When Tom Loughlin first posted a lament over the latest Broadway League numbers at his Poor Player blog, I doubt he realized the firestorm he was kindling.
Indeed, the comments on that original post are cresting over 60, and several other blogs, most notably Parabasis, have been quick to really lay into Professor Loughlin. His post has been called "offensive" and he has been declared an "enemy" and "disavowed" by some.. Yikes.
Today, 99 Seats (Playwright J. Holtham), one of the most vigorous critics of Loughlin's argument, laid out a post on Parabasis entitled OK Then, Lets Really Talk About It. In this post he points out the trouble with the original premise of trying to extrapolate a whole lot about the culture of races and their attitudes towards theater attendance and participation from Broadway League numbers.
Indeed, this has been a common thread through the discussion up to this point.
I'm sure others have been doing this as well, but my first instinct, even before the whole thing blew up, was to take a look at the National Endowment for the Arts research - specifically their periodic Survey of Participation in the Arts. Most all of their reports are available for free in PDF form.
However, the most interesting report, (and relevant to this discussion) is the report entitled: Beyond Attendance; A Multi Modal Understanding of Arts Participation:
As far at the attendance figures go, all the reports pretty much confirm the Broadway League statistics that Tom Loughlin cites.
Here is a graph from the latest Survey of Participation in the Arts in 2008:
Next is a graph from the Beyond Attendance report, looking at the Rate of Attendance based on demographics. Which gets a little more specific.
And, lastly, (I thought this was an interesting one,) This graph looks at the participation by demographic in the Creation of art.
In this graph, African Americans actually participate more in performing in non-musical plays.
Interestingly enough, the NEA reports talk very frankly about differences in attendance rates by race. Here is an example:
Generally, significant differences were observed across the demographic cohorts for arts-creation activities, as reported in Table 7. In other words, different arts-creation activities appeal to different groups of people. Although seemingly obvious, this general fact reveals interesting sub-results.
Some arts-creation activities seem highly correlated with race/ethnicity and might be part of cultural traditions and heritage. The highest rate of participation for African Americans across the creation activities encompassing the performing and visual arts is 10.3% — for “singing with a chorale, choir, or glee club or other type of vocal group.”Although the survey’s sample size for American Indians is too small to determine whether their participation rates are different from those of other racial/ethnic groups, they do appear to have the highest rates of participation for painting, drawing, and sculpture, for pottery and jewelry-making, and for weaving and sewing. If one subscribes to a philosophy of equitable access, and if one accepts that certain forms of arts creation are more likely to engage certain ethnic groups, then one can reasonably infer from the SPPA that investments in specific types of activities among distinct communities (e.g., supporting vocal music activities in predominantly African American communities) are likely to improve cultural equity.
Anyway, just thought I would throw this out there. As I said, the reports are readily available and very interesting reading.