For many years, people considered that audiences for the arts were characterized by a high level of education and income. Though a string of left-leaning theoreticians have criticized this notion, it’s remarkable how deeply rooted the presumption is that a high level of education and income almost automatically signifies an interest in the arts. This presumption is confirmed by the image of the art collector—usually a person who has achieved success in business and accumulated capital that can then be devoted to purchasing works of art. An interest in art, it seems, also has high social prestige: often enough, people who have at best an episodic interest in art choose to enhance the interior of their homes with paintings. That’s why we can safely say that presumptions about the elite nature of art combine both cultural and financial prestige—that is, the intellectual, financial, and often physical inaccessibility of art is frequently synonymous with its value.
Paradoxically, these presumptions about the select nature of art have served as a great source of optimism for art institutions. The hope was that, along with the general improvement in welfare and “mass” education, a considerable growth could be expected in attendance and financial support at museum, theaters, concert halls, opera houses, and other institutions. The facts prove that from 1965 to 1980 the art industry in America experienced a huge period of flourishing. The number of professional orchestras grew from 58 to 144, ballet troupes from 37 to 200, and cultural centers from 125 to almost 2,000. If this tendency had been maintained, then the people who would speak most passionately about art today would be Wall Street employees, who are usually graduates of prestigious universities and very highly paid individuals.
It’s no secret that the general hopes for growth have not been fulfilled, and have even transformed into rather dreary future forecasts. Since the mid-nineties, the art audience in the United States—examined as a demographic group—has been swiftly aging and dying out, often without being replaced by members of the younger generation. Percentage-wise, the interest of young and highly educated people is shrinking the fastest. Along with listeners and viewers, patrons of the arts are disappearing, too, whose donations—together with private funds—comprise almost ninety percent of the entire budgets for art institutions and organizations in the United States.