High art isn’t dying, even if the ABS stats are

Good news: rap and Ravel are not mutually exclusive. Tracey Nearmy/AAP

High art isn’t dying, even if the ABS stats are

Good news: rap and Ravel are not mutually exclusive. Tracey Nearmy/AAP

High art isn’t dying. How do we know? Well, we’ll get to that.

It’s again the time of year when major performing arts companies launch their wares for the next year. Opera Australia prologued its 2015 season on August 11, the Sydney Symphony tuned up on August 12, and the Melbourne Theatre Company raises its curtain on Thursday.

Many companies are working hard to broaden their audience base. Artistic director Lyndon Terracini recently spruiked Opera Australia’s recent success, saying:

In the last few years we’ve doubled our turnover. We played to more than 550,000 people last year.

Despite such efforts, the audience for these established companies still has a decidedly grey-haired emphasis. In 2010, for instance, half the fans for classical music were aged over 50. We know this because the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has, until now, collected data on cultural activity.

Sadly though, the ABS announced in June that, in response to budget cuts, it would no longer collect data on cultural activities. In the future, we’ll have much more difficulty describing generational patterns.

We’ll also struggle to assess the validity of general comments on culture, such as the concerns that pop culture is drowning out traditional “high” culture. Pink, Beyoncé and rap have dumbed down the musical tastes of young people and we face a general cultural decline – or so the complaint goes.

What we really see are different and changing tastes – we could do without the sneering showdown of “high” versus “pop” culture.

Still, interesting questions remain. Is it Bach to the future? Or will Johann, Ludwig and co just become Somebodies that We Used to Know?

Answers require some detailed evidence – and that’s where the ABS data comes in. Its findings suggest generational concerns are overstated. Yes, traditional high culture attracts older age groups. But that has always been the case.

Each generation can claim those a generation younger doesn’t get high culture as much as they do. But wait 30 years and things change. There is actually no pattern of declining interest over time.

In new research, I’ve looked at the revealing data on various cultural pursuits, collected over the last 20 years. The ABS Attendances at Cultural Events publication has good data on attendances at theatre, galleries, classical and pop music. We can get a good picture of the “high” culture group by looking at classical music.

The initial impression from the ABS figures for 2010 confirms the age pattern described above:

  • 6% of people in their 20s went to classical music concerts in 2010
  • 8% of 40-somethings did too
  • and there was a jump to 13% for those in their 60s

While confirming that, the stats also challenge some common assumptions.

First, most people going to any pursuit go once or twice, rather than being frequent fans. For classical music, two thirds are infrequent attendees. Only 12% go six or more times.

Second, those attending also take part in other activities. Those attending classical music also go to pop music in large numbers. In fact, they go to pop much more often than people who don’t go to classical music.

Not surprisingly, this is most marked for the younger groups. Of 15-34-year-olds going to classical music gigs, two thirds also go to pop concerts – which is close to twice the attendance rate for 15-34-year-olds who don’t go to classical.

But it is also true for the older groups. Almost a third of classical fans aged over 55 also go to pop music, again twice the amount of the 55+ non-classical group.

Similar patterns appear for other cultural attendances. Perhaps surprisingly, they also exist for sporting attendances – and for physical exercise. Some 80% of classical music fans exercise. That’s a much higher number than the 63% exercise rate for the non-classical group.

So we already have a rather different picture of the devotees of “high” culture. But what about trends over time? Is interest in classical music declining?

Here the ABS data is absolutely clear – there is no decline.

We can follow the same groups (termed “age cohorts”) over the 20 years of the ABS data.

The early baby boomers were born between 1945 and 1955. This group had an average age of 40 in 1990, were aged 50 in 2000, and 60 in 2010. Their interest in classical music grew as they became older: across Australia, 250,000 of the early baby boomers went to classical music concerts in 1990, 290,000 went in 2000, and 330,000 went in 2010.

(Similar fan longevity happens for pop music, as I’ve previously showed.)

We can also compare different cohorts at similar ages. Between the age of 50 and 60, some 13% of the early baby boomers went to classical music performances. The cohort born before and during the second world war (1935 to 1945) were aged 50 in 1990, and 60 in 2000. Across those ages, 11% of them went to classical music performances.

At similar ages, then, the younger group were keener on classical music than their immediate predecessors. No sign of a high culture crisis there.

This comparison can be made for the other age groups. In their 30s, 7% of the later baby boomers (born 1955-65) went to see classical music. The same proportion, 7%, of people born between 1965-75 went to classical music when they were in their 30s.

Similar patterns exist if we compare cohort attendances at theatre, and at art galleries. Attendance rates at similar ages do not differ much for the groups born around 1950, 1960, 1970 and 1980. There is certainly no evidence of declining cultural awareness.

All sorts of things can affect attendances at cultural (and other) events. As Lyndon Terracini notes with Opera Australia’s program, audiences respond to offerings and to good marketing. That is reinforced by my finding on the variety of events fans go to. But the evidence is clear that cultural attendances – even for “high culture” – have not slumped over time.

There have always been differences between the 30-somethings and the 60-somethings. And each generation of silvery 60-year-olds has complained about the prospects for the uncultured young.

So the research sheds some important light on how our age and generation shape our cultural consumption. The loss of ABS data on cultural activity may well be a boon for those who like to make lazy generalisations about young people and their tastes.

But for the rest of us, it’s a great loss.