La Scena Musicale

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

American Arts in Crisis?

There has been much talk in America about newspapers sacking their classical music critics and other arts journalists. A study released June 15 by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) identifies a far more serious, long term and systemic problem: a declining audience for the arts in nearly all disciplines. The worse audience loss: opera, classical concerts and ballet. Almost all of this data was collected before the current economic crisis hit full force and It tracks trends since the start of the survey in 1982. The study is at the following URL:

In an internet group a few months ago, the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Martin Bernheimer made a simple observation. Looking at the web- available archives of Time Magazine’s covers, he found opera and classical music stars occasionally on the cover up until about 25 years ago. Since then there were none. In times past, names like Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Rubinstein, Rudolph Nureyev and Maria Callas were familiar among the general population. Now most classical music and opera is seen on American cable channels and music and arts-related stories no longer appear, as they occasionally did, in news magazines like Time, Newsweek or People. There is no major US magazine covering classical music. Other countries have proportionally many more related publications and dedicated websites than the U. S. It is not a world problem; the arts and serious music in European and Asian media have continued good coverage and the audiences are, by all reports, growing.

The critic Norman Lebrecht this week wrote a piece praising the vitality of the classical scene in France, trumpeting that the average age for a classical concert is 32. My observation for the past twenty years in Paris and around France is that, while there is always a range of ages at operas and concerts that I have attended, the 32 figure is simply not credible. Nevertheless, the average audience age is certainly far younger than in America and, according to the NEA report, the American audience is now significantly older than it was two decades earlier. Lebrecht also notes that “classical record sales in France [as I have reported elsewhere] amount to 9% of the total market. In the US they are barely one percent.” That is certainly a valid observation and further gloomy news.

To top this off, another new report, issued the day before, gives a failing grade to the nation’s education system for its declining arts education program. See: America is clearly in crisis regarding the place of arts in their society and the dwindling audiences seem more and more conservative. Worse, there is no apparent recognition of this nor is there any evidence of concern among the country’s leadership.

Frank Cadenhead


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