I went to the Houston Arts Resource Fair last weekend, and it had many interesting speakers offering lots of practical advice (although if I were to offer one major criticism, I'd say it concentrated way too much on the non-profit art world and particularly on "grants"--for most artists, whatever their medium, grants are not their primary source of income). But the most interesting speaker had no particular advice, just some semi-digested poll data. This speaker was maestro of all polls about Houston, Stephen Klineberg. He is the Rice sociologist who does a big annual poll, the Houston Area Survey, to see where Houston is heading. He showed up at HARF to discuss his newest polling project, the Houston Area Survey on Health, Education and the Arts. The results of this research won't be officially unveiled until September 25, but we got some provocative sneak peeks.
Klineberg started by noting one of his favorite facts--Houston is becoming a hispanic city. (Saying this basically gets him called a communist by the 65-year-old white guys who write comments to articles in the Houston Chronicle.) As Klineberg puts it, we could shut the borders today and this would still be true because Hispanics are a majority of Houstonians under the age of 17. His message to arts organizations was that if you want to have a future, you need to address this shifting demographic.
This was the slide that shocked the audience. In fact, when I mentioned it later to a friend of mine, she flat out disbelieved it. The question asked in the poll was, "If Houston had to choose betwen having either excellent music and theater or great sports teams and stadiums, which would you most want to preserve? In other words, which would you miss most--music and theater, or sports teams and stadiums-if one or the other were to disappear from Houston?" The poll showed 56% wanted to save music and theater. Not what you expect, no? (Maybe if they had asked this right after all the Linsanity began, the results would have been different.)
I think there are a several caveats that have to be made here. What did poll respondents think when they heard the word "music"? After all, they might have been thinking of commercial pop music--for example, Kiss and Motley Crüe at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion tonight. In short, this is not necessarily a contest between elite art-lovers and working class sports nuts. And second, I think people responding to polls often want to sound a little less redneck than they really are. So they pick "music and theater" becaue it sounds smarter. And finally, this is a science fiction question. By that I mean the question is about a hypothetical situation that could never actually exist. And I think when a question is so unmoored from actual possibilities, people's answers may be similarly unmoored.
That said, it is a pretty amazing and encouraging result.
This slide was also encouraging, expecially in the face of the sustained onslaught on public education by the political powers that be that we have been suffering under in Texas for many years. When budgets get cut, arts education is often the first thing to go. This should be a top issue for all arts organizations. If we want future generations to like the arts, we need to start educating them early. At least, I feel it made a difference in my own life. I strongly remember being a third grader at Frostwood Elementary and going to art appreciation in the library. There a librarian would show us pictures of well-known paintings and sculptures and tell us a little bit about them. I remember vividly being enthralled by Marc Chagall's I and the Village. (Apparently it's still a popular image for teaching children art appreciation--for the home-school set. But how much art appreciation do public school students get these days?)
I think the second and the fourth bullet are the most important takeaways. The fact that education is among the strongest predictors of being involved in the arts is old news--Pierre Bourdieu's research in the 60s showed that the strongest correlation to museum attendance in several European countries was education level, and many subsequent studies have confirmed this. There's not much we can do to increase the number of PhDs in society, except to in general support politicians and institutions that are pro-education. But supporting increased art education, while no easy task, might be a little easier. Certainly arts organizations can do more outreach to schools and families. For example, I am on the board of FrentiCore, and among the programs we offer, one is FrentiKids, a free after-school program dance and theater program for kids in the East End (where Frenetic Theater is located). But do our visual arts non-profits do anything like this? I don't see any child-oriented activities on the Lawndale website or the Diverseworks website. (The Art League is a different story.) Involvement of children in the visual arts might be the best strategy for long-term survival that a non-profit art institution can undertake.