Much Ado About Numbers

Arts groups are discovering that counting heads doesn't really add up to arts success

The body count of culture is on the rise.

In the past half year alone, more than 200,000 people passed through the Norman Rockwell exhibition at the Phoenix Art Museum. Another 19,000 took in the James Turrell show at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art.

Last year, ASU's performing arts series at Gammage Auditorium claimed more than 244,000; the Scottsdale Center for the Arts, another 160,000. And the Phoenix Symphony, Arizona Opera and Ballet Arizona combined to lower some 400,000 viewers into the grave of numbers that have come to define our cultural success.

Lisa Lynn

According to the Arizona Commission on the Arts, more than six million people attended commission-sponsored arts events or institutions last year. That's up from about four million a decade ago.

Less might be more when it comes to aesthetics. But at the box office and on the bottom lines of arts organizations, size matters more than it ever has.

You don't have to be a grant writer to understand why.

Larger audiences translate into cash. The more money that arts organizations earn at the gate, the less they need to raise by passing the nonprofit hat.

In the performing arts, packed houses, like filled sports stadiums, can heighten performances and instill a seat-edge thrill that half-empty halls cannot.

That isn't the case at museums, where empty galleries are bliss -- a quiet encounter between you and the art. But such solo viewing is a pleasure that few institutions feel they can encourage or afford. Blockbusters are the proven way to attract an increasingly distracted public. The resulting throngs help to justify the millions of dollars that local governments, corporations and foundations pour annually into the arts. And they assure financial backers that the civilizing benefits of culture -- along with the patrons' good names and deeds -- are reaching the masses.

The ASU Art Museum drew 60,000 last year, Actors Theatre of Phoenix 29,000, and the Heard Museum 250,000 more.

Like other younger American cities, Phoenix for years has painted its cultural worth by the numbers. Before the Diamondbacks -- 2.9 million last year, down from their opening-year high of 3.6 million -- arrived, cultural leaders bragged that more people took in arts than sports here. They boasted that Scottsdale's art market, which annually moves airport tons of tourist tchotchkes, was among the nation's top cultural emporia.

The new and expanded museums and theaters built here in the past decade have unquestionably widened public access to art and diversified the palette of cultural offerings.

At the community level, art classes and workshops, through nonprofit organizations and municipal recreation programs, have expanded significantly in some cities, helping to fill the educational void left by dramatic declines of scholastic arts programs.

But venues for serious art remain relatively limited here. Some are continually on the financial brink. For almost five months out of the year, classical forms of music and dance dry up and much of the Valley's theater blows away. And modern and contemporary arts continue to terrify board members of institutions that should be the Valley's chief advocates of pioneering works.

The truth about the numbers is that they are a side show of limited relevance to the health of local culture. And most arts leaders know that.

"The numbers are a reflection of something," says Shelly Cohn, executive director of the Arizona Commission on the Arts, "but they've not always reflected what the arts are about."

Attendance stats say nothing about the experience or quality of the art being presented or produced, what people think and feel about it, or what arts organizations are doing to deepen the meaning of participating in culture.

"Selling a lot of tickets doesn't necessarily mean you're a good organization," says Barbara Meyerson, executive director of the Arizona Museum for Youth. "It might mean only that you're a good salesperson, or that you've spent enough money on the right kind of marketing to get people to come see you. The real questions should be, 'What are people taking home with them? Are they learning? Are they growing in some way that they wouldn't without having gone? And are they coming back?'"

These questions occupy the core of just about every nonprofit arts organization's stated mission. Yet they aren't easily answered by the kinds of numbers that most arts organizations have been gathering.

The problem is that data collection in the arts, here and nationally, has traditionally followed the money.

Cultural nonprofits have tracked only the numbers they needed to build their cases for requesting increased government and philanthropic support.

"We probably need to divorce our data-collecting from the language of money," says Kelly Barsdate, director of research at the National Association of State Arts Agencies.

The current numbers, she says, not only "haven't told us what the meaning of arts participation is. They haven't told arts organizations how they can shape that participation, or how they can make decisions differently in order to really connect with the experience of their patrons."

That may be changing.

A decade ago, says Barsdate, the main question was how much money you spent. "Then it turned into, 'Tell me how much money you spent and how many people showed up. Were they old? Were they people of color?' Threaded throughout there is the interest in access and distribution. Is it an urban constituency? Is it a rural constituency? Is it a low-income population? Now I think people are starting to say, okay, the money is fine, people are showing up. We know who's showing up. But what happened when they got there?"

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