The rap on research for the arts, museums, and informal sciences
Much is being made of the fact that, at some point 30 or 40 years from now, “non-Hispanic whites” will become America’s largest minority. But what will that mean for arts participation and museumgoing? In one sense, nothing at all.
A book review in this week’s New Yorker by Kelefa Sanneh, the magazine’s pop music critic, calls our attention to “Stuff White People Like,” that good-natured piece of social self-criticism in blog and book form by Christian Lander. The list of “stuff” reads like my firm’s client roster: film festivals (#3), non-profit organizations (#12), plays (#43), arts degrees (#47), graduate school (#81), public radio (#44), and of course classical music — or rather, “Appearing to Enjoy Classical Music” (#108). Jazz is also here, I think, under the heading, “Black Music that Black People Don’t Listen to Anymore” (#116).
Combine Lander’s jokey-but-perceptive point with the demographic shifts that will soon mark the end of white hegemony in the United States, and it may look like all of us — you arts and education professionals, and we consultants who help you — are in the wrong business. White, urban, liberal culture and the values associated with it have seen their heyday and are on the way out.
But Sanneh’s essay goes on to complicate that picture, if not undermine it altogether, by pointing out that the category of American whiteness is itself a moving target. Over the decades it has come to include “many previous identities that had once been considered marginal: Irish, Italian, Polish, Jewish.”
At one time, those ethnic minorities were visibly, audibly, even behaviorally other. Yet today, if you wanted to know whether someone is of Irish or Italian heritage, or is Jewish, you’d have to ask.
What changed over that period, the minority or the culture at large? Both. What it meant to be “Italian” or “Jewish” changed, and simultaneously what it meant to be “American” changed. And of course the two processes influenced each other.
It’s an obvious but profound point. When we apply it to the current era of rapid growth in the U.S. Latino population, it changes the picture entirely. What if being Latino in 30 or 40 years is as “mainstream,” as invisible (for lack of better words), as being Italian or Jewish is today? More to the point, what if Latino heritage will tell us as little about the extent or nature of someone’s arts participation or museum attendance as an Irish or Italian background does today?
If that’s where we’re heading, then we can’t just extrapolate from what we know about the cultural participation patterns and motivations of today’s Latinos, projecting those patterns onto the new Census pie-chart of 2040. Nor can we extrapolate from what we know about cultural participation by today’s whites. That’s because what’s shifting isn’t just demographics; it’s the relationship between demographics (like ethnicity, or for that matter age, education) and psychographics (in this case, the attitudes, interests, and behaviors relevant to museumgoing or the arts).
In other words, the question isn’t, “How will whites or Latinos or any other ethnic group engage in arts and culture in the coming decades?” It's more like, “How will different segments of American society think — and how will they feel — about their own creativity, about leaving their houses, about technology, about social interaction as a part of arts or learning experiences, about subjectivity and formality, about being challenged, about categories like ‘classical concert’ or ‘science exhibit’, and much else?”
Yes, those psychographics will continue to be linked to ethnicity in some ways. But they’ll also continue to be linked to other demographic characteristics, like age, education, and region of the country, and those links may be stronger than ethnicity. They may already be stronger. How today’s 22-year-olds create and consume music, for example, differs radically from how today’s 62-year-olds do, and that gulf may be wider than the corresponding gap between, say, whites and Latinos.
That point isn’t mine, by the way. It’s one of the implications of a new paper commissioned by the American Association of Museums and written by Betty Farrell of the University of Chicago’s Cultural Policy Center. I read an early draft recently and look forward to writing more about it here when it’s released. (I’m on the project’s advisory committee for AAM and am affiliated with the CPC, but I didn’t work on the paper directly.) Ethnicity is at best a partial lens, and the tectonic change in U.S. demographics may be less seismic than what’s going on in technology, consumer behavior, education, and other areas.
Which is not to say that race, or racism, will be magically left behind. I haven’t said a word about African Americans here, and I’m under no illusions about a coming post-racial society. It’s not that we’re all becoming the same. It’s that, in a majority-minority America, everyone will be an other of some kind. As Sanneh points out, “It’s getting easier to imagine an American whiteness that is less exceptional, less dominant, less imperial, and more conspicuous, an ethnicity more like the others.”
So what’s going to happen to that stuff white people like? It depends on how “white people” change, how non-white people change, and how the “stuff” itself changes. It’s no accident that my firm is doing research for cultural and educational organizations that want to become more relevant to certain populations that are underrepresented in their audiences — studies that will result in different kinds of programming and experiences. But those populations aren’t always defined in terms of ethnicity; age and geography are the other big deals.
Which leaves cultural and educational institutions with the hard work of understanding the various kinds of hearts and minds that exist within their increasingly diverse, complex communities, and figuring out which of those segments to try to engage, and how. And the added challenge of doing so while everything’s evolving (including Lander’s list). So what else is new?
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