A flourishing of interest in the arts, seen in a newly documented surge in the number of artists in the United States, indicates a ''societal shifting,'' says Frank Hodsoll, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). He suggests that a search for something ''more than material things'' underlies the development.
Latest NEA analysis of US census data shows about an 80 percent increase in the number of artists in the US between 1970 and 1980. That represents an increase from nearly 600,000 to 1.08 million artists.
The NEA definition of ''artist'' covers everything from the traditional one of authors, painters, sculptors, and dancers to architects, interior decorators, radio and TV announcers, and college art teachers.
More than ever before, artists are spread over all the US, not bunched in a few major cities such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
At the same time, there has been a burgeoning of interest in the arts throughout the country during the past decade or so, according to officials of federal, state, and private arts organizations.
''People turned from having acquired a car, a second TV, and a house to look for something that went beyond that,'' says NEA chairman Hodsoll. They say, ''I want more than just these material things,'' he says.
Five or six years ago, Ted Potter, director of the Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, N.C., considered it ''terrific'' if an exhibition of art attracted 35 people. ''Now we're having 300 to 400 people come to hear someone talk about aesthetics,'' he says.
The performing and visual arts are ''flourishing all over the country,'' he adds.
In California, there has been a ''very marked'' increase in the number of major regional theaters, orchestras, operas, and museums in the last 10 years, says June Gutfleisch, director of the California Confederation of the Arts, a private advocacy organization. And the change has occurred ''not just in Los Angeles and San Francisco,'' but in places such as Santa Clara County [San Jose] and Orange County, she says.
According to the NEA analysis, California has overtaken New York in its traditional spot as the state with the most artists. California has approximately 176,000.
The South has gone from being the region with the fewest artists in 1970 to the one having the most (nearly 294,000) in 1980.
Laura Lieberman, editor of Art Papers in Atlanta, was ''flabbergasted'' at the increases the NEA cites. She says there may have been a decrease in the number of artists since 1980, at least in Atlanta, due partly to economic conditions.
NEA reseacher Harold Horowitz says preliminary indications are that the group of artists increasing the most in numbers has been the ''designer'' artists, which include interior, fashion, textile, packaging, product, and others. The fewest increases may have occurred among the ranks of performing artists such as actors, dancers, and musicians, he says.
A different set of data from the Census Bureau for 1980 showed the greatest increases among authors (115 percent), designers (87 percent), painters and sculptors (53 percent), and photographers (41 percent). It showed a 32 percent decrease in radio and TV and other announcers.
Some arts advocates say the number of those who make a living from their art is much smaller than the total number of artists. And they say the recession has made it ''tough'' for many artists to find buyers for their work or audiences for their talents.
But art of all kinds - traditional and new forms - appears to be gaining wider acceptance than ever before. ''You're beginning to see more people who see art as more integral to American life,'' says Jim Jahns of the California Arts Council. Also, says Kay Bearman, deputy director of the New York State Council on the Arts, ''the profession of an artist has become very acceptable.''
For some, art has become ''a kind of status symbol'' in homes and businesses, she says. For others, interest in art is growing because parents ''want their kids to have more than the ABCs,'' says Benny Andrews of the visual arts program of the NEA.