultants to pay particularly close attention to the arts participation of baby boomers.
This executive summary highlights the prime findings of that study. It is divided into five parts,
each highlighting the key findings of the corresponding chapter in the full report.
Chapter 1 sets the scene for the monograph by taking a first look at the age of the audiences for
the seven benchmark performing art forms in 1982, 1992, and 1997. Since the average age of the
United States population has been increasing over this span of years, the age of the arts audience
for each of the seven benchmark art forms is compared with the age of the sample as a whole in each
year. The evidence for the three following conclusions can be found in Table 1.1.
The audiences for all art forms, except opera, are aging faster than did the entire sample.
In 1982 only the opera audience was older than the entire sample. By 1997 the audiences for all
art forms were older than the sample except for jazz, and museum-goers have the same average age as
the entire sample.
The jazz audience is aging most rapidly. In 1982 it was eleven years younger than that of the
whole sample, by 1997 it was just two years younger.
In Chapter 2 we ask what distribution of young and older people we "see" if we look out over the
average audience for each benchmark art form in 1982, in 1992, and again in 1997? Is there indeed, a
higher proportion of the audience with graying hair, or are the larger numbers of young people born
since World War II taking the places of their elders in arts audiences over the span of years from
1982 to 1997? The answer depends on which of the seven art forms one is talking about, so each will
be discussed separately. The data from which the following conclusions are drawn are from Tables 2.1
The classical music audience is aging faster than the population as a whole. In 1982 those
under thirty years of age comprised 26.9 percent of the audience and by 1997 comprised just 13.2
percent of the audience. Over this same span of years, those over sixty years of age rose from 15.6
percent to 30.3 percent of the classical music audience.
By 1997, a higher proportion of the classical music audience was over sixty than was the
audience for any other performing art form.
In 1982 those under thirty years of age comprised just 17.8 percent of the opera audience and
by 1997 comprised only 13.3 percent of the audience for opera. Over this same span of years,
audience members over sixty rose from 16.6 percent to 23.5 percent of the opera audience.
While the opera audience was the oldest in 1982 and aged somewhat through the years to 1997, it
was the one art form whose audience aged less rapidly than did the population as a whole.
The dynamics of the Broadway musical theater audience aging is similar to that seen above but
not as dramatically as for classical music. In 1982, those under thirty years of age comprised 27.1
percent of the audience and by 1997 comprised just 16.2 percent of the audience. Over this same span
of years, those over sixty rose from 16.4 percent to 22.7 percent of the musical theater audience.
In 1982 the jazz audience was unusually young in that just 5.0 percent of the 1982 jazz
audience was over sixty, while for all the other benchmark arts, between 15 percent and 17 percent
of the audiences was above sixty years of age.
In 1982 fully 56.7 percent of the jazz audience was under thirty years of age,
but by 1997
these younger age groups had fallen dramatically to 23.2 percent of the jazz audience. Over the same
span of years those over sixty rose from 5.0 percent to 15.5 percent of the jazz audience.
In 1982 those under thirty years of age comprised 29.1 percent of the theater audience, and by
1997 young people comprised just 16.7 percent of the audience for theater. Over this same span of
years, those over sixty rose from 15.5 percent to 22.8 percent of the theater audience.
In 1982 34.1 percent of the ballet audience was younger than thirty years of age; this was the
second highest proportion after jazz. By 1997 the proportion of the ballet
audience who were under
thirty dropped to 16.1 percent, a level comparable to the other performing arts. Those sixty and
over comprised 15.4 percent of the ballet audience in 1982, and by 1997 had risen to 22.0 percent, a
change comparable with the that taking place for arts audiences generally.
In 1982 30.6 percent of arts museum attendances were by young people, and by 1997 just 19.2
percent. This change is comparable with that of the other art forms, but by 1997 art museums
attracted the second highest proportion of attendances by people under thirty (after jazz).
Unlike all of the other benchmark arts, the proportion of museum-goers sixty and over has not
increased appreciably over the fifteen years from 1982 to 1997. Later evidence introduced suggests
the reason that not as many older people frequent art museums is their impaired ability to walk and
stand for extended periods of time.
Not all arts attendees attend with equal frequency. Observers have suggested that older attendees
are likely to buy season tickets while attendees under thirty buy tickets event-by-event as time,
money, and inclination dictate and thus generally attend less frequently. The information presented
in Tables 2.8 through 2.14 show a somewhat more complex pattern:
For opera, the predicted pattern held true in 1982 and 1997 with young attendees attending
somewhat less often than older attendees.
For classical music, theater, and ballet, the pattern was the opposite in 1982 from what was
expected. That is, young attendees attended more often than older attendees. For all three forms,
however, young attendees attended less often than older attendees by 1997.
