Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Los Angeles Times Interview : Judith Balfe

Is Support for the Arts Literally Dying Off?

February 25, 1996|STEVE PROFFITT

Trouble is brewing in the nation's high-cultural institutions, and it not just coming from budget-trimming politicians. Across the country, supporters and patrons of symphonies, opera companies, theater groups and other high-brow arts organizations are literally dying away--and they're not being replaced by younger people. Study after study shows the nation's baby boomers--some 76 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964--are far less interested in attending and supporting cultural institutions than were their parents.

The generation that survived the Depression and fought World War II embraced the arts in the postwar years, fueling an explosion of high culture that peaked during the 1970s. Despite their parents' interest, and generosity, many boomers failed to contract the "art bug." The reasons for this are myriad, and not entirely clear.

Boomers are steadfast in their support of modern popular culture--movies, television and popular music. But, with such exceptions as ballet, jazz and the visual arts, boomers are often too busy--and feel too financially strapped--to attend and support the traditional not-for-profit arts. One problem is certainly the explosion of other leisure activities--everything from working out at the gym to spelunking on the Internet. Another is economic reality--many boomers work longer hours in two-career families. That makes plopping down with Jerry Seinfeld more attractive than getting gussied up and driving downtown to the Music Center.

Faced with aging subscribers--a 1989 survey of L. A. Philharmonic subscribers found more than half over age 55--arts organizations are scrambling to find ways to attract younger audiences. Some symphonies have hired rock promoters to drum up business; others promote concertgoing as tonic for stressed-out overachievers. Good old snob appeal might also work. Sociologist Judith Balfe notes boomers have a need to distinguish themselves from their all-too numerous peers. Perhaps arts organizations can create a sense of eliteness and give boomers a way to separate themselves from the masses, she says.

Balfe, 58, is co-author of a study commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts, due to be published next month, that focuses on the baby-boom generation and their attitudes about high culture. A former art-museum worker, she now teaches sociology at City University of New York, Staten Island. Balfe's conclusions about the future of the high arts didn't leave anyone smiling at the NEA, and sparked new debate about the outlook for high culture in America.

*

Question: What are the differences between the baby-boom generation and their parents in terms of overall support for the high arts?

Answer: The highest involvement, whether you measure it by attendance or support, are the war babies--the generation that immediately preceded the boomers. The birth rate in 1957 was 3.8 children per family; it's now 1.8--just at the end of World War II, it had dropped to just about two children per family. When you outnumber your parents, the likelihood that they will sit over you and insist that you practice the piano, or whatever, is somewhat diminished.

The sheer number of these children entering school meant that teachers who had been assigned to art or music were often reassigned to something else. And while the baby boomers have considerably higher levels of education than their parents, it wasn't the same education. In higher education, fewer boomers opted for traditional liberal-arts degrees--where you get the broadest exposure to the arts--and more opted for degrees in things like business and engineering. This means that, on the whole, fewer boomers were grounded in the kinds of subjects that lead to an understanding and love of the arts. For their parents' generation, those who had higher education and higher income, the arts were far more important to their understanding of themselves and their civic responsibility to society.

Steve Proffitt, a contributing editor to Opinion, is project director for the Hajjar-Kaufman New Media Lab. He interviewed Judith Balfe at her home in New Jersey.

*

Q: What are some of the other factors you see as contributing to this lack of interest in the high arts by baby boomers?

A: Boomers give less to charity, and they specifically give less to the arts. They do less volunteering, because they have less leisure time. Two people are working for the same income, and they have a sense of declining fortune. Then, of course, there are the two biggies: television and rock music. My father happened to work for Westinghouse, and so we got the first television set on the block, in 1947. But I had my immediately formative years without television, so I was practiced in living without it. And popular music was whatever the grown-ups happened to like. That's because it had to be played on the only radio or phonograph in the house--which was in the living room.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|