America Loves Its Arts

If you sing in a choir, paint watercolors, or play the saxophone, you may have helped make recent headlines. Half of all Americans took an active part in the arts last year - a record number, according to the National Endowment for the Arts.

Americans also spent more than ever on entertainment in 1997, indicate results of an NEA survey on arts participation, released last week. Half of the US population, or 97 million Americans, attended at least one of seven arts activities - jazz, classical-music concerts, opera, musicals, plays, ballet, or art museums. (As opposed to 41 percent in 1992.) And they spent more on live shows ($10.4 billion) than on movies ($6.5 billion) or spectator sports ($6.3 billion).

While this news is encouraging to arts champions everywhere, it comes as no surprise to folks at the NEA. "It's what people have been saying all along," says the agency's Cherie Simon. "And not just the wealthy. Or arts lovers. That's a fallacy. We've heard from mayors, business leaders, PTA groups.... People all over have told us and their legislators that the arts bring meaning to their lives. This has helped us turn a corner," she says, adding: "It's terrific, though, to see the numbers in this report."

The robust US economy has surely impacted consumer spending on the arts. But much credit should also go to arts organizations, which in record numbers have been striving to make the arts more accessible to people of all walks of life.

"They are connecting with their communities," says Ms. Simon. "That's the trend now, to reach out and bring people in who might not think of going there, and to work with young people in those communities."

Among leaders in the area of outreach are museums, which scored big points in the NEA survey. In fact, museumgoing ranks as the most popular arts activity (35 percent of American adults went at least once in 1997), with an average of three visits per person. This bodes well for this season's museum exhibitions. You can read more about three of them - Monet in Boston, Picasso in L.A., and the highly anticipated Van Gogh blockbuster in Washington - in next week's section.

This week, we're picking up where we left off with our series of arts "primers." They are designed to help readers feel more informed, and therefore, less intimidated and better able to fully engage and delight in their experiences as consumers of the arts. Others primers have included modern art, the blues, classical music, and sculpture. (You can find them in our online archives at: Today, we bring you ballet, which ranks between jazz and opera among America's arts interests.

Enjoy the show.

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For a complete report on the NEA survey, visit the agency's Web site at:

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