In the case of jazz where season tickets are seldom offered, attendees in their twenties
attended more often than did both teenage attendees and those sixty and above.
Looking at all the art forms together (as seen in Table 2.15), we find that arts attendees in
their twenties get quite involved in the art forms of their choice and attend often, while attendees
in their thirties and forties do not go as often, perhaps because of the competing demands of family
and work. Finally, in their later years, attendees come back to attending more often.
In Chapter 3 we follow respondents who are in the same birth cohort across the survey years from
1982 to 1997. Two distinct predictions have been made about the observed lower level of arts
participation of baby boomers relative to their elders. One expectation is that they will "age into"
arts participation as they embrace midlife obligations and perspectives. The alternative prediction
is that the lower level of arts participation is a consequence of their early liberal experience and
will persist over the coming decades, while post-boomer cohorts, raised in a more conservative
atmosphere, will enjoy levels of arts participation comparable to pre-boomers.
In 1982, baby boomer respondents were eighteen to thirty-six years of age, so it was impossible to
know what their mid-life experience would be. Now, fifteen years later, is the appropriate moment to
test these assertions. By 1997 post-boomers comprised 21.5 percent, boomers 43.0 percent, and
pre-boomers 35.5 percent of survey respondents.
The question asked in Chapter 3 is the same as the one asked in Chapter 2, namely, what distribution
of ages would be seen if you looked out at the typical audience of each specific art form in 1982,
in 1992, and again in 1997. The difference is that here we ask what cohorts, rather than age groups
would predominate. The following points highlight the findings shown in Tables 3.1 through 3.7.
Starting with the youngest, cohorts are considered in turn.
Post-boomer cohort 1976-1980: It is encouraging for future arts participation that this
youngest group in 1997 attended five of the seven benchmark arts somewhat more often than the sample
as a whole, and they were under-represented in the audience of only one art form, opera.
Post-boomer cohort 1966-1975: This young cohort attended six of the seven art forms less often
than the sample as a whole, but their under-representation was less pronounced in 1997 than in 1992
for three forms, opera, musicals, and art museums.
Late-baby boomers 1956-1965: Except for jazz, which more often appeals to the young,
late-boomers are clearly under-represented in arts audiences.
Early-baby boomers 1946-1955: In marked contrast to late-boomers, early boomers, contrary to
all expectations, were over-represented in the audiences of six of seven forms in 1982 and in 1997
as well. This starkly contradicts the finding of Research Report #34. The reason for the difference
is that in that analysis the authors took into account the participation rates that the various
cohorts should have attained given their education and income. Given the boomer cohort's better
education and higher income relative to prior cohorts, their arts attendance was markedly less than
would be expected. Considering together the findings of these two studies, demonstrates that early
boomers attended the arts more often than earlier cohorts but not nearly so often as would be
expected given their educational and financial advantages.
Neither early- nor late-boomers are attending the arts more often as they age, bringing into
question the assumption that the boomer and later cohorts will age into arts participation.
War and Great Depression cohorts 1926-1945: Members of these cohorts attend most art forms
more often than the sample as a whole with the exception of jazz.
Roaring 20s cohort 1916-1925: Members of this cohort were at least seventy-two in 1997, so it
is not surprising that their arts attendance was lower than for respondents as a whole in five of
the seven art forms. The only two forms in which they were somewhat over-represented in 1997 were
classical music and opera.
Pre-World War I cohort born before 1916: The youngest of this group were sixty-seven in 1982
and eighty-two in 1997, so their under-representation in audiences for all the art forms is not
surprising. Attendance does not go down gradually with advancing age, instead, it plummets as one
approaches seventy years of age.
In a fashion parallel to Chapter 2 where the focus was on age groups, the next question is whether
arts attendees of each of the cohorts attend more frequently than would be expected by comparing
their attendance rates with the average rate of attendance of the entire sample. Because the
findings suggest such groupings, we will focus on three groups of adjacent cohorts: baby boomers,
those born before the baby boomers (pre-boomers), and those born since the baby boomers
(post-boomers). The conclusions drawn here are based on data in Tables 3.8 through 3.14.
Among post-boomers, it was only for jazz that a few respondents account for the cohorts'
attendance. For all the rest of the art forms, a larger number of Generation X attendees attended
fewer times on average. This means a large number of people were sampling widely.
For baby boomers generally, a large number of attendees attend infrequently and this trend grew
more pronounced from 1982 to 1997. That means that these boomers, like the post-boomers noted above,
tend to sample widely without showing a strong commitment to any arts form.
In marked contrast, the attendance figures for pre-boomers are accounted for largely by the
frequent attendance of a relatively few people in these cohorts.
