The Health and Vitality of the Arts

Posted by Mr. Randy Cohen, Sep 20, 2013 0 comments

Randy Cohen Randy Cohen

This week Americans for the Arts released its 2013 National Arts Index report—the annual measure of the health and vitality of the arts industries in the U.S.  This year’s report provides the fullest picture yet of the impact of the Great Recession on the arts—before, during, and after. The Index losses during 2008-09 were swift and measurable:  the two-year drop from 2007-09 far exceeded the five-year gains made between 2002 and 2007 (-5.4 percent vs. +3.6 percent, respectively).

The Index is set to a base score of 100 in 2003; every point difference is a 1 percent change from that year.  The National Arts Index score effectively leveled-off in 2011 at 97.0, down just a fraction from a revised 2010 score of 97.2.

  • During the economically robust years of 2002-06, over half of the indicators increased annually.
  • Between 2007 and 2009, however, less than one-third increased.
  • While the arts rebounded in 2010 (43 percent of the indicators rose), there was slippage in 2011 (just 38 percent increased).

arts index photo

The Index is composed of 78 national-level indicators—the latest annual data produced by the federal government and private research organizations—and covers the 12-year span of 2000-11.

Why do an Index? 

The arts are a fundamental component of a healthy society, based on virtues that touch the individual, community, and the nation—benefits that persist even in difficult social and economic times:

  • Aesthetics: The arts create beauty and preserve it as part of culture
  • Creativity: The arts encourage creativity, a critical skill in a dynamic world
  • Expression: Artistic work lets us communicate our interests and visions
  • Identity: Arts goods, services, and experiences help define our culture
  • Innovation: The arts are sources of new ideas, futures, concepts, and connections
  • Preservation: Arts and culture keep our collective memories intact
  • Prosperity: The arts create millions of jobs and enhance economic health
  • Skills: Arts aptitudes and techniques are needed in all sectors of society and work
  • Social Capital: We enjoy the arts together, across races, generations, and places

These are the reasons it is important to understand how the arts thrive, enabling them to deliver these valuable benefits. The health and vitality of the arts, therefore, should be of pressing interest to anyone who cares about healthy communities.

Good News and Challenging News

Like many sectors of the economy, the arts recovered slowly and unevenly from the recession due to industry contraction and consolidation, the impact of technology, slow rebounds in philanthropy, and tepid consumer spending. With 78 indicators, every year is a mix of both good and challenging news.

The arts industries lag the nation’s economy by two years: The arts are an economic force in the United States: 95,000 nonprofit arts organizations and 800,000 more arts businesses, 2.1 million artists active in the workforce, plus $153 billion in consumer spending.  It appears that the economic recovery, which started in 2009, does not positively affect the arts sectors until 2011.

Arts nonprofits continue to be challenged financially:  The percentage of nonprofit arts organizations with an operating deficit (requiring them to amass debt or use cash reserves) showed improvement in 2010, but then increased slightly in 2011 (43.3 percent and 44.2 percent, respectively).  Larger-budget organizations were more likely to run a deficit than smaller ones; there was no predictable pattern based on specific arts discipline.

Arts attendance remains fluid:  In 2011, 33 percent of the adult population attended a live performing arts event, up from 32 percent in 2010—notable as this is only the second increase since 2003 (when 40 percent attended a live performing arts event).  Art museums attendance held steady with 13 percent of the population attending at least once (down from 15.5 percent in 2003).

America’s arts industries have a growing international audience:

  • U.S. exports of arts goods (e.g., movies, paintings, jewelry) increased from $64 to $72 billion between 2010 and 2011, up 11 percent.  With U.S. imports at just $25 billion, the arts achieved a $47 billion trade surplus in 2011.
  • The U.S. Department of Commerce reports that the percentage of international travelers including art gallery and museum visits on their trip has grown since 2003 (17 to 24 percent), while the share attending concerts and theater performances grew from 13 to 17 percent.

Arts organizations foster creativity and entrepreneurship:  Arts organizations are homes to new ideas and innovative leaders.  Between 2005 and 2011, there was a 14 percent increase in the number of new opera, theater, film, and symphony works presented—an impressive 1,033 premieres in 2011 alone.

Optimism for the 2012 and 2013 Index scores: Total charitable giving and overall employment help explain the health of the arts sector.  For the 10-year period between 2002 and 2011, two economic forces were bellwethers for the arts over the long term: (1) total private giving to all charities, and (2) the total number of workers in all occupations.  Thus, the increases in employment and in overall levels of charitable giving in 2012 and 2013 are promising signs for the arts.

While bruised and a little battered by the Great Recession, the arts industries showed resilience having survived, evolved, and maintained societal relevance during the worst economic downturn in generations. The National Arts Index tracks a continuing change in how audiences seek to consume the arts, with growing reliance on technology and major institutions struggling to maintain attendance numbers.


This overview is the first of many blog posts about the National Arts Index. Index authors Roland Kushner (Muhlenberg College) and Randy Cohen (Americans for the Arts) will make regular Blog posts about specific findings throughout the year. 

The report is freely available at


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