What is the importance of age relative to other factors in determining arts attendance? This is the
question addressed in Chapter 4. Ordinary Least Squares regression analysis was used to look at the
effects of age while controlling for the effects of a number of other measured variables for each of
the seven benchmark arts. Also used, was a summary measure of the attendance at all the arts
It was important to control for the effects of the other factors because the direct relationship
between age and arts attendance was inconsistent and weak. This was not unexpected because it is
well known that arts participation tends to rise gradually from the thirties through the sixties and
then falls rapidly after that age. However, with the controls in place, the results became clear and
strong as can be seen in Tables 4.1, 4.2 and 4.3. These results suggest that it is not age per se
but the many factors often associated with stages in the life-cycle that influence arts
There is a significant positive relationship between age and arts attendance for each of the
art forms except jazz when the effects of the control factors are taken into account. This result is
even stronger when considering the summary measure of arts attendance. This means that older persons
attend all the art forms except jazz more often than do younger people of the same education,
gender, marital status, income, etc.
Education is, in every instance, the best predictor of participation in each art form
separately and also when they are combined together in the summary measure.
Age is the second best predictor of arts attendance in four of the benchmark forms, and it is a
significant predictor in every case but jazz.
Age is the fourth most important predictor of the summary arts participation measure after
education, income, and gender.
The importance of the other control variables varies from art form to art form in interesting
ways. Since these findings are not directly relevant to the contribution of age to arts
participation, the reader is referred to the text and tables to see their place in the mix of arts
To what extent do the same factors determine arts participation for persons of differing ages? A
number of potential differences come to mind. For example, respondents in their thirties are more
likely to have their arts participation reduced due to the presence of young children in the home.
At the same time, chronic ill health is likely to be a factor for more older people than for those
who are young. To assess the importance of influences during major phases of the life-cycle. As in
Chapter 4, the sample was split the into three parts: baby boomers, pre-boomers, and post-boomers.
The same sort of analysis was performed as in Chapter 4 with one small variation, post-boomers under
the age of 25 were asked whether they were full-time students at the time they were surveyed. This
variable is included for the post-boomer regression analyses. The results of the OLS regression
analyses for each of the three age-groups on the seven benchmark arts are shown in Tables 5.1
through 5.7. For a succinct summary of the findings for each art form please refer to the text of
Chapter 5. The most significant general findings are as follows:
The set of variables taken together proved to be better predictors of pre-boomers' arts
participation than that of boomers or post-boomers. The set of predictors of participation for those
born during World War II or before, including education, gender, and income, are not as important
for younger cohorts. The findings of Research Report #34 suggest that this is due to the differences
between the cohorts and is not simply a function of the age of the respondents. Thus those
interested in increasing the arts participation of younger people will do well to look to factors
other than those measured here.
Even after dividing the sample into three parts based on age, being older is a significant
determinant of arts participation among pre-boomers or boomers for five of the seven benchmark arts.
The finding for pre-boomers is surprising because, within that older group of respondents, age is
negatively correlated with arts participation. The finding of the regression analyses mean that age
is not, in itself, a deterrent to arts participation. Rather, age is often associated with other
causal factors such as health, education, and income, which do correlate with arts participation.
In twenty of twenty-one regression models, education is the best single predictor of
participation in each of the arts. The single exception is ballet for pre-boomers, where income,
father's education, and being female are the best predictors of attendance.
As in Chapter 4, a summary measure of arts participation was also created. The respondent was given
one point for each art form they had attended in the prior year. Thus, since there are seven art
forms, the variable ranges from 0 to 7. The results for this summary measure of arts participation
are shown in Table 5.8
Even though the sample was divided into three parts on the basis of age, age is still
positively and significantly associated with arts attendance for baby boomers and pre-boomers.
The respondents' education was far and away the best predictor of arts participation for all
three age groups. The importance of education is further underlined by the fact that the respondents
father's education is significantly associated with participation even for the pre-boomers who were
at least in their mid-fifties at the time of the survey. Further underlining the importance of
education, the second most important predictor of arts participation among post-boomers was being a
Family income is the second most important predictor for boomers and pre-boomers, and sixth
most important for post-boomers.
Being female is the third most important predictor of the summary arts measure for baby boomers
and for pre-boomers, but gender hardly seems salient for post-boomers.
Chronic health problems is the fourth best predictor for the pre-boomers where we expected it
to be most salient, but it is also the sixth best predictor for boomers. As expected, health is not
significantly related to arts participation for post-boomers.
Finally, not being currently married, as expected, is significantly related to arts
participation but only for baby boomers and post-boomers.
The full report is available from Seven Locks Press; P.O. Box 25689; Santa Ana, CA 92799.
Telephone: 714-545-2526 or 1-800-354-5348. Paper $11.95. 72 pp.
National Endowment for the Arts · an independent federal
1100 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